Writers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I started freelance writing in the January of 2012 and I am providing services for SEO, Blog Articles, User Manuals, Travel Sites and Technical Documentation. Since then I have this question in mind. Then I found good place to ask the question that is writers stackexchange.

Many times a client asks that the content delivered should be his/her Property and me ( the original writer) won't have any right on that written material once I deliver it and get paid.

But I think we have a little logical confusion here. Let me explain you by taking help of Software programs. Imagine that a customer called 'A' gives you project to write a simple calculator to perform 4 basic math operations - plus,minus,multiplication and division. You program this calculator; deliver the project and get paid. Now this calculator becomes property of the client and you do not have any right over it. That is fine. Then after some time a customer called 'B' comes to you and ask you to write a scientific calculator software which included the 4 basic math operations mentioned in above case plus extra functions like Integration, Derivatives, Functions, Matrix etc. Though You have made a simple calculator in the past and that is not your property right now you still can make another complex calculator based upon that simple calculator which uses all functionality from that simple calculator. No one restricts you from doing this. This is considered normal. You can reuse the code, reuse the programming langauge, reuse the programming platform, reuse the devices, reuse the logic.

Now let us imagine this same scenario for writing industry. Many times a client asks to write approximately 5 SEO articles on single topic. Many times its same travel destination about which you have to write travel article for two or more travel websites. Many times its a same technological product about which you have to write article for two different clients. Many times I end up having forced to not repeat my own articles, their structures, sentences, examples used etc. In short you can not "Reuse" the content. And I have a limitation on how much new content I can provide on the very same topic.

So my question is about the,

  1. Ability of a person (writer or programer) to reproduce the same content (written article or software) again and again and getting paid each time for hard work of each project and still not indulge in any Intellectual Property Confusion.

  2. How does the intellectual property works here? Cause in case of computer program you can repetitively use the same logic, same programming languages, same programming libraries. You can reuse nearly everything. When your first calculator displays message 2+2=4 and then when your new advanced calculator too displays message 2+2=4 its not considered as copy paste or not considered as being reuse of old concept. But you write a sentence, "two plus two is four" then you can not reuse this sentence in same context in same way again. That will be considered as copy paste and reusing old content. In writing you can not use exact same sentences again, the sentence and paragraph structures, the stories etc. In short you have to make it new and original every time.

  3. Also in writing once I write a sentence say , 'My country is great' then I can never use the same sentence in same context in same way again in any other articles. Because that will violate the originality of that new article plus violate Intellectual property of the old article.

  4. How do I generate a real 'new and original' content each time?

  5. When its explicitly not specified, who owns the right to the written material. According to the (Indian) law the written material remains property of the writer throughout the lifetime of universe. When the copyright period ends you can use it free of cost, but you still have to credit the original writer. But nobody knows about it. And when I work as freelancer writer I have to take projects from all over world, then law of which land (which country) applies to this Intellectual property?

Thank you for reading this long question.

share|improve this question
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Usual disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. Please do not construe this as legal advice. Etc.

But my understanding from my research and past experience is this. Oh, another disclaimer: I'm an American so my experience is with U.S. copyright law, but I think most of this is pretty much the same in all countries because copyright is controlled by a couple of big international treaties. There may well be some differences in the details, though.

  1. If you are paid by someone else to write something for them, it is considered a "work for hire" and they normally own the copyright. It would be a very very good idea to have a contract that specifies who owns the copyright to avoid any legal or ethical ambiguity. If you as the author are retaining the copyright, clearly state what rights you are giving them. Can they print it once or an unlimited number of times? Are they licensed to publish only in their own country or anywhere in the world? Etc.

  2. But I understand that you're saying that you sold them the copyright. Okay fine. So legally, you now have exactly the same rights to this work as someone who had nothing to do with writing it. That is, you have a limited "fair use" right to quote small sections of it, and that's it.

But regarding your discussion about program logic: A copyright gives ownership of the exact words used. It does not give ownership of the research, facts, or ideas. So if, say, you sold an article in which you explained why 2+2=4, if you sold the rights, you could not sell those exact same words again somewhere else. But you could write other articles giving the exact same explanation of why 2+2=4, using the same logic and research. You just can't use the same words.

There have been many court cases where someone took, for example, an article from a newspaper, rewrote it in their own words, and published it. The courts have routinely ruled that this did not violate copyright because they did not copy the exact words.

