Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Plagiarism Again -- The Bigger Picture

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.



Bernita said...

Oh, well put, Angie.
I also expect to see a few "feet-of-clay" entrepreneurs cruising google in investigative mode.
I do hope, if those fire up their search engines, they have a firm understanding of what constitutes plagiarism, and don't try to claim malfeasance on popular or iconic authors on insufficient grounds.

Angie said...

Bernita -- thank you. And I wouldn't be surprised either; I'm sure there are people hunting right now.

And I agree, absolutely, re: hoping they have a firm understanding of just what plagiarism actually is. [crossed fingers] While I'd love to see every actual plagiarist exposed, it's a horrible thing to accuse someone who's innocent of.


Charles Gramlich said...

I deal with plagiarism as a teacher and have to stress, stress, stress it to students, who often claim at least not to get it.

I suspect that most writers have probably unconsciously borrowed a phrase or piece of sentence from something they've read long ago. I wouldn't be surprised at that and would not castigate the person who did it. However, when you have three or four specific sentences that are clearly borrowed, this has to be deliberate and is certainly lazy, if not criminal.

I'm much more confused about the issue that is raised on the plagiarism of ideas and plots. If someone "retells" Romeo and Juliet with different characters and set in the modern day, is that plagiarism? I don't really think so, although I believe the author should acknowledge their debt to old Will. If someone "retells" the Superman story with new characters and situations, is that plagiarsm? Well, they'd be sued most likely, but is that any different from retelling Shakespeare?

If one writer has a clue hidden in a painting, and another writer uses that plot device in his story, is that plagiarism? Personally, I don't think I'd call it plagiarism.

Angie said...

Charles -- I agree that if a phrase or two float up out of the back of someone's mind and they use them unknowingly, and when it's pointed out the response is something along the lines of, "OMG I read that when I was sixteen! Ack! I'm so sorry!" I wouldn't slam the writer either. It's still plagiarism, but of the sort that could happen to anyone, and the immediate expression of shock and remorse go a long way, in my view, toward convincing me to let the writer off easily. Which doesn't change the material issues -- apologizing to the original author if they're still alive, reworking an academic paper if it hasn't been turned in yet (or calmly accepting the downgrade if it has, as opposed to the clear failure I'd give anyone who did it deliberately), working something out with the publisher along the lines of either pulling the book or some sort of financial restitution to the writer or their estate, etc. But the attitude of the person who's called out on plagiarism makes a huge difference, at least to me.

[I'd fail anyone who bought a paper off the internet, though, even with Oscar-caliber acting during the Expression of Remorse scene. :P ]

I don't see the reuse of plots as plagiarism. R&J's been done over and over, as I'm sure you know, and I've never heard anyone call West Side Story, for example, plagiarism.

You're right, though, that this is a fuzzy area. I don't recall seeing a specific credit to Shakespeare when I watched WSS, but then, R&J is so well known that it really wasn't necessary, and it's pretty clear that no deception was intended even without the specific written acknowledgement of debt.

But there are only so many basic plots, which is a cliche because it's true. How many depends on whom you listen to, but the fact is that there are only so many basic storylines, at the plot-skeleton level. As you start adding meat to the bones, at what point does a plotline become the proprietary property of the original writer? I wouldn't want to have to answer that, and I don't think we really have to. A good plot is necessary but isn't what makes a story good. That's all about the writing, how the writer puts the words together at the line level.

If someone wants to use one of my plots, they're welcome to it. If they can write a better story by following it than I could, then they're probably a better writer and it's not "my" plot that made them one. And if they're not a better writer than I am, then "stealing" the plot isn't going to make them one and I doubt they'll get many kudos for that story. If someone starts swiping my lines and paragraphs, that's when I'll get interested.

Same with plot devices, BTW. Sure, something could be particularly clever (although I've seen the clue in the painting thing more than once, I'm pretty sure) but again, if the writing around that plot device isn't up to snuff, having this cool gimmick they lifted from someone isn't going to help. It's more likely that people will snicker at them for being lame and derivative.

