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For content marketers, the rules for what you can and cannot share are pretty murky, but there are some guidelines that should keep you out of trouble. SEO Book’s recent piece, How To Prevent Content Value Gouging, isn’t strictly about content marketing – the focus is, not surprisingly, more on SEO – but there are a lot of analogies to content marketing, particularly when we talk about some of the low-hanging fruit of content marketing – aggregating content, reposting content, and commenting on other people’s content. (Like I’m doing now …) I’ll begin, though, by saying that I’m not a lawyer – I don’t even play one on TV – so any discussion of copyright is in lay terms, not meant as legal advise and is more of an observation about common online custom than the actual legal implications of any particular practice.

What brought content marketing to mind as I read the article was the discussion of scraping. Scraping is the practice of gathering content external sources, frequently without attribution, and building a web page around that content, usually as a way to sell advertising.

It is pretty clearly an unsavory business practice, at least as I’ve presented it. (The issues raised in the SEO Book article are more complicated and involve Google’s search results.) For example, Trip Advisor has complained about Google’s presentation of their content. Trip Advisor’s business is aggregating content, so when Google re-aggregates it, well, you can imagine Trip Advisor’s unhappiness. Another example cited in the SEO Book piece are newspapers. When you search for some topical news item – “drone policy in the U.S.,” or “Justin Bieber’s new girlfriend” – the search engines present the results from various news organizations. The news organizations may not benefit from the way the information is presented.

So what does that have to do with content marketing? Well, as content marketers we encourage content aggregation, content reposting, and other sharing of content. And though I wouldn’t equate scraping and content sharing of this type, the two are related and we want to be sure to stay on the right side of the good/evil line.

How do we tell the difference? Here are a couple of ways.

First and foremost, you can’t use someone else’s content without attribution. If I had copied and pasted the SEO Book article in its entirety – or even just large chunks of it – without giving credit would be wrong. (And when it happens to you, as it did to me and a colleague recently, it really stinks. Especially when the thieving party gets more attention because of the theft! But that’s another story.)

Depending on how much of someone’s original work you’re re-using, obtaining explicit permission may be in order. There’s nothing wrong with pulling relevant quotes from an article, assuming you’re attributing them properly, but reproducing something wholesale without permission is asking for trouble. And again, it’s just wrong.

Intent is perhaps the brightest of the bright-line tests. If you run a website that makes money selling advertising and that website consists of recipes you’re pulling from various cooking sites, that’s a problem. You’re competing directly with your sources.

On the other hand, if you run website for a local wine shop and you offer food and wine pairings every week, linking to the recipes on a cooking site seems to me to be less problematic. You’re not taking their content and competing with them directly. In fact, your links to them may help them expand their audience.

And that’s where things get complicated. On my blog at Andigo New Media, we frequently post, link to, and comment on content from other content marketers. Is that OK? Obviously, we think it is or we wouldn’t do it. But you have to evaluate your audience, your industry, and the particular competitor you’re linking to. There’s a certain open ethos to the content marketing industry. We generally feel that we all benefit from sharing. I benefit by being able to provide really great content to my audience. The person who’s work I’m quoting benefits from the wider exposure.

But that’s not necessarily the case in every industry or in every instance. For better or worse, there are no hard and fast rules you can follow when it comes to content sharing. Keep the above guidelines in mind and if it feels right, it’s probably OK. If it doesn’t pass the smell test, don’t do it.

And when in doubt, listen to your lawyer.