Not long ago, I was working with a client to create a design for an event they wanted to promote. After bouncing one particular concept back and forth for a week or so, I figured we were heading in a good direction. Then I received an email from the client asking me to do a complete 180 with the event’s artwork, along with an image.

It was clearly artwork from another event that was similar to the client’s. Not good.

Admittedly, browsing through images and designs online can be a great way to find inspiration and get my creativity flowing when coming up with new designs, so having such design examples sent to me is nothing new. However, I quickly became concerned when I realize what the client was requesting.

The attached image wasn’t just for brainstorming purposes. They wanted me to recreate it for their own event.

(“Say what?!”)

In other words, I had been asked to take another designer’s work, steal it and call it my own.

Hopefully I don’t have to tell you that this is very, very illegal. Just like you can’t steal another person’s words and take credit for them, you can’t just copy images from Google without having the rights to do so – and stealing a designer’s work is no better.

So today, I want to clearly explain what plagiarism is, what it might look like within your marketing content and what you can do to keep it from happening.

What Is Plagiarism?

If you’re like any of us in the Quintain Marketing family, you live and breathe content marketing. You spend your days creating wonderful new content in various forms to dazzle your audience and draw them in. As such, you probably already know the importance of giving credit where it’s due. But just in case, here’s a refresher.

Plagiarism is a term that should be very familiar to all marketers. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines plagiarize as a verb meaning:

  • “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own”
  • to ”use (another’s production) without crediting the source”
  • “to commit literary theft,” and
  • to “present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source”

Those four definitions all vary slightly, but they are all still essentially a variation on the same theme: You cannot take something that does not belong to you and pass it off as your own work. However, while Merriam-Webster does specifically call out literary theft, the phrase “another’s production” makes it clear that plagiarism is not limited to the theft of the written word.

What does this have to do with your marketing content? Everything.

Maybe you simply forgot to add the URL of your data source, or swapped out a few words instead of properly paraphrasing. Or perhaps you rebranded another company’s eBook without permission. Regardless of intent, those are all forms of plagiarism.

Getting caught plagiarizing is just embarrassing, especially on the web where your content lives forever and can go viral in a heartbeat. More than that though, plagiarism is illegal, and it is a very sticky – and sometimes costly – situation to get involved with.

What Is Art Theft

Art theft isn’t just stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. And the internet makes art theft so easy these days. In fact, it’s downright scary how easily people can steal and sell another person’s work.

While art theft is technically still plagiarism, I feel the need to distinguish the two. This is partly because this blog began with the issue of art theft, but also because people don’t seem to take art plagiarism as seriously as literary theft.

It feels like plagiarism in writing is an obvious evil. Children are taught early on to give proper accreditation when writing. Yet with art, those same rules are often ignored.

But makes it clear: “Using an image, video or piece of music in a work you have produced without receiving proper permission or providing appropriate citation is plagiarism.”

This is art theft. And, using my original example, if I had recreated my own version of that event design for our client, I would have been commiting art theft.

Taking credit for another person’s work – whether writing, art or an idea – is plagiarism. And what did we say plagiarism is? Illegal! Every piece of content out there on the web belongs to someone. It doesn’t matter what form the content comes in, whether it’s a video, music, a podcast, a blog, a poster or an infographic.

The lesson here? Don’t make the mistake of thinking the image you found on Google is yours to use however you please. And never assume just because you added some text and an Instagram filter to it that you are safe from a plagiarism charge.

Don’t Be A Marketing Thief

The best way to be smart about plagiarism is to get permission to use your content.

Make sure you have the rights to use that photo or manipulate that design for your own marketing needs. Buy the licenses to use images for your blog, and rest easy knowing you are allowed to use it without a doubt.

In fact, there is truly rights-free content out there. There are a lot of great sites that create license-free photos and videos and other content just because they love sharing it with others.

But please, always be sure you know, without a doubt, you have the rights to use a certain piece of content before you take credit for it. Licenses can be tricky, whether the content is paid for or free. Make sure you always stay within the legal bounds of the license.

The internet is an ever-growing library right at our fingertips. It can be tempting to just copy and paste heedlessly, but I’d hate to see anyone in the marketing world suffer due to carelessness around the topic of plagiarism and art theft.

So what do you do if you’re not sure if you have the rights to use another person’s work? Just don’t use it. It’s better safe than sorry.

Final Thought

It took me awhile to sit down and write this because, at the time of the request, I was seeing red. Art theft is a touchy topic for me, and it makes me angry to know people so often steal other people’s content and hard work. My hope is that what would have then been a full-blown rant about art theft has – hopefully – become a more enlightening and cautionary tale for you.