I’ve had a few clients lately who had concerns about how to responsibly use other people’s words and ideas. In other words, they wanted to know how to be sure they weren’t committing intellectual property (IP) theft.
What is intellectual property?
We’ll start with the UK government’s definition of IP:
Intellectual property is something unique that you physically create. An idea alone is not intellectual property. For example, an idea for a book doesn’t count, but the words you’ve written do. (https://www.gov.uk/intellectual-property-an-overview)
IP is property, and just as stealing someone else’s physical things has legal consequences, so does stealing their IP.
In the UK (if you live elsewhere, check the laws in your country), written work is automatically protected by copyright. You don’t have to register it anywhere.
Why should you be concerned about it?
Plagiarism is the proper term for IP in written work. Another way of thinking about it is presenting someone else’s work as your own. We all knew at school we weren’t supposed to do this, but in the business world the consequences can be far more severe than a failing mark on an assignment.
If you commit IP theft, at the very least you risk ruining your reputation. At worst, you risk facing legal proceedings because IP theft can, in certain circumstances, be a criminal offense.
How do you avoid IP theft?
The short answer is to give credit where credit’s due: reference all of your sources. This doesn’t necessarily have to involve using the, sometimes, convoluted referencing systems used by academics, but you will need a system of some sort.
In this section, I’ll explain the one I use.
Above, I quoted the gov.uk page on intellectual property. When I introduced the quotation, I mentioned the source (UK government), and immediately after the quotation, I gave my readers the link so they could find the quotation themselves.
If you were to quote a book, it would look like this:
In No Plot? No Problem! Chris Baty encourages writers to stay hydrated; he says, ‘Beverage scientists have discovered that dehydration is one of the main factors in making a person feel tired’ (82).
In this example, the underlined words are mine and those enclosed in inverted commas are Baty’s. I’ve given the page number in parentheses.
The words in bold introduce the quotation and include a shortened form of the full title: No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. I’ve used the shortened form because my reader doesn’t need the full title to make sense of the point about staying hydrated. I’ll give the full title in my works cited list (aka bibliography) at the end of this post.
I hope it’s obvious that we must cite direct quotations; we’re using someone else’s words, so we need to indicate that to our readers.
We also need to cite all paraphrased or summarised passages – in these, we use our own words, but someone else’s ideas and must give them credit.
Finally, remember that it is possible to plagiarise yourself. If all of your work is self-published, this isn’t likely to cause any problems. However, if you publish something through a traditional publishing house or in a collection for which someone else owns the copyright, it could become an issue.
Baty, Chris. No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days (Chronicle Books, 2014).
Gov.uk. ‘Intellectual Property and Your Work’, https://www.gov.uk/intellectual-property-an-overview
 When you paraphrase a part of a text, you change the words and sentence structure but include all of the detail. When you summarise a text, your summary is in your own words and it only includes the main points.