Ethics and Legal Concerns – Both Matter


“Ignorance of the law excuses no man.” -John Selden [1584-1654]

Plagiarism, copyright infringement, and defamation of character, which includes libel and slander, have no place in a book¾or anywhere else for that matter. That isn’t a moral judgment; it’s just plain common sense. We are judged by what we say and what we do. And it may not matter whether we intentionally and knowingly violated a person’s rights, stole his words, or damaged her reputation. We can lose our credibility, at the least. And at the worst, we can be sued.

The written word has great power. Once we speak we can’t suck the words back into our mouths. Once we have put something in writing and sent it out into the world, we can’t hit the delete button and get rid of it. Since there’s no changing the past, we must make our corrections in the present, or better yet, learn how to avoid making the mistakes in the first place.

An ethic is a principle of right or good behavior; a system of moral principles or values. Being ethical means doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do and not just because you’re afraid of getting caught if you don’t. Writers seem to have a greater challenge than most because it is sometimes difficult to determine the line between research and plagiarism; between opinion and fact; and, thus, between right and wrong. Very often writers are unaware that they have violated a person’s rights or caused consternation or harm. The laws are so complex that it isn’t always easy to know when we have broken them. But we can become alert to some of the broad rules, including what and where the pitfalls might lie.

When you injure a person by saying untrue things about him, you have “defamed” him. Libel is defamation by written or printed words, pictures, or in any form other than by spoken words and gestures; slander is defamation by oral utterance other than by writing, pictures, etc., according to Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. The difference between the two terms is somewhat muddy but historically it depends on how wide an audience the defamer reached.

Some of the elements that are considered in defamation lawsuits are as follows:

  • Accuracy. If it is a false statement and it does harm to a person, company, product, it is probably libelous. If it is true, it’s not generally considered defamatory.
  • Opinion. If it is stated as an opinion, not a fact, it is protected under the First Amendment.
  • Publication. If the false, injurious statement was shared with a third party, it is considered “published” and therefore libelous.
  • Injury. If the lie caused injury to a person’s reputation, personal or professional standing, or caused anguish, it is likely libelous.

We also need to know how much we can quote without getting permission, how many words we can use of someone else’s writing before it becomes plagiarism, and a whole minefield of other challenges when we write. When in doubt, we must either take the questionable parts out or find out, in each case, what we can do legally. I believe most writers are ethical, but it’s more than a matter of ethics. What we write has the potential not only to hurt others but to harm ourselves. Our words can come back to haunt us.

Copyright 2002 Mary Embree. Mary Embree, SPAWN’s Founder, is a writer, editor, and publishing consultant. Mary can be reached at


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