So Dear Author reported that the Plagiarism panel at RWA Nationals was poorly attended.
It's disappointing, but from what folks have said, both in the post and in comments, I'm not really shocked. I think there are a few things going on here.
First, I agree with those who said that many people who are outraged about plagiarism likely didn't go because it sounded like a "This is what Plagiarism Is" sort of panel, and yeah, we know that already.
Theft of Creative Property
Speakers: Dr. John Barrie, Jane Little, and Nora Roberts
Join Dr. John Barrie, the creator of the architecture and technology behind iThenticate and Turnitin, and best-selling author Nora Roberts and attorney and dearauthor.com blogger Jane Little for a Q&A session on plagiarism. Special moderator: Sarah from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.
I agree with Gina that this doesn't sound like a call to arms. It doesn't even sound like a call to come and have your opinion counted. Folks later in the comment thread are correct that we need to show that the community in general strongly condemns plagiarism, but the panel description didn't make it sound like an event where people were being encouraged to come and show the flag.
This was a fairly last-minute addition to the conference, so it's great that there was anything and not surprising that neither the write-up nor the basic panel concept were terribly creative or exciting. I'm sure folks will come up with something next year that'll attract more interest. Seressia had some good ideas for panel names and concepts.
Second, however much need there is for education about just what plagiarism is and is not (and I do think there's a pretty huge need), I don't think the people who most need that education are the ones likely to show up at a panel on the subject. In the various plagiarism incidents of the past year, there were plenty of people insisting that the writers involved had not committed plagiarism and had not done anything wrong, and a low but significant percentage of those claimed to be writers, as I recall. These people are already sure that they know what's what, though, and are positive that all the fuss is just a bunch of jealous people being mean. They're not the ones who are going to go to a panel to learn about plagiarism. This education is necessary, but it needs to be all-pervasive through the industry, to the point where the people who don't want to deal with it can't avoid it -- both to educate the people who are mistaken about what plagiarism is, and to smack the people who don't think it's a big deal upside the head with the knowledge that it is serious and that there'll be considerable social censure applied to people who commit it as well as to people who support them.
Because third, I think that's the biggest problem right now, that there's too much of the wrong kind of social support for demonstrated plagiarists. There are too many people, both writers and readers, who don't think it's a big deal, and who therefore see what social censure there has been so far as a bad thing, as people being "mean" or "cruel" or "jealous" or "trolling" or whatever. If copying someone else's words isn't wrong, then smacking people who copy is a nasty thing to do and the writer gets defensive and all her fans or personal friends jump up to defend her with much righteous indignation.
I saw too many people, in the incidents with both Ms. Edwards and Ms. Logan, jump up to defend them out of the belief that supporting a person means supporting every action they take. They think that being a true fan means being on your favorite writer's side no matter what. They think that being a true friend means assuring that friend that of course they didn't do anything wrong, no matter what it was they actually did. The idea that supporting a person means kindly but firmly helping them admit when they've made a mistake and take whatever action is needed to fix the mistake (even if an apology is the only option) is a null concept to these folks, and there are a lot of them.
Sometimes the pressure against plagiarism and plagiarists is enough to overcome the misguided social support around the plagiarist -- as in the case of Ms. Logan, whose book was withdrawn from publication and who I'm pretty sure will never do that again -- and sometimes it isn't -- as in the case of Ms. Edwards, who's lost one publisher but has two more briskly selling her plagiarized work.
There's still social pressure pushing in the wrong direction, in support of the plagiarists. (Poor things, they've been through so much!) Together with ignorance of just what plagiarism is, however much true ignorance there might be, it gives us the situation we have right now. Too many people, including some writers, don't think there's anything wrong with copying someone else's lines. Way too many readers don't even know what's going on, and (judging by responses from readers who did know) wouldn't care if they did. And too many publishers (two out of three of Ms. Edwards's publishers) don't care because hey, since the readers don't care, the publishers are still making money selling those plagiarized books.
