This blog post is part of The #GreatDebate series on content ownership. Learn more about the debate here.
For professional writers, there are certain career milestones you just don’t forget. Among these is having your work published in a well-known, respected publication for the first time. Before the world’s insatiable hunger for 24/7 content, few writers achieved this feat. And even now, it takes many writers years to make it happen. Me? It took fewer than three months.
Now before you write me off as arrogant, let me say my boasting comes with a hefty price. The articles I wrote (which appeared on The Huffington Post and Mashable, among others) didn’t have my name on them. They didn’t carry generic “contributor” or “staff” bylines, either. No, they were published under someone else’s name. I was a ghostwriter.
As the demand for informative, educational and entertaining content increases in inbound marketing, so, too, do the ghostwriters. Who are we? Some are the young, aspiring type with killer writing chops and little professional work experience. Others are seasoned writers who, thanks to the downturn in both the publishing and journalism industries, are taking whatever gigs they can get to keep writing and make ends meet.
Now, ghostwriting has always had its fair share of controversy. There will always be some who will raise ethical questions regarding plagiarism, misrepresentation, transparency, yada yada yada. But now a new question regarding ghostwriting has popped up in the inbound marketing scene: When it comes to ghostwriting, who should own your content?
Most in the inbound marketing industry agree employers have every right to the content ghostwriters create—after all, they paid for it. However, writers (especially young ones like me) depend on their samples to build their personal brands and land jobs. So, is it time for the status quo to change? Let’s examine further.
Who Owns the Content Ghostwriters Create? Who Should?
Legally, ghostwriters do not own the content they create. (Quick aside: It’s actually not uncommon for law firms to utilize ghostwriters for various purposes. Funny, no?) When you sign on as a ghostwriter, you go in with the understanding that you will not be getting credit for your work.
Furthermore, you cannot claim the content as your own after it’s published, nor can you try to re-purpose it elsewhere if it’s trashed. Some employers will go so far as to have ghostwriters sign a contract to that effect.
But is that right? Is it fair? It comes down to what the writer wants to accomplish. There are many ghostwriters who truly appreciate the anonymity of the practice. Imagine a world where you don’t have to answer to public criticism of your content! Plus, depending on whom you’re working for, ghostwriting can be lucrative. As one ghostwriter anonymously said, “I don’t care if my name is on the jacket—as long as it’s on the [check].” (Anonymous! Go figure!)
However, as I covered above, more and more writers are turning to ghostwriting out of necessity rather than choice. Much of this group is like me: They want to make a name for themselves in the industry. They want to build their personal brands and portfolios. And yeah, they want the praise that comes with crafting darn good prose. (Most of us writers are a smidge egotistical.)
With the latter group in mind, I ask again: Is this fair? The answer is much less black and white.
Giving Ghostwriters Their Due
It’s my opinion that all ghostwriters should not only retain some ownership of the content they create, they should be able to showcase said content publicly online if they so choose. Not only do I feel this is more fair to ghostwriters (especially those trying to beef up their portfolios and job prospects), it has benefits for the employer as well. Benefits like:
Increased Credibility: Credibility is the foundation of brand identities. In some circles, utilizing ghostwriters—and then denying you did so—can hurt your credibility. (Take the recent hubbub in the cooking industry, for example.) And while getting help from ghostwriters won’t usually hurt the typical inbound marketer’s credibility, being completely transparent about the use of ghostwriters could mean a major boost to his or her overall brand identity. (Think of it like when brands showcase employees to help humanize their social media presence.)
Less Liability: Many of us inbound marketers produce work for some really technical, specialized industries. Outside writers who have studied or worked in those industries for years can be a big help when it comes to crafting quality content, but taking their work and putting your name on it can mean some added liability. This is especially true for medical research academics. Allowing ghostwriters to retain authorship of their work takes some of the heat from you should accuracy or issues with claims ever surface.
The Next Level: Shared Content Ownership
There are some within the inbound marketing industry that recognize ghostwriters’ growing desire—and arguably, their need—to promote their content. Among these is my employer, Kuno Creative.
As we began to recognize how much of an effect Google Authorship can have in search engine rankings, we wanted to give our writers the option of linking themselves to the specific content they created. What resulted is shared content ownership.
Shared ownership is like co-custody of content: Kuno still technically owns the content, but ghostwriters get bylines and can promote it however they see fit, thereby allowing them to grow their personal brands and, honestly, receive credit where it’s due. (As an example, take this strategy guide we published earlier this year. Note the byline at the bottom of the landing page.)
In this new approach, the employer gets the high quality content it wants (not to mention major kudos from audiences lobbying brands for increased transparency) and ghostwriters can choose whether they want their names attached to their work. It’s a win-win—and it’s something we expect to catch on very soon.
Who do you think should own content created by ghostwriters?Share your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag, #greatdebate, or tweet directly in the stream below.
Lisa Gulasy is a content specialist with Kuno Creative. A journalist/marketer hybrid, Lisa manages, creates and edits blogs, eBooks, email campaigns, web copy and more and manages overall strategy and daily engagement of social media personas. Find Lisa on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+, or read more of her posts on Kuno’s Brand & Capture blog.
Originally published Dec 3, 2013 2:00:00 PM, updated October 20 2016