Copying Myself Could Be Plagiarism – the Weirdness of Ghostwriting

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Sometimes two different books can look a little too similar.
Sometimes two different books can look a little too similar.

Working as a ghostwriter leads to some odd situations. One that struck me recently is that I could commit an act of plagiarism just by using my own words.

Not Owning My Work

As a ghostwriter, I don’t own the copyright on what I produce. There are hundreds of thousands of words out there that I crafted but that have someone else’s name on them, whether it’s the name of a real person or a made up name. Not only am I not associated with those words – I have no legal claim on them.

Legally speaking, I’m effectively not the author of those words. Someone else owns them.

Riding the Roundabouts

Recently, I’ve started to return to territory I’ve covered in previous works. For example, I’ve been writing about the Tudors. So when I did that, I opened up previous writing assignments I’d done on them. If nothing else, it would save me from replicating my research – why reinvent the intellectual wheel? I’ll even copy and paste something I’ve written before into the working document, so I can keep track of what elements I still want to include. But I have to be really careful that those same phrases and patterns of words don’t appear again. Because if they do, I’ll be plagiarising work that belongs to my client, which would be illegal and bad for my career.

Favourite Phrases

It’s weird not to be able to copy myself. Weirder still to think that, sooner or later, I’ll probably do it by accident. If I come up with a phrase I really like and use it a ghostwriting project, what are the odds that it won’t occur to me again later? And if I forget that I used it before, then a tiny bit of repetition slips into the mix, and I can come close once again to plagiarising myself.

None of this is meant as a complaint. I have a great job, and when I ghostwrite I accept the consequences of that – I get my money, I lose my words. But it’s very strange to think that, however unlikely it is, I really could break the law just by writing in my own voice over and over again.

7 thoughts on “Copying Myself Could Be Plagiarism – the Weirdness of Ghostwriting”

  1. Y’know what you should do? You should use that as inspiration for a story. One about disguises and hidden identities.

  2. Something similar appears with my Ars Magica work, except I do get my name on it. I wrote and was paid but all the copyright belongs to Atlas Games. Indeed everything I write at my “real” work, and have had published there over the past thirty + years, is my employer’s copyright. The general situation is very common, but I can see that, for what you’re doing, the issues are stranger. No-one could really expect you to remember every phrase you have ever written, surely!

    1. I’m sure I can get away with quite a lot of repetition in practice – after all, there are only so many ways to combine words. I suspect that sort of thing is more likely to lead to my ghost writing identity being spotted, and even that’s currently very unlikely. Still, it’s an odd position to be in.

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