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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Ethics of ghostwriting...Some meandering thoughts...

I came across this comment at John Dilbeck and Friends, in the context of a promotion including some Private Label Rights articles, about which the author had some reservations:

"I don't think it is right to put your name on articles you did not write, whether they are bought from PLR collections, reworked from the public domain, or written by a paid ghostwriter. I think it can damage your credibility and reputation and I think less of people - even well-known "gurus" - who represent themselves as the authors of articles, reports, and books they did not write."

I thought this was interesting grist for the Content Done Better Blog mill. I think (and I may be extrapolating a bit) that the comment raises two distinct concerns. The first has to do with whether or not the practice is ethically appropriate (is it "right?"). The second involves whether or not the use ghostwritten materials is always pragmatic.

I am going deal with the second issue first... The risk of presenting ghostwritten material as your own can be carefully managed, if not eliminated, by (a) choosing the correct author and (b) reviewing the material. Neither of those are necessary slam-dunk easy, but they are possible and they do work to protect one from pragmatic problems associated with the use of ghostwritten content.

Now, onto the meatier questions of the ethics of ghostwriting. I am definitely not the first person to address this matter and I doubt my opinion is earth-shattering, but I begin with the basic assumption that what we create is ours to do with what we would like (within the confines of the law, of course). I create an article. That article is mine. I can print it out and hang it on the refrigerator. I can use it as a blog entry. I can get it published in the New Yorker. I can sell it to you.

If I sell it to you, I can sell you the use of the article (exclusively or non-exclusively). I can place conditions on that sale. We can contract for whatever we'd like. Along with the freedom to dispose of my property is my right to sell it without any subsequent claim of authorship. You can buy it and own it outright. You can call it yours and put your name right on the top of it, if you'd like. Did you write it? No. But you purchased its authorship. I relinquished that in consideration of some sort of payment.

That is, from an economic and contractual standpoint, how I feel about it. But I am not sure that really gets to the meat of whether or not it is right. That's a bit more complicated.

Let's see what some other people think:

When asked "what are the ethics of ghostwriting?" Sacario, who pens lyrics for other hip-hop artists said, "There are not real ethics. You can do whatever your want to do. My style is different. When I sit down, I really write for that artist. Everyone alsways asks me to tell them who I write for, but I can't do that. That's my ethics."

So, that's one end of the spectrum. The often uncredited rap lyricist doesn't seem to see an ethical problem. Let's check out what someone we might think of as his polar opposite has to say. Let's go from the young African-American hip-hop writer to an old white University of Chicago Law School Professor, Richard Posner.

Posner, while discussing so-called managed books, states, "So the question...is whether failure to disclose that most of the actual writing was done by persons other than the nominal author misleads reader to their detriment. That depends mainly on the conventions, and hence expectations, of a particular field. A professional historian who 'authored' a managed book without disclosure of that fact would be committing a fraud because his fellow historians would think he'd written it himself. At the opposite extreme, few lawyers care whether a judicial opinion is written by a law clerk or by the judge, provided they think it's the judge's decision (the bottom line, the outcome), which it almost always is."

Posner goes on to discuss how contexts and expectations are often informed by culture, as well as by subject matter.

I think that if you put Sacario and Posner together, you have a very interesting mix. The ghostwriter takes the job and does what the client wants. The client is responsible for the use of the material and should make his or her decision based on the expectations and conventions of his or her field.

That might be passing the buck, but I think it makes sense. We, as ghostwriters, should not be placed in a situation where we must babysit our clients and their choices.

That wraps it pretty tidily, huh? As a writer I can just take the orders and produce the content and anything beyond that is not my problem.

Unfortunately, things tend to be a bit more complex. I have a personal sense of right and wrong. There are some topics I will not write about. No matter how much you pay me, I won't write sales copy for hate groups, for instance. Likewise, I would probably be reluctant to take a job in which I was writing something if I knew (or had a reasonable suspicion) that would be used improperly.

I think this is why most freelance writers would never think of writing term papers for college kids--they have a solid notion that the work is going to be used to perpetrate academic fraud. Of course, that is an egregious example, but the same principle does apply. I would probably pass on some gigs if I felt there was a strong likelihood that my work was being commissioned for an inappropriate purpose.

The alternative to doing a little self-policing is to become a gun manufacturer. You know, you can't blame us for gun crimes--we just make 'em, someone else shoots 'em. It's a true argument, in a sense, but its truth is only whole if it exists in an uninformed context.

So, getting back to Dilbeck (who probably wasn't that interested in all of this when the words "I don't think it's right" hit that blog)...

It is my belief that in most situations ghostwriting (as it is applied to writing web content) is perfectly appropriate and that buyers/clients should and can comfortably put their name right under the title without fear that they are engaging in wrongdoing. Again, that assumes a quality author choice and a review of the materials. However, if that individual is passing off that work as his or her own within a particular discipline or area where complete originality is expected, they should probably rethink their strategy.