I’ve had a few questions regarding plagiarism and the use of Public Domain material over the past few weeks. The question of whether republishing Public Domain material without giving credit to the original author (or even claiming authorship of the material yourself) constitutes plagiarism is certainly worthy of being the topic of its own article.
As examples of the kinds of plagiarism related questions I’ve been receiving, consider these two recent comments left on the blog by fellow readers…
“Is it plagiarism if I use a public domain article and slap my name on without doing any editing? I know you said (and I’m paraphrasing) that we can use the content in any way but does it include that kind of use? Same with images I guess. Do I need to include the illustrator/photographer’s name on the image when I sell it?” ~ Kim
“I have a question of using public domain work and adding your name to it. It seems to me that even if a work is public domain, putting your name on someone else’s work without crediting them is plagiarism. What am I missing here?” ~ Skye
First and foremost, I would like to say that I am extremely proud of you – questions like these continue to reinforce our belief that the majority of our fellow Public Domain Treasure Hunters are good, honest, hard-working, well-educated, and ethical people.
Being concerned with potential issues such as plagiarism shows that you care ~ not only about the safety of your own business and reputation, but also about the reputations and legacies of those who created these now Public Domain materials to begin with. In many cases the writers, artists, and other original contributors of these materials are long dead and no longer around to defend themselves and their respective intellectual properties so your concern with the issue of plagiarism speaks volumes about your personal integrity.
I salute you!
The purpose of this article is to discuss the subject of plagiarism specifically in relation to the republishing of Public Domain works. It’s not my intention to either defend or condemn plagiarism but rather to give you some insights into the subject that I hope you’ll find helpful in your own publishing business.
First Let’s Define “Plagiarism” (After I Teach Myself How To Spell It Properly)…
According to Merriam-Webster, plagiarism can be defined as…
“to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source”
“to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source”
So, by virtue of the definitions provided above, if you take someone else’s work and republish it without giving credit to the original author or creator…or you provide your name as author or creator in place of whomever actually did create the work in question…you are committing plagiarism, have no doubt.
This is certainly true of copyrighted material.
But what about non-copyrighted material, i.e. Public Domain material?
Here’s a definition of “Public Domain” straight from the U.S. Copyright Office…
“A work of authorship is in the “public domain” if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.”
If you are reading this article at all you most likely already understand that once a work enters the Public Domain, it enters the domain of the public at large – it belongs to all of us and as such we can do whatever we want with the material without having to obtain permission from anyone.
For instance, once a book is Public Domain, we can…
- Use the material in the creation of a new product.
- Republish the material as is and sell it.
- Legally change and readapt the book in any manner we wish.
We also have the legal right to omit the original author’s name and replace it with our own if we wish.
We have the legal right to do such…but should we?
The act of Plagiarism in itself is NOT illegal (despite what my 5th grade English teacher told me)…copyright infringement is.
But what about the use of Public Domain works, where no copyright infringement can possibly occur?
Plagiarism Is Not A Matter of Legalities, It’s A Matter of Ethics…
Most of us have been taught early on in our lives that plagiarism is a bad thing, unethical at best, downright evil at worst. We’ve been taught by authority figures that you simply don’t copy other people’s work and claim it as your own! This has been drilled into us by teachers and instructors all the way through school and then later in college if you were fortunate enough
We already understand that we can legally do anything we want with Public Domain material, so ultimately this becomes not a question of legalities but a question of ethics…
This is a question that every Public Domain publisher has to answer for themselves – do you, in your heart, feel that it’s wrong to take something that someone else wrote and not give them credit? Or…do you feel uncomfortable claiming authorship of something that someone else has written?
Finding your own answers to these questions is what it really boils down to.
And honestly…these are not questions I can answer for you. The best I can do is offer you some guidance and the encouragement to reach your own conclusions.
I’ll be the first to admit, I consistently go both ways ~ sometimes I give credit and sometimes I don’t…
It really all depends on what I am trying to accomplish with a product or other form of content distribution. It depends on what my “mission objectives” are.
For instance, if working in the “Stealth Mode” of Public Domain publishing (see “The Five Modes of Public Domain Publishing”), you may have good reasons to choose not to reveal the original source of your material or even to claim authorship of the material yourself. But again, this is only something you should do if you are completely comfortable with it…and that’s a decision you have to make for yourself.
If you are not comfortable with it, don’t do it, bottom line.
If you are comfortable with it, rest assured that you are not violating the law in any way by either omitting credit from Public Domain material or even claiming authorship yourself.
Also, please keep in mind that I am referring to the use of U.S. published Public Domain works in this discussion…
Often, in works published in other countries, authors are assigned certain “moral rights” some of which extend beyond the term of copyright protection. For instance, in some countries, even if an author’s work is in the Public Domain, it may be illegal to republish the work without giving credit to the original author ~ this is known as the “right of paternity” which basically is the right of an author to be identified as the author of his or her work (despite its copyright status).