Oh, and there was a lawsuit over Superman, although not the actual origin story. :) The creators of Captain Marvel (Shazam), which was originally owned by some other comic company, the name of which escapes me right now, were sued on the basis that their character was too close to Superman. And from what I've heard, it was a deliberate knock-off. The courts decided it wasn't close enough to violate DC's rights, though, so Captain Marvel is still among us, and DC eventually bought it to publish themselves.


AnaJana said...

So well said.

It's the pain I feel for both the person who doesn't (or, I suppose, can't/won't) understand that lifting is plagiarism, that undoes me. Because I can /see/ the effort they've gone to, which energy, if put to original writing, could go so far... but when put to lifting- no matter how cleverly crafted it might be, the way their original work is worked around it, is still lifting someone else's work- it's just wasted energy.

My grandson, who is 8, knows that "you just have to do a substantial rewrite when you can use references; you can't just be copying them unless you (makes *quote* geture)"- this from a kid being raised around the Hollywood film culture, where the recycling of nearly /everything/ is the word of the day.

Angie said...

Dane -- yes, that's what's really frustrating. [nod] We're not usually talking about talentless goofs who can't write and decided to steal an entire story. That'd be stupid enough, but when I see someone who clearly can write and do it well, who's still lifting chunks of text from other people's work, I just have to shake my head. Why would anyone do that? [sigh]

It sounds like you have a pretty cool grandson, though. :) Does he write stories?


Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Good post. I have to say that it really bewilders me to hear of authors lifting such large portions of test from other sources. Like Charles said, I understand a line that may stick with you and you just don't remember someone else wrote it. And in fact, I would make a case that you could possibly have never read a book and come up with a very similar line simply because with the amount of written word out there. One similar sentence can statistically happen. However, 3 or 4 in a row? Statistically impossible. And not understanding what plagiarism is? Honestly I have a hard time believing that.

But I am really hoping people learn from this and stop doing it!!!

Angie said...

Ello -- exactly. [nod] I could believe a shred here or there as accidental, for one reason or another, but not running on for paragraphs. :/ It's just ridiculous and people need to quit. Unfortunately, I have a feeling there's a whole lot out there to be found; even if no one ever plagiarized another thing from this point on, there'll still be more discovered for quite a qhile yet -- I'd bet cookies on it. [sigh]


writtenwyrdd said...

Two things about this bother me: How anyone could not know that plagiarism is taking someone else's prose, period, copyright not the issue; and how 'the masses' can make it a personal issue when someone finds this stuff and presents it. It looks remarkably like the parenting trend I unfondly call, "Not my child, no way," where parents enable bad behavior because their child must never be wrong. Bleh.

Very good post angie, Thanks.

Angie said...

WW -- about the first, no clue. How anyone can get through high school, let alone colleg, without knowing that passing someone else's words off as your own is plagiarism is beyond me. But I'm choosing to believe the various denials and assertions of innocence are honest, even if they're not an excuse, as opposed to believing that all these people from Ms. Edwards back did it knowingly and coldly and then lied through their teeth once they were caught. I'd rather believe there are a bunch of ignoramuses in the world than a bunch of lying thieves, IOW. :/

About the second, it's a matter of sticking up for something or someone you like very much. And yes, you're right -- that's a great comparison. I've known parents like that too, and they're incredibly annoying. The "America, love it or leave it" crowd is the same way; they'd rather convince themselves that absolutely anything the government does is de factor "right" than admit that there are problems which need to be fixed.

Same with the people supporting the plagiarists. They have a certain amount of their own egos invested in a person, whether as a fan or a personal friend or whatever, so they'll argue in the teeth of a mountain of evidence that their idol did nothing wrong and everyone's lying or jealous or just being mean or just wants attention or whatever excuse they can come up with, because it'd be too big a chunk out of them to admit that this person they've liked and admired and supported did an awful thing. :(

And that's not even considering all the people who don't care a hoot for Ms. Edwards but are attacking the Smart Bitch women just because they have some sort of grudge against them. For them, it's not about plagiarism; it's just an opportunity to get in a few licks.