Plagiarize: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own; use (another’s production) without crediting the source (Merriam-Webster)
Recently Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris was accused of plagiarizing a story told by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. President-Elect Joe Biden has been accused of plagiarism several times. Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Haley admitted to plagiarizing information he used in his bestselling novel (and later miniseries) Roots. George Harrison, Johnny Cash, and the Beach Boys are among the many songwriters who committed plagiarism.
But did those famous named authors actually commit plagiarism? Or did their ghostwriters do it?
In several of the cases I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the named authors admitted the plagiarism, usually after they were sued or otherwise exposed. But in many more cases, the named author or speaker was relying on a ghostwriter or speechwriter and had no idea the material they were taking credit for originated with someone other than the writer they hired.
What happens if you hire a ghostwriter or speechwriter and the work they do for you includes plagiarized material?
At the least, if the offense is noticed, your reputation is going to take a hit. You can blame the writer, but you’re still going to look bad. If the situation is serious enough, you may end up defending a lawsuit and possibly paying damages.
How can you protect yourself?
When you’re hiring a ghostwriter or speechwriter, address the issue of plagiarism upfront. In both your discussions and your contract, make it clear that you won’t accept plagiarized material and outline the consequences if it happens. An intellectual property attorney can help you with the best language for this.
Understand that sometimes plagiarism is accidental. We read or hear something that resonates with us and, at a later date, we use it without remembering that it isn’t original. However, usually when that happens, it’s for a brief sentence or phrase, not large portions of the work, and the original author will typically accept an apology and credit.
There’s a flip side to plagiarism for writers who do work-for-hire. Sometimes our clients tell us (either overtly or covertly) to plagiarize. I’ve had clients provide me with background material they claimed as their own but copied from another source. I’ve also had clients give me something someone else wrote and tell me, “This is the message I want to convey. Rephrase this so it sounds like me.”
I keep careful records in case I ever need to document how a ghostwritten work was created. I advise my clients to do the same.
The easiest and safest way to avoid a charge of plagiarism is to be sure the work you claim is original. There are several plagiarism checkers you can use (Grammarly is one) to verify that the clever phrases you wrote are really your own and not something you heard or read. If you’re going to use material created by someone else other than a work-for-hire writer, get permission (if necessary) and give appropriate credit.
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