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Writing Right: The Blog

To Create or Appropriate?

Someone asked me the other day if I thouight she could use "short phrases" from another author's work as long as they weren't related to the plot or essential to the author. Now, I had to think about that one for some time before responding (about a second-and-a-half). Here's what I told her.

 

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Absolutely, you can use short phrases from another author's work. Just remember that, if you do, you should be prepared to go to court because you're going to be sued.

 

Can you use short phrases with proper acknowledgement without being sued? Possibly, and possibly not. That depends in part upon what your definition of "short phrases" is: You never do define it, which I find interesting. Are these short phrases three pages, three paragraphs, or three words in length? It makes a difference.

 

Peculiar, too, is your contention that these appropriated phrases are not related to the plot or essential to the author. I'm curious: Upon what do you base those two assumptions? Are you an analytic literary expert? An attorney who specializes in copyright infringement? A justice on the U.S. Supreme Court? A mind reader? Obviously not. If you were, you'd know that neither one of your contentions offers legal atonement for infringement.

Also, if you're going to steal someone else's work (which is what you're asking for permission to do), be aware that anyone can sue anyone else in the United States and most other Democratic societies. The only excuse someone needs to go off on you is a reason or allegation—something along the lines of, "You used my material without my consent." Are you willing to run the risk?

 

Finally, why on earth would you want to use someone else's writing in your work? Unless it's a review or a critique in which you're analyzing or illuminating a specific phrase or point for purposes of the review, there is no earthly reason for doing so except, perhaps, laziness. Or—dare I say it?—ineptness. But I doubt the latter is the case here. I can't help but think that any writer can rewrite someone else's thoughts to make them original to him or her. And thoughts and content can't be copyrighted, only form can be. Copy something word-for-word, and you're plagiarizing. Rewrite into your own words, and you're not. See what I'm getting at here?

 

If you want to be a writer, go ahead and write. Don't copy! If you want to be a creative writer, go ahead and be creative. Don't appropriate!

 

Writing is a uniquely artistic expression that has captured the attention of human beings since nearly the dawn of humanity. I suggest you either learn to write properly, or give it up completely and get the hell out of Dodge. If you don't, sooner or later, you're gonna be hanged.

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