For anyone who's been in bed the last week, the Smart Bitches blog has discovered that well-known romance writer Cassie Edwards has been plagiarizing text from her source material for a number of years. Last I heard, the number of her books which include material lifted without credit from other people's writing was up to about a dozen, and the sources stolen from included not only non-fiction sources (which were what it was all about at the beginning) but also La Farge's novel Laughing Boy (Pulitzer Prize winner in 1930) and Longfellow's "Hiawatha." There are several megs of commentary all over the blogosphere if you're interested.
What I'm really concerned with, though, is the bigger picture.
Aside from this specific case, and the sheer outrage that a well-known and extremely experienced novelist thinks she's done nothing wrong by lifting lines out of other people's work and selling them as her own, a few other things have been bothering me about this whole mess, and others like it.
First, the sheer bulk of people who honestly don't know what plagiarism is. Ms. Edwards denies she has plagiarized anything, despite the many displays of side-by-side text showing she clearly did, and she's not the first plagiarist to make such denials in recent memory. And there are many people who've defended plagiarists and/or attacked the people who've pointed out the plagiarism, insisting that no wrong has been done. There've been discussions and explanations and arguments over just what plagiarism is and isn't, and why using passages from a source which is out of copyright without giving credit still is plagiarism. Why don't people know this? Why don't writers know this? How can people follow rules they don't understand or can't define?
Second, and related to the first, I'm wondering how many more plagiarists there are out there. We've had a nice handful pop up lately and I'm starting to suspect, sadly, that we haven't caught all of them. Not even close. I suppose this might just be a statistical glitch, over the last six months or so, but it's more likely a trend.
Thinking about it, it even makes sense. Ten years ago, it was a lot harder to catch plagiarism. Someone who recognized the source text had to read a book or story and actually think, "Wait, I recognize that!" They had to have access to the source, and be willing to go to the trouble of finding the book (magazine, whatever) and finding the actual lines in the book, and then figuring out what to do about it.
Nowadays, it's just a matter of firing up Google. Checking for plagiarism is incredibly easy, and it's getting easier as more text sources make it onto the web. And once the fact of plagiarism has been established, telling people about it is much easier than it was even ten years ago, much less in the pre-internet days. Before, it'd have to be a pretty slow news day for this sort of plagiarism to go before the public, unless you were accusing someone as famous as Helen Keller. (Who did commit unconscious plagiarism, by the way, of a few passages from a fairy story which had been read to her as a child.) But now, the net is bulging with bloggers eager for material, and no matter what area of publishing your story is focused on, there are dozens if not hundreds of special-interest bloggers who'd love to post about it.
We're still not used to seeing news of plagiarism -- the fact that Ms. Edwards's publisher initially tried to brush the incident off shows what likely happened in most cases in the past -- but I think we're going to get much more used to it in the future.
I'd like to think that most cases will be like this one appears to be, where the writer who lifted the lines and used them without credit seems to be honestly ignorant of what this "plagiarism" thing is all about, and didn't know they were doing anything wrong. It doesn't say much for their intelligence, I'll grant, but I'd rather think that people are just that ignorant than believe that there are a bunch of writers out there who've been coldly stealing from their fellow authors, living or dead, and profiting off of it, just because they didn't think they'd get caught.
But when I see so many writers (initially at least) jumping up to defend plagiarists, I really have to wonder about their writing habits. Added to the fact that so many people who commit these quiet offences don't get caught, I have to think there are a lot of writers out there who do this. I'm just hoping they're doing it out of ignorance, as opposed to sheer selfishness or malice.