Feel free to steal this headline

If today's headline were a song, your lawyer wouldn't let you even think about attaching your name to it in any way, shape or form. The same holds true if it were a photograph, illustration or sculpture. Even trying to use it for inspiration could land you in a litigious mire.

If today’s headline were a song, your lawyer wouldn’t let you even think about attaching your name to it in any way, shape or form. The same holds true if it were a photograph, illustration or sculpture. Even trying to use it for inspiration could land you in a litigious mire.

But let’s imagine it’s a direct mail package. Hey, go for it, your legal counsel would advise. Use it again and again. In fact, use it against the company that paid for its development in the first place if you like. Nobody’s going to lay a glove on you, let alone a writ.

Although I’ve touched on plagiarism in a couple of columns of late, what got me thinking about it seriously was a book I picked up a few days ago. Direct Response Fund Raising: Mastering New Trends for Results features chapters by eight fundraising experts, including one by the book’s editor, Michael Johnston. So far, it looks like a worthwhile volume. And if chapter seven is any indication of what the rest of the book holds, Direct Response Fund Raising is also an extremely honest piece of work, in that one of the contributors confesses to copy theft while another not only condones, but encourages it.

Before further pondering how or why anyone with a sense of ethics would ever heap praise on an admitted plagiarist, let’s talk copyright.

Time was, there was no such thing as copyright and/or it wasn’t enforced. Stephen Foster, composer of such popular classics as ‘O Susanna,’ ‘I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair’ and ‘Camptown Races,’ was plagued by plagiarists to the point of poverty. In his day, you’d write a song, then sit back helplessly as others changed a word or two and reaped royalties from the composition they now claimed as their own.

Could you imagine trying to get away with anything remotely similar today? My sweet Lord, just ask George Harrison.

(Incidentally, Foster learned to head off plagiarists at the pass. He once wrote a song called ‘I Would Not Die in Spring Time’ under one name, then promptly penned ‘I Would Not Die in Summer Time’ under another. Before he could again rip off his own composition, however, a poacher wrote ‘I Would Not Die In Winter.’ Such songs of seasonal demise only ended when someone else wrote ‘I Would Not Die at All.’)

Thankfully for songwriters, the law now vigorously protects composers. And they aren’t the only ones in the arts who no longer have to worry about having their work stolen, as anyone who’s commissioned an illustration or photograph can attest. Not only are you prohibited from using an illustrator’s or photographer’s existing work without payment, you cannot alter an original piece of work without the express written permission of the creator. (Remember the flap over the geese in the Toronto Eaton’s Centre atrium a number of years ago? The landlord had tied Christmas ribbons on the objet d’art geese and, even though the birds had been bought and paid for, the artist took the landlord to court and won an injunction prohibiting the Centre from touching so much as an ersatz feather.)

Today, you can’t even use your own face for commercial purposes if it happens that you’re the spitting image of a famous person; the latter will sue you for living off the avails of their established persona. Yet, it wasn’t that many years ago that your scribe did a TV spot and also pulled a PR coup blatantly involving celebrity lookalikes. Didn’t hear a word from the real Messrs. Redford or Bronson. (Damn!) However, I certainly would today.

But where do ads and direct mail packages come in when it comes to protecting original creations? Can you spell ‘nowhere?’ Ironically, copywriters can’t copyright their work without expense and probable failure when it comes to enforcement. So creative thievery flourishes.

Let’s go back to the fundraising book. In it, editor Michael Johnston tells how he was searching for a direct mail concept for one of his clients when, in a newsletter for fundraisers, he stumbled across an approach that had proven successful elsewhere. So he used it. (The original had been developed by the newsletter editor, so the copy copying was probably done with tacit permission.) As a credit to Mr. Johnston’s good judgment, it worked gangbusters. And to his ethical credit, he freely admits where he got the concept and copy, even reproducing the fundraising letter he took for his own.

The author of chapter seven applauds Johnston’s method of developing a winning letter, urging the book’s readers to ‘Do it. Copy, borrow and steal where you can!’

It’s tempting at this point for me to launch into a holier-than-thou rant. But if I did, I’d have to take a few swipes at myself as well, since I’m as guilty as most at having occasionally borrowed a concept or some particularly compelling phrase.

Personally, I’ve always figured it’s OK to take inspiration from or adopt a choice part of someone else’s creative as long as it meets several criteria: (1) that it isn’t from one of your client’s competitors, which would be akin to shooting someone with their own gun; (2) that it isn’t from an ad or DM package that any of the target audience would have seen or could see; (3) that you tell your own client where the idea or stolen words came from (get caught stealing, and you lose all future credibility with your client; let them in on the theft and you have yourself a supportive accomplice); and (4) that you don’t enter ‘your’ brilliant work in an awards show.

Numerous concepts and copy of mine have been lifted by others, and it usually first angers me that some creative shoplifter is getting the benefit of all the sweat I put into the effort of creation. Then the sense of outrage is replaced by one of being flattered that someone thought highly enough of my work to make off with it. I can only hope that those I’ve borrowed from feel the same way.

But there is an industry-wide detrimental aspect to the practice of not protecting our most inventive minds — allowing open season on creative theft reduces the incentive to develop groundbreaking concepts. After all, why should you invest countless hours or dollars to come up with a breakthrough idea when you know that some uninspired sloth across the street is going to steal your idea as soon as it appears in print or online?

Think of Frank H. Johnson of Johnson Box fame.* In the early ’50s, he used a copy box above the salutation of a direct mail letter, it proved to be one of the most successful DM techniques ever developed, and the rest of the industry reaped the profits. Yes, Johnson enjoyed a distinguished career and was the beneficiary of much admiration from his colleagues, but he would have earned millions had he received even a penny each time a Johnson Box was used.

And he is far from being the only soul to be denied riches for an outstanding DM idea. How about the person who first thought up the lift note? Or the first writer who decided to include a postscript on a DM letter? How about the individual who came up with the double-window envelope…or the person who first used ellipses?

If any of these original thinkers had received ample financial rewards for their pioneering efforts, wouldn’t it have served to inspire them and others to wrack their brains for the next truly big idea? Who knows what super-responsive state DM would be in right now.

Maybe the day will come when copywriters and art directors are as well protected as their songwriting, illustrating and photographing brethren. Until then, we can only take solace in that rhyme about people who copy all they can copy and steal all they can find, which ends with the statement that, fortunately, ‘they couldn’t copy my mind. So I left them sweating and stealing, a year and a half behind.’

* Frank H. Johnson died a few months ago at the age of 88. He refused to accept credit for having created the technique that bears his name, but his longtime art director partner said that, regardless of who invented the Johnson Box, nobody ever used it better than Frank.

‘Stupid Direct Marketing Tricks’ columnist Bob Knight states, ‘Me steal a headline idea? I’ve never even heard of David Letterman and his Stupid Pet Tricks. Honest. No, really. Believe me, it’s true. Why would I lie about a thing like that?’ Regardless, he would love to give you a breakthrough integrated, direct marketing or e-campaign…as long as you’re willing to pay for it rather than ‘borrow’ it. He can be reached at b_knight@telus.net.