Freelance writers, be we full or part-time writers, have a very different work environment and structure than other vocations. Our job, (in the most basic definition), is to take on the directions of a client or clients and produce a piece of writing per their specifications. If our product is our writing, then we as writers must be wary of those who would try to obtain our products through mischievous and illegal means.
No, I’m not talking about someone hacking into your computer and stealing your next book — although you should have your computer and your work protected (hint, hint). What I’m talking about deals with clients and potential clients stealing your work.
How could somebody possibly steal your work without your knowledge?
First of all, anything you post online can easily be stolen by any number of people from every walk of life. Although this is far more difficult to stop, especially since most blogs and posts are usually not officially copyrighted, having proof of original publication will usually prove ownership of intellectual property. Remember, any time you post something where three or more people from the public can see it, it is considered a published document with intellectual property rights, but a legal copyright will give you better ground to stand on when it comes to ownership.
To verify that your work has not been stolen, there are some plagiarism protection tools online that you can use either for free or for a nominal fee. This can be useful not only for protecting your blogs and posts, but also protecting any of your college or university papers. Some companies dealing with protection of copyright or protection against plagiarism that seem to be highly respected are Copyscape, (http://copyscape.com/), and ScanMyEssay (http://www.scanmyessay.com/index.php ). The second requires you to upload some of its software on your computer, which some users may or may not enjoy.
Another way for people, especially potential clients, to steal your writing is one I find most unethical. Here you are, a freelance writer who’s either brand-new to the scene or still learning how the system works. Trying to obtain any job you can, you apply everywhere and follow the directions precisely. Clients know that freelancers do this because it’s how the game is played. So here is what they do to take advantage of us hard-working freelancers.
Many of them will ask you for samples to see if your work and style will be appropriate for the company. You, as a diligent freelancer, will of course send them some samples of your style, or perhaps links to your blog. Not too risky of an endeavor because it is how the things are done. When these potential clients take your samples and utilize them for their own purposes without paying you, however, that is plagiarism and it is theft of your intellectual property. As horrible as this is, it’s not where the really dishonest dealings occur.
True, they could steal your samples or some of your blogs, but only if those pieces of writing fit to what the client needs. So here’s the trick they pull on you. As part of your application/inquiry to this potential job, you must create a sample to their specifications. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes this is legitimate. Legitimate or not, however, you are giving away your product for free when you create these pre-ordered writing samples.
Deb from the FWJ community recently wrote about this specific topic, and listed some fantastic questions for you, as the freelancer, to ask of a potential client when they are trying to get a specific writing sample out of you:
1. What will a sample tell you that my clips didn’t?
2. How much will I be paid for my sample?
3. If I’m not being paid for my sample, who owns the rights?
4. If you own the rights what will you do with my sample?
By clips, she is referring to your blog site or samples/clips from your portfolio.
I admit it — I’ve fallen prey to these sample stealers, or at least I think I have. As a person who keeps track of all of her submissions/queries and the responses from them, several of the ones that requested specifically created samples have yet to return any interest in hiring me on as a writer. It is possible that they simply didn’t like what I was writing, or they may have stolen my content.
Using or thinking about the questions that Deb wrote about in her article might save you from some unfortunate experiences. Additionally, remembering that your writing is your livelihood and that you should protect that by all means with contractual agreements is also a good piece of advice. While I do advise having any contract you create looked over by a legal professional, creating a basic contractual agreement should not be something that scares you. Simply writing out what you are expected to do, when you are expected to do it, who is paying you, how much they are paying you, when payment will be submitted, and then have both you and your client sign and date copies of the agreement will go a long way in protecting yourself and your writing.