Situations When It’s Really, Really Dumb Not To Give Credit Or To Claim Authorship of a Public Domain Work…
When republishing Public Domain material, there are numerous situations where it’s pretty darn silly not to credit the original creator of a work or to claim authorship of a work yourself. These probably go without saying but here’s a few example scenarios…
- You’re a playwright and you pass off Public Domain plays as your own without giving any credit to the original playwright. That would be incredibly damaging to your reputation. On the flip side, there’s nothing wrong with taking a Public Domain play and rewriting it to modernize it, adding significant material to it, and then add your name to it in addition to the original playwright. This way you are claiming authorship, acknowledging the original playwright’s contributions to the material, and producing something of value at the same time.
- You’re an artist and you pass off works of Public Domain art as your own. Again, this would be damaging to your reputation and you’d become known as a fraud in the art community. Nobody wants that.
- Same with Journalists and authors of more serious and scholarly works ~ heavily criticized works such as historical publications, scientific papers, biographies, medical studies, these types of things ~ as either a professional journalist or a producer of such items above, plagiarizing Public Domain works can mean the death of your career. There’s nothing wrong with leveraging the Public Domain in these instances to fulfill content needs but all sources absolutely, positively, MUST be cited.
- Claiming authorship of some obscure Public Domain book that few people have ever heard of let alone read is one thing…but placing your name as the sole author on a world-famous book that it’s likely the majority of people in your niche have read (like Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich”) would be pretty dumb because you would damage your credibility with your audience beyond repair once the truth is exposed. And it will be recognized, have no doubt.
Unless It Somehow Interferes With Your Business Objectives, Always Give Credit Where Credit Is Due…
The reality is that there is seldom ever a scenario where giving credit to the original author of a work will hurt your publishing efforts.
In fact upon review of the Five Modes of Public Domain Publishing, you’ll find that there’s really only one mode (Stealth Mode) in which there is no advantage to giving credit to the original author. And you can still give credit, just don’t lead your readers to believe the material is “old and outdated” in any way.
The other modes are basically structured in such a way that giving credit to the original author is actually a HUGE plus especially in terms of leveraging their credibility.
Our official stand on this issue of plagiarism with Public Domain material is this…
“Always Give Credit Where Credit Is Due In Some Fashion Unless Doing So Somehow Interferes With What You Are Trying To Achieve With Your Product.”
Again, it all boils down to a matter of choice ~ do what you are comfortable with.
There’s certainly nobody saying that you have to remove the original authors’ name from a Public Domain work but on the flip side there’s nobody standing over your shoulder saying you have to include the original authors name either.
It is purely your choice as a publisher.
Honestly, there have been times when I started a project fully intending not to reveal the original author’s name but then while working with the material, I developed a connection to the original writer (a bond through the written word so to speak) and then I decided to acknowledge the original author out of sheer respect for the author, his family, and the legacy he left behind.
Fun & Ethical Ways To Give Credit Where It’s Due…
Here’s how to side step any plagiarism issues in ethical (and fun!) ways…
Some of these you may have done before, some may be new to you but they are all perfectly acceptable in the world of Public Domain publishing…
- If you’ve republished a Public Domain book, and you’ve contributed nothing to it but the hours invested in editing and reformatting ~ keep the original writer’s name in place as author and place your name on it as “editor or publisher” (if you feel the need to place your name on it at all)
Example: “Think and Grow Rich!” by Napoleon Hill, Edited by Logan Andrew
- If you combined Public Domain material from several different sources to create a product, you could always leave the original author’s names intact and proclaim yourself as the “compiler”. Presumably, this new product would have a new title as well.
Example: “The Masters of Direct Response Copywriting” by Robert Collier, Claude Hopkins, and Elmer Wheeler, Compiled by Logan Andrew, or…Compiled and Edited by Logan Andrew
- If you have made significant contributions to a Public Domain book ~ maybe you added a good bit of new material to it that you wrote yourself ~ then you can claim co-authorship! I would change the title to reflect that it is a new and expanded work but I keep elements of the original title if the book is famous. Lots of authors have done this successfully.
Example: “The Art of War And Direct Response Marketing” by Sun Tzu and Logan Andrew
Incidentally, doing it this way can lend your new product a HUGE amount of credibility. Even if you are just the “editor” or publisher, people in the product’s niche will tend to picture you as something of an expert in that niche. Funny how that works.
- Other more covert ways to handle it ~ if you don’t want to use an author’s name on the front of the book you can always place an acknowledgement somewhere on the title page or even in a dedication ~ “dedicated to and inspired by”…”and their wonderful book”…insert title here. Even if your product is a complete rewrite and it’s been retitled – you can do this to give the original author some form of credit.
There are many wonderfully creative ways to give credit where credit is due.
And of course, once you give credit, you can rest easy knowing that you haven’t committed plagiarism in the creation of your new product.
I sincerely hope this discussion helps and offers a new perspective on the matter.
Your humble servant,
About The Author:
|Logan Andrew is an online entrepreneur, information publisher, and author that has been using Public Domain material to create profitable products and businesses since 2001. He is also co-author of "The Public Domain Treasure Hunter's Survival Kit" available here. For more info Logan, click here.|