Backing up a step, too many schools have lax attitudes toward plagiarism, or only pay lip-service to what anti-plagiarism rules they do have, as in the case of Christine Pelton and Piper High School. Kids are growing up thinking that plagiarism is fine if you don't get caught, and that even if you do get caught, most of the time nothing will happen. These kids are the adults who eventually get caught up in plagiarism cases in the publishing world, either as writers who do it and then get indignant when they're caught, or as writers who defend other writers who get caught at it, or as readers who don't think it's a big deal and keep buying the books they like no matter who actually wrote the words in between the covers, or as publishers who'll keep publishing the works of a plagiarist so long as they sell. This is a systemic problem, and a series of educational "This Is Plagiarism" panels at RWA National, no matter how well conceived or well meant, isn't going to fix it.
It's a good start, though.
Rather than simple instructional panels to discuss definitions, maybe next year's panel (or panels?) could talk about what to do if you've been plagiarized. Can your agent help you? Your publisher? (They darned well should, but we know that at this point they likely won't -- what can we do to help nudge them along?)
What legal steps can be taken, and what will they cost? Could RWA, or some other writer's group, start a legal offense fund, to help writers who've been victimized take their cases to court? Sure, you can sue for expenses, but if someone can't afford to press a civil case in the first place, it'd be nice if there were a fund to help them out; they could sue for expenses and then repay the fund when they win and get their damages-plus-expenses money. Or maybe a list of lawyers willing to take on plagiarism cases, with expectation of payment out of an expense award, could be assembled?
How many of the writing groups have actual statements in their bylaws saying that any member shown to be a plagiarist will be expelled, permanently, period? Any? Maybe some should, whether at the national or local level. It might be something to talk about, at least, in a panel or other gathering.
And if news of even some of these discussions spread, and a few of these or similar actions were taken, that would show the plagiarists and their defenders that their peers in the industry are serious about this, that it is a big deal and that it won't be tolerated. Because the bottom line, in my opinion, is that we have to make plagiarism a socially as well as professionally poisonous act. So long as some large percentage of writers and readers think that plagiarism is no big deal, or just a minor infraction, or that plagiarism means taking someone else's entire book, verbatim, and publishing it with your name on it (and that absolutely nothing less than that qualifies), people will still do it. And so long as some large percentage of writers and readers are willing to "support" their favorite writers or their writer friends who've been shown to have committed plagiarism, people will still do it.
So long as a clear demonstration of plagiarism still has the power to tear apart an industry, a genre community, a social group -- so long as there's still enough support for plagiarism and the people who do it to even make an argument of it -- writers who'd rather take the way of ignorance or laziness won't have any incentive not to.
That attitude of support for plagiarists, from even a few other writers and from any number of readers and from their publishers, makes it too attractive a gamble to take; even if you lose, chances are you'll still have people patting you on the back and telling you that you're wonderful, and you'll still have a publisher (or two) willing to sell your books.
The social support for plagiarists is what has to be eliminated, and doing so will take a prolonged and vigorous attack from many directions. Panels, yes, on a variety of related topics. Discussions of what to do and how to appropriately punish plagiarists, at all levels. Plans for taking legal action in cases like that of Nora Roberts and Janet Dailey, where there's very clear financial harm, demonstrable to a court, and where the victim isn't a Nora Roberts and doesn't have the resources to take that legal action alone. Pressure on publishers to take action. (Which will happen automatically if some large percentage of readers become aware that this is a problem and stops buying books by plagiarists, but I'd hope we wouldn't have to wait that long for the publishers to do what's ethical.) Articles and editorials, fliers and pamphlets, posters and buttons, blog widgets and colorbars, and above all discussion and planning and agreement by a clear majority of the industry that this is not at all acceptable, ever, period.
Only social pressure will do the job thoroughly, and turning around a social impulse is never easy. There's no one solution. But if enough people try enough different things, the mass of pressure and influence will eventually come together and make plagiarism as socially and professionally poisonous as it should be.