Copy Write Versus Copyright: Definitions and Answers

Copy Write Versus Copyright: Definitions and Answers

[Revised and checked: January 2020. NOTE: When I wrote this post in 2008, the title of the blog was Copy Write. Yet it still ranks as the most visited post from search over a decade after the blog title changed.]

Checking my website statistics, I am amazed at the number of visitors who come to the site mistakenly believing it contains discussions on copyright law.

Google searches such as “How to copy write a movie” and “The law behind copy write” persuade me that there is some confusion between copyright and copy write. On clicking through to one of these Google searches I was even more amazed to find a high number of forum posts, web articles and more that talk about “copy write infringement”, “the difference between copywrite and trademarks” and other similarly confused headlines.

Etymology and Origins

Although this may seem a minor grievance to some, the difference between the two concepts can promote confusion.

For example, when someone says they are copywriting a document, do they mean producing the words that form the document or do they mean protecting their legal right as the author?

It doesn’t help that the words write and right are homophones – the words sound the same despite being spelled differently – so that the meaning may not always be clear when spoken. It’s even less helpful that in both cases, copy is a homonym – two words that are spelled the same despite having different meanings.

Copy derives from the Medieval Latin copia meaning “reproduction or transcript”. (If we go further back to Classical Latin, copia means “plenty”, from which we derive the word copious.)

And so copy developed its dual meanings: a reproduction (noun) or to reproduce (verb), or the words or subject matter in a document or advertisement. For a fuller list and explanation, here are the Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions for copy.

Copyrighting explained

Copyright, first coined in 1735, refers to the legal recognition in the authorship of a piece of work. It is an automatic right: You don’t need to register copyright with anyone for it to be legally binding. You don’t even need to include the copyright emblem or any information for copyright to apply.

In short, copyright is pretty much a default setting. As such, it is one-size-fits-all – and quite inflexible as a result. If you want to customise how you would like your rights as the original author or producer of the work applied, you may need to append your content with a Creative Commons license. This allows you to specify any permissions or restrictions on how others can reuse, remix and share your work, with or without attribution.

Should it be contested, copyright is also dependent on three factors to be actionable:

  1. Your ability to prove authorship.
  2. The chronology between your content and the offending article needs to be clear. Which came first?
  3. Proof of access. You need to demonstrate that the person who breached your copyright was exposed to your work or ideas before producing theirs. If it turns out that mere coincidence is in play – which happens far more than people may realise – you may not have a case for copyright infringement.

This is why some scriptwriters, for example, prefer to register their scripts with appropriate bodies. Various industry guilds usually offer a registration service. Registering a script ensures there can be no debate over authorship or dates should another script surface that appears to plagiarise the writer’s hard work.

Copywriting explained

Copywriting refers to the task of writing a document, and is most commonly used to refer to advertising or website copy, as well as news or journalistic copy.

Note that the phrase “to copy write” is inelegant, rarely used and, if it is, should always be spelled as two words. Instead, “to write copy” is more accurate. Even better is to be more specific; “to write the website”, or article, or advertising slogan, etc.

Despite this, copywriter and copywriting are single words that refer respectively to the person writing the copy or the act of producing copy.

So why not simply use the word writer?

Writer refers to wordsmiths across all aspects of writing, but copywriting is a specific discipline. In much the same way as a writer of scripts is called a scriptwriter, a copywriter describes someone with the skills necessary to produce the specific and unique properties of commercial copy.

While a novelist or even a scriptwriter might write lengthy passages for hundreds of pages, a copywriter will spend hours cutting three paragraphs down to two or trying to squeeze as much information as possible into a seven-word tagline. Copywriting is about brevity, where every word is carefully selected.

Copyrighting copy writing

Of course, all copywriting is copyrighted. And sometimes the details of a copyright agreement will need to be copy written. But to confuse the two concepts can cause some frustrating misunderstandings.

If you are interested in copywriting, check out the wonderful CopyBlogger, with daily articles on the most effective uses of words and language. For further advice on copyright issues, you can visit The US Copyright Office in the United States, The Intellectual Property Office in the UK, and in Australia, The Copyright Council’s Online Information Centre.

Comments

  1. thanks for sharing and all the effort, this was very informative and useful

  2. I thought it’s funny:) It’s very informative, I’ve learned something today… Thanks for sharing!

  3. Cindy King says

    You could have gone as having a for your readers to “Get the Copy Right when using Copy Write and Copyright”
    Here in France people don’t understand the difference and there is even one copywriter with a sign on his front door offering his service as a copyrighter.

  4. Raoul Galli says

    Hi, I think that copywriter also has an ethymology similar to the word “copycat”. A copywriter is always writing in someone else’s place (the client). This makes him or her a kind of ghostwriter, or, as I would rather call it: a copywriter – a writer copying the client’s voice.

  5. candice says

    Thanks for this

  6. Thank you. It sounds silly but I had a right and write crisis from all the stuff on SOPA and PIPA today! 🙂

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