Many people who are active in social media and blogging feel pressure to constantly develop new and exciting content. That pressure can sap creativity, making it hard to come up with original content and tempting you to closely copy something someone else has done. Sometimes you will be inspired by someone’s work and can think of ways you can adapt it for your own needs, and you might wonder how close you can get to the original without it being "too close." Unfortunately, there isn’t always a clear delineation between inspiration and imitation, so how can you tell if you’re in the clear?
Inspiration or imitation?
Start by asking yourself a basic question: does your idea come from a widely used trend that you’re following, or is this something new and exciting that you’ve only seen done a few times? If you’re going with a trend, it's likely that you’re being inspired and the idea you came up with will be your own original take on the concept. For example, if you have read a dozen different versions of articles about “Being a Good Steward,” then it’s fine to go ahead and try your own take on it. There are enough variations on the theme that it will be clear that you haven’t taken someone’s unique idea and copied it.
If you’ve only seen something done once or twice and what you’ve written or made looks anything like that, you may be too close to copying someone's original work. That doesn't mean that you can't still work with the idea. If the design or article inspires you, then you can write a response to it, critique it, review it, or react to it, as long as you attribute your inspiration and acknowledge the source.
Sometimes it’s fine to copy
Go ahead and copy someone else’s designs or writing as long as you don’t post it anywhere. Yes, I said do work and then don’t do anything with it. Why put any energy into copying? Because by copying what someone else has done, you are practicing, and practicing leads to skills.
Once you have the skills you need, you’ll be better able to find your own voice and style. You can carefully and intentionally deconstruct something you see and like by changing the image, the font, the positioning, etc. until you end up with a design that is new. Just remember: don’t post what you have copied!
But usually it’s not okay
There are a few guidelines to follow when you're adapting an idea to use it for yourself:
Don’t hide or remove anyone’s logo or watermark. Only add your logo to someone’s work if you have the artist’s explicit permission.
Read up on how to avoid plagiarizing. Don’t copy/paste a section of text and think you can “make it your own” by substituting a few words here and there. (Remember all those rules from Term Papers 101? Yes, they still apply when your school years are done.)
Be careful when you research and make notes. If you copy and paste someone’s words into your notes, add the source so you don’t get confused later on and think you've written it yourself.
Seek a second opinion. Do you know others who write or design for social media? If you’re unsure about whether something you’ve made is original enough, ask their opinion. Have they seen something just like it? Do they think it’s too close to the original, or a good take on a trend? How would they suggest you change it to make it more your own?
Be careful about where you find your resources. Just because you find a picture in Google Images and see that it doesn't have a watermark on it does not mean you can use it without purchasing it or getting permission. Get educated about issues like fair use, infringement, public domain, royalty free content, and learn what you need to do to secure permission to use and edit media that you didn't make yourself. (The same goes for using music in videos—be careful and do your research!)
Admit your mistakes. If someone criticizes you for copying something, take the time to look at what you’ve done to see if they could be correct. Did you see their image or read their article? If so, you may have unintentionally taken their idea to use as your own.
How can you get inspired without copying?
Use an inspiration board. Katy Munson wrote a great article on inspiration boards and how gathering bits and pieces of art and writing can help you develop your own ideas. Collect lots of bits and pieces of art and writing that you like the look or feel of, making notes about what you like and what you might change if you'd done it yourself.
Think about what it is in the image or the article that appeals to you. You might be more attracted to the color palate than you are to the whole design. You might have a response to the article, or see a different angle you can use to approach the topic.
Be intentional in your research. Take time to look at things other people are making or writing. Look at Pinterest, Etsy, Canva or Snappa templates, blogs, etc. to see what’s new and trendy, or what’s classic and still inspiring other people. Look at book covers and take time to see what font combinations they use or what colors they combine. Read articles on color use and font combinations. See if authors you enjoy have been interviewed about how they write and edit their work. Read blogs by editors or graphic artists for guidance on how to improve your writing or design skills.
Wait before you publish: If you have been thinking about doing something similar to a design or article you’ve seen elsewhere, but you’re short on time for editing or thinking it through, the chances are high that you might cross the line into copying someone else’s work. If you’ve just spent hours looking at other people’s images or reading other people’s articles on one topic, you might think you have lots of your own ideas now. But it’s just too easy to end up using someone else’s phrasing or design if you rush.
What's the big deal anyway?
As you do your work, keep in mind that what's at stake is more than just running the risk of irritating someone by copying their work or using it without authorization. The concept of intellectual copyright--owning the rights to the ideas and the product that you make--is easily misunderstood by many people, especially when free and easy access is found online.
The reputation of your church or organization can be tarnished by infringing on someone's copyright. You could end up being hit with a cease and desist demand, a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice, or even sued. Doing your work for a non-profit doesn't leave you in the clear, either, so be cautious, especially since some companies are extremely aggressive in pursuing their property rights.
Remember: learn the rules, practice your craft, look at your work with a critical eye to be sure it's original, seek inspiration from a wide variety of sources, ask for a second opinion, and let things percolate before you publish.
For other helpful ideas and topics, visit the CTS Blog Technology & Your Ministry.