The courts have routinely ruled that you do not have a copyright to a fact, only to the words used to describe a fact. So when you sold your calculator program, you are not selling the rights to the fact that 2+2=4. Even if you were the first person to discover that 2+2=4, you do not own a copyright on that fact. You cannot legally prevent other people from adding 2 and 2 just because you discovered it first. The copyright covers the exact text of the program, not the underlying mathematical facts or the techniques used. (You might be able to get a PATENT for the techniques, but that's a different subject.)

In one fairly recent case, a phone company copied all the phone numbers from another phone company's directory. The first company had deliberately included some fake names in their directory to catch someone doing this, and so they sued. The courts ruled that you can't copyright the phone book. They said that the individual names and phone numbers are "facts", and so can't be copyrighted. (If they could, then it would be illegal to dial anyone's number.) One can own a copyright to a particular selection and arrangement of facts, but the court said that in this case, the idea of including all the phone numbers in a specific geographical area and arranging them in alphabetical order is so obvious that it does not rise to the level of "creative work".

RE Can you re-use the sentence, "My country is great." Here we get to an issue where the courts routinely wrestle. The fair use doctrine says that you can take quotes of reasonable length from someone else's work. But what is a "reasonable length"? The extremes are obvious: If someone wrote a 300 page book, and you copied 299 pages of it word for word and changed one page, the original writer will easily win a copyright lawsuit against you. (Every now and then someone reads about copyright law and says, "So if I change one word, then I'm not copying the original author exactly, and he can't sue me!" No. Our courts can be pretty stupid, but they're not that stupid. If that was the rule, copyrights would be worthless: you could always just tack "Copied by Bob" at the end now it's "different".) At the other end, if someone tried to sue you because he wrote a book that had the word "tomato" in it and you wrote a totally different book that also used the word "tomato" and he claims that you stole this word from his book, he will lose.

You can quote a few sentences or a paragraph or two pretty freely. So I think the short answer is, no, the person you sold rights to would not own the sentence "My country is great." You could re-use that all you like. Frankly a sentence like that is generic enough that there are probably many people in the world who have written it without having copied it from someone else, but maybe that's just a bad example. Even if the sentence was quite distinctive so it was very unlikely someone else would come up with the exact same sentence, you're still allowed to copy a sentence.

If you copy several pages, you're likely on thin ice. This all gets into judgement calls. If, say, you are critiquing another author's book, and so you print a paragraph from his book, then your rebuttal, then another paragraph, then your rebuttal, etc, so that in total you copy many pages, you'd probably get away with it as long as the amount you copy isn't a significant percentage of the whole book. But if you just copy twenty pages straight out of someone else's book, you probably would lose a copyright suit.

So all that said, my short answer is: Whatever research or brainstorming you did to write an article that you sold to someone else, you can freely re-use that. Just don't use the exact same words. Take the same information, and write a new article using the same information but different words. I'd be very careful to avoid using similar phrasing.

Sorry for the long answer, but it was a long question!

share|improve this answer
Thanks for the first answer. I was waiting for long time for answer and nobody answered. I was fearing that I had asked a wrong question or asked wrongly. But then you answered. Your answer solved most of my confusion. – Abhijit Navale Dec 28 '12 at 14:50
"But what is a "reasonable length"? The extremes are obvious:" Ah, the intermediate value theorem - always there will be a point of maximum controversy in between the extremes. – Joe Z. Jan 4 '13 at 21:32

In principle, the author is copyright holder of a work, but this principle is often deviated from. When the work is commissioned by another party, some countries automatically transfer copyright, some leave it with the author. Some countries do not even allow copyright to be transfered voluntarily. International treaties such as the Berne Convention and the WIPO Copyright Treaty offer very little clarification on the subject.

The fine details of these arrangements are usually complex and often up for debate. It is therefore advisable to explicate who shall hold the copyright on a commissioned work. It is not uncommon for a writer to merely provide an irrevokable, non-exclusive license for publication. Of course, as copyright holder, you are free to reuse your own work, as long as you abide by any contractual obligations. The following will assume someone else now holds exclusive rights to the writings.

"But you write a sentence, 'two plus two is four' then you cannot reuse this sentence in same context in same way again. That will be considered as copy paste and reusing old content. In writing you can not use exact same sentences again."

This, I suspect, is the heart of your problem. You're in luck; it's false. Generally, the entire work is protected by copyright. Parts of a work, for example several pages from a book, are still protected, but some exceptions may apply, most notably fair use and the more restrictive quotation rights. Sufficiently small parts no longer qualify as original expressions and do not meet the criteria for protection under copyright law.

A single sentence, such as this, carefully crafted in a deliberate attempt to be eligable for my monopolisation, may more than meet the minimum. On the other hand, a more factual news article may contain entire unprotected paragraphs. The distinction is unclear.

