We recently received an interesting question sent by a reader to our general inbox:
Dear Writer’s Relief,
Is it okay to use the same phrases or lines of mine in different things that I’m writing? Is that legal if the works get published?
The Big-Picture Answer: Repeating Lines Is Typical
If you spend your whole life writing, most writers are bound to accidentally duplicate ideas now and then. It happens.
If you’ve ever binged on half a dozen books in a row by the same author, you may have noticed that similar phrases will pop up here and there (Wow, I can’t believe she compared a mother to a sea turtle again!).
Writers often recycle their own phrasing and lines. They also recycle their own ideas. Some writers explore the same theme for their entire lives. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Details: Is It Legal To Reuse Your Own Lines?
Let’s say a writer uses the line, “and the white birds flew like tickertape down the canyon” in two different poems. The poem is published in two lit mags.
Here’s what the copyright office says:
As under the present law, a copyrighted work would be infringed by reproducing it in whole or in any substantial part, and by duplicating it exactly or by imitation or simulation.
The question is: What does “substantial” mean? In a three-line poem, one line is very substantial. In 100,000-word novels, it’s more debatable.
We’re not lawyers and don’t offer legal advice. But it’s unlikely that an editor is going to come after said poet with a lawsuit because of one duplicate line, depending on the circumstances. If the duplication is accidental and innocent, there are few editors (and readers) out there who will get angry enough to bring a lawsuit.
That said, it might be embarrassing to get caught recycling the same line in two works. Not exactly good for a writer’s reputation. And there’s no guarantee that you won’t be sued or blacklisted.
What You Can Do To Protect Yourself
If you know that a line in your story appeared in a previous work, there’s one way to get your worries off your chest. Once you’re in talks with an editor, let him/her know about the line’s previous incarnation. The editor might help you uncover a new line, a better and original line. That’s what good editors are for.
Review your publication contract from your prior publication to see if there’s anything in it that would hinder your publishing a new work with a similar line in it. And, of course, review contracts for subsequent works with the line as well, to be sure you’re not violating your agreement.
Law is tricky, so seek the help of a lawyer if you’re even a little unclear on your contract’s terminology. You can always share some of the language in your prior contract with your current editor as you puzzle it out together. Or talk with the original editor too.
If you don’t have a contract, your publication agreement is still subject to the law. Learn more: No Written Contract? What You Should Know Before You Agree To Publication.
The Hidden Dangers Of Duplicating Phrases
In general, taking your writing to the next level means constantly innovating and pushing yourself into new territory. It’s about finding new ways to succeed—not resting on your laurels.
If you find you’re duplicating lines with some frequency, it may be time to take stock of your creative process. You’re in danger of stalling out, spinning your wheels, not growing.
We recommend that writers never intentionally duplicate a line in works they hope to get published. It makes things easier in the personal ethics department. And it will make you a better writer as your career goes on.
When I discover I’ve used a line before, I change it. I also rewrite if I find more than four or five instances of a word or phrase (my manuscripts typically run to 95,000 words). Too much repetition drains the energy out your writing.
The only exception is a character’s ‘signiture phrase’, and I try to keep that to a minimum.
What if you reuse lines intentionally because you’re trying to perpetuate certain themes through several different works~?
Hi Kii, great question! Under these circumstances, it’s perfectly fine to reuse words or phrases. Since you have an underlying theme and you’re using the repetition to purposely link pieces together, there shouldn’t be a problem.
That’s the difference between maintaining a theme and being careless!
I would suspect the tendency to repeat yourself would become a bigger issue if you switched to a different publisher and/or agency once you were published. In that case you’d want to be very sure of what rights you retained over your own works. Your ‘voice’ or style should remain your own but proceed with caution.
This is interesting. I thought the copyright resided with the author, who’s not likely to sue himself, right?
True, Gabi, but remember that some journals take rights to the story up until its publication. If a journal sees too many of the same lines in another journal, they might be wary moving forward with the work! Many journals only want first publication rights, and if they think a writer is tricking them into publishing similar poems, they might not take it too well.
Thanks for this post! All of that legal mumbo jumbo can be a real bummer for writers because writers just want their stuff published. They don’t want to have to deal with legal issues and such. However, any intelligent person will tell you that not wanting to deal with legal matters is not enough. We must deal with them. That is why it is good to educate yourself about what is legal and what is not legal when it comes to plagiarizing and other matters of that sort. Your article summed a lot of that up in a very direct manner. It would be nice to be able to review this post every once in a while to make sure I am keeping my writing and publishing legal.
If repetition is not in an organically- linked unit (book, blog) why would it be offensive? Surely in speech we speak in a particular way and repeat phrases. Writing will be distressed if we’re to strictly sanitize all pieces no matter how unrelated of repeated phrases, metaphors and expressions.
Mike, you’re absolutely right. And no editor would consider a common phrase or part of speech plagiarism. It’s whole lines like the ones we gave as examples, like “and the white birds flew like tickertape down the canyon,” which are not at all common or easy to repeat, that are the concern in this article. Most editors want to publish fresh, original work, so anything that makes your writing appear “unoriginal,” either in part or in whole, might need a second look before you submit it. You need not be afraid to use “white birds” or “the canyon” again, but you probably shouldn’t compare white birds in a canyon to tickertape in every other poem, that’s all.