Imagine someone to suing you for half a million dollars because you failed to attribute their work correctly.
It would be a shock, right? But believe me, it’s definitely possible.
So one of the most important things you can do for your writing career is to learn the rules of attribution.
Why? Well, for one, failure to follow them could spell a heap of trouble… like getting a court order for half a million dollars.
Just take a look at the headlines from this summer. Melania Trump stirred up controversy with a speech that bears a striking resemblance to one made by Michelle Obama in 2008, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto faces a 23 percent approval rating following accusations that he lifted almost a third of his law school thesis from other works.
Plus, it’s a matter of ethics.
It’s one thing for writers to draw inspiration from past works and the world around us; that practice is encouraged on this site as well as others. But it’s quite another to take someone’s research, data, ideas or images and try to pass them off as our own. It’s unscrupulous.
Of course, not all cases of plagiarism are deliberate. Some writers don’t know the rules of attribution or think they’ve adequately followed them, only to have another party beg to differ.
Take this case from The Washington Post, in which an expert in the history of technology accused a freelance writer of plagiarizing one of his early articles. The freelancer claimed she thought citing a book of essays — in which the tech expert’s article was included — was sufficient attribution, even though she never directly cited the tech expert. She stated that she “attributed to my best judgment.”
Mistakes happen, but even if your motives were pure, do you really want a plagiarism accusation hanging over you for the rest of your career?
Of course not.
What You Need to Know to Avoid Being Sued
Direct quotes. If you use a person’s specific words, you must put the words in quotes and give credit to the speaker. “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” Patrick Henry said.
Information and ideas. If you get information or ideas from somewhere else, credit the source, even if you use your own words to describe it. Thomas Jefferson was known to greet White House guests while wearing his robe and slippers, NPR reports.
Research and stats. You didn’t pull those numbers from behind your ear, did you? Give credit to the original source of any data you cite. Up to 100,000 people visit the White House every month, according to WhiteHouse.gov.
Opinion or uncertainty. If you’re stating someone’s else’s take on the matter, source it: The best foreign policy president of the 20th century was FDR, according to The Atlantic. Similarly, if you’re uncertain about the facts, source it: FDR may have been suffering not from polio but Guillain-Barré syndrome, according to a report from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
The Tricky Business of Image Attribution
This one is a little more involved due to the laws of copyright infringement. There’s a difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement. Here’s a quick breakdown of what you can and cannot do with images:
- If you took the photo or created the visual you’re using, you’re fine — you own the copyright.
- You cannot grab someone else’s photo, use it in your work and think you’re covered because you provided attribution (“Photo by Joe Blow”). Do this, and you could find yourself on the receiving end of a DMCA takedown notice.
What can you do, then?
- Access any of the dozens of stock photo sites (there are both free and paid ones) for copyright-free photos and illustrations. Here’s a list from Forbes of 33 of stock photo sites.
- Find a Creative Commons image. These images are in the public domain, and you can use them as long as you properly credit the owner and follow any restrictions they may have placed on the image.
What About Other Kinds of Content?
Companies love it when you share these content assets; it’s one of the reasons they create them. They want them to be shared — not only does it help establish them as an authority in their industry and draw traffic to their site, it’s part of the culture of sharing that Leo Babauta discusses here.
What constitutes “proper credit?” Two things: Mentioning them in your copy and linking to the original image.
What About Credibility?
There’s another angle to this: Attribution boosts your credibility. When you cite ideas or facts and back them up with proper attribution, you substantiate the point you’re trying to make. You’re telling the reader, This isn’t just my take on the matter — XYZ feels the same way. Compare, for example:
One of the most important skills for a president to have is good public communication skills.
One of the most important skills for a president to have is good public communication skills. In fact, in his book, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush, Fred Greenstein lists “effectiveness as a public communicator” as a major factor contributing to presidential performance.
See the difference? When you provide a source that backs up what you’re saying, you give credence to your point.
What Doesn’t Need Attribution?
- Common knowledge. You don’t need to attribute anything considered to be common knowledge or undisputed fact in the public domain. The Harvard Guide to Using Sources has more information on the categories of common knowledge.
- What you witness firsthand. If the snow is up to your waist on the National Mall on inauguration day, you can just say so. People will believe you.
Do Links Count as Attribution?
No, they don’t. That’s my opinion. Some would argue that in this digital age, a link is sufficient. I disagree. Note from the Editor-in-Chief, Mary Jaksch: For online writers, a link is a clear attribution (if it’s not a poll!)
Eight in 10 Americans believe that other people were involved in a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.
– is not the same as –
Eight in 10 Americans believe that other people were involved in a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy, according to a Gallup poll.
First, links get stripped. If the link was removed at some point, then you simply have a statistic with no source. Attributing the source takes care of this problem.
Second, the person or organization who did the research or came up with the idea has earned the right to be named. It’s only right.
People get rightly upset where you use someone else’s words, images, ideas or research in your work without properly crediting the source. Intentional or accidental, it smacks of deceit nonetheless.
Perhaps Steve Buttry, Director of Student Media at Louisiana State University, said it best: “Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism.”
Knowing the guidelines of attribution will prevent you from making this type of ethical error and help you remain in good standing with editors and readers everywhere.