[Note that I'm dealing with generalities here. There's a link at the bottom to my LiveJournal where I talk about specifics, if you're interested in what brought this on.]
There's a case up in the air right now (meaning that the person claiming injured party status says she's going to sue but I don't know if she has yet) which has made me think about where the line is drawn when it comes to "borrowing" from other writers. Where does browsing and scrounging and scavenging and reworking turn into really lame and uncool copying?
To the best of my knowledge, plagiarism only covers actual words-in-a-row. That is, if I write:
"Bob and Tommy went to the pond to go fishing. They spent the afternoon and caught three trout, but Tommy got sunburned. They hitched a ride home from an old man in a blue Ford, and Tommy had a horrible night because he was burning up."
and someone else reads that, then writes:
"Boo and Timmy went to the woods to go hunting. They spent the day and caught three rabbits, but Timmy was sunburned. They hitchhiked home with an old guy in a blue Honda, and Timmy had an awful night because his sunburn was really burning him."
anyone who read my bit and then read the second bit would be able to tell that the second was copied, although not exactly. The second paragraph isn't actually plagiarized, but if you read the first one and then the second one, you might raise an eyebrow.
What if you read two novels like that?
What if you read two novels that were almost like that, with some lines and paragraphs about that close, and others not?
It's clear to me that the second novel isn't plagiarized, not exactly. Not legally, in a way that a court would accept. (So far as I understand this to work, with the usual IANAL disclaimer.) It's been rephrased, rewritten in places, with all the names and enough key words changed that it's not copying exact words-in-a-row, or at least not enough words, not enough important words, for a crime to have been committed, although someone made a great use of their thesaurus. It's derivative as hell and incredibly uncool because of it, even if it's not plagiarism.
Because seriously, writing a novel that's pretty clearly a MadLib of someone else's story is really lame, no matter what a court of law would say. And publishing it and making money off of it just adds injury to insult.
I think most of us who write have lifted ideas from other writers' stories. Aside from the old (and true) adage that there aren't any new plots, we'll see someone else's character do X and wonder what would've happened if they'd done Q instead. Or we'll see a plot twist or a gimmick or a point of characterization or worldbuilding or whatever, and think, "What if I did this with it...?" Writing a story is rather like making a patchwork quilt, and the scraps of fabric we sew together to make this quilt come from all over our life experience, which includes books we read, movies we see, music we hear, paintings we look at, and everything else. The fact that Stoker wrote about vampires doesn't mean another writer can't do it too. And Anita Blake is just another in a long line of vampire hunters (from Stoker's Van Helsing on), blended with some other characteristics to make her stand out, and many of those characteristics probably came from Hamilton's own experiences of others' creative works.
This sort of thing isn't a problem. It's where ideas come from, and that's fine.
But where do we draw the line? How much can we scavenge before it becomes uncool?
Is it a matter of blending it with enough other scavenged pieces? Like the old saying from uni, "Copying one source is plagiarism, copying many sources is research" -- how many sources do we have to copy before we move from plagiarism to research? And is there a grey area in the middle. If one source is plagiarism, and, say, fifty is research, what's twenty? Ten? Five? Two?
Where do we draw the lines between "just fine" and "kind of iffy" and "uncool" and "lame!" and actual "plagiarism?"
And what can/should be done about those grey areas of "almost", from "almost fine" to "almost plagiarism?" Is the "kind of iffy" level all right, where the source of this or that bit or gimmick is pretty clear, where you can see the scratches on that one chunk where the serial number was filed off but most of the story and world and background are properly scavenged and blended? I've actually read stories like this, where I've recognized a source I was pretty sure the writer drew from, and you probably have too. Is this "almost right," and if so, how close is the "almost?" And what about the other end of the "almost" spectrum, where we have a MadLib novel which is about as close as I can think of to plagiarism without actually being plagiarism. If this is "almost wrong," how close is it to that end of "almost?"
I'd never thought about it before, but there really isn't a single clear line between original writing and plagiarism. And that's disturbing, because so long as there's not, there'll be people who'll push into that grey area, trying to see how far they can get before someone notices and calls them on it. It looks like that's what's happening now, and unless it turns out that this whole thing is a huge hoax on the complaining writer's part, I really hope something happens to the second writer. If she did do this, then having her rep smeared and being unable to sell any other books would be a good start, even if she can't actually be sued.
[I'm trying to keep this theoretical. If you want to see the specifics and haven't already heard about the situation, check out this post in my LJ, along with the links from it, or just Google "plagiarism Massa Amanda" and the first few items will be relevant.]