The events, facts, ideas and opinions you have described are not protected themselves; their expression is. When writing another piece on the same subject, I would advise making an effort to rephrase. That should be fairly simple. If at any point it proves too difficult to express a thought differently, the wording you used in the first place probably was not original enough and can freely be reused.

share|improve this answer
Yes many times I can only write 3-4 original and new articles on same topics. I face a very hard difficulty to write new and original article beyond that 3-4 attempts on the same topic. My imagination just dies. What can I do about this? – Abhijit Navale Dec 28 '12 at 14:51
Creatively? No idea, but I think you're overestimating the extent to which your writing is protected; it should not be very difficult to write a new article on the subject. If this scenario is common, you may opt to keep the copyright and sell non-exclusive licenses instead. – Marcks Thomas Dec 28 '12 at 16:16
It shouldn't be that hard to simply re-word your original article. If the first time you said, "My country is great", in your next article you could say, "My nation is a wonderful place". Re-word sentences. Re-arrange sections. This is a great opportunity to drop sections that are weak and add new ideas you've had since you wrote the first one. Etc. – Jay Dec 28 '12 at 19:38

When you undertake a commission to produce an original piece of work (whether this be writing, design, painting, drawing or whatever) you (as the originator) decide on the contractual copyright with the commissioner or purchaser of the original work.

When I say contractual I mean under what terms of contract that original piece of work is produced.

As an originator of an original work you are by right the copyright holder of that work unless you sell the copyright of that work to someone else.

If you wish to retain copyright of your work then you must make it clear to whoever is paying you to produce it that you retain copyright but give unrestricted rights to use and reproduction of that work for the fee they are paying.

You must make it clear to whoever is buying your work, precisely what they are paying for - for the copyright or for the use of that work only.

share|improve this answer

As a programmer I must state that you have made an error in your assumption. You can't reuse the code you have 'sold' to your employer/client, if you have sold the material and intellectual rights to the code. Freelancers usually aren't selling that rights, only the final product, so the situation is different. In your case it would be selling the rights to publish your article only.

Of course you can write something else inspired by the original, but inspiration is writing from scratch and not copying, the result will be similar but not the same.

Or, something more dubious, modification of original article by word changing, changing of word order etc. I would not recommend it but this is already done in SEO world you know - black SEO techniques based on copying the whole content from sites such as Wikipedia, with strong synonimization and word order changes. I haven't heard of process for such misuse, it's not trivial to prove.

You are selling the unique articles to your customers, and I think (though you haven't written it directly) for those customers the google uniqueness is the only think that matters. If you simply copy the article or some paragraphs, the google algorithm could mark the page of your customer as copy and remove it from search list, so they are protecting against it. They contain no original research, so you are free to paraphrase them, but not to copy even a sentence literally!

If they would be articles for some printed press, there could be also the copying of essence involved. If the article was based of your research, copying those research results and writing this article once again would be probably against the contract between you and your customer (but this would be AFAIK directly written in contract). Own research is for example, the results of the polls etc., not writing based on books from library.

share|improve this answer
As a programmer I must state that you have made an error in your assumption. You can't reuse the code you have 'sold' to your employer/client, if you have sold the material and intellectual rights to the code.=>> Oh! Sad to hear that in my remaining life now I can never program a calculator and sell it. I am feeling terribly sad. What should I do with my programming skills now? – Abhijit Navale Dec 28 '12 at 14:45
How about this. ASSUME that I made an operating system. I sold its IPR. So I should die now? Because there is nothing left in my life to do? Because after selling the IPR I can not never program any Operating System ever in my life? So what is the use of this waste life now? – Abhijit Navale Dec 28 '12 at 14:49
You've completly misunderstood me. Please read carefully. I was speaking about code reuse. – Danubian Sailor Dec 28 '12 at 14:51
If you are talking about copy pasting one project and building new project on top of that copy pasted code, then I understood you. But then again if my new program is such a new in way that its hard to identify that I have copy pasted the code of old program or not, then what to do? Or in other words how do I come to know that when its considered a copy paste of program cod and when note? The programming language syntax (e.g. int main(void){} ) will not be considered copy. But what about logic? If I use logic of factoring of number in two programs then how to know if its copy paste or not? – Abhijit Navale Dec 28 '12 at 14:55
This is what I have written. You can't copy&paste but you can always write from scratch. Or modify such that it will look as written from scratch. Logic can't be copyrighted nor patented (well, I've heard in USA there are patents for algorithms but they were rejected in EU as pure nonsense, but dura lex sed lex). – Danubian Sailor Dec 28 '12 at 14:58

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.