Monday, December 3, 2007

Drawing the Line

[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.]


Charles Gramlich said...

I actually think the single paragraph example you gave would illustrate plagiarism, although if that is all there was then there's no use doing anything about it. One might think such a short piece to be inadvertent, or maybe a deliberately similar start that spins off in a different direction. But if a whole book were written like that then, to me, it is definetely plagiarism and deserves to be identified as such.

You're right, of course, that all writers borrow, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, but ethical writers use those borrowings as jumping off places to take a story in a new direction, or at least with wholly new flesh over the skeleton.

Bernita said...

I also think your second example is clear plagiarism.

I like what Margaret Atwood said ( not about plagiarism about about writing in general) that writers are like jackdaws...we only steal the shiny bits.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Angie, that second paragraph would definitely constitute plagiarism. The rule now is even if you paraphrase you must cite the original source material - and in academia, where plagiarism is a huge concern, the rule is 3 or more consecutive words used from the original text without citation is plagiarism.

The Kaavya Viswanathan case is a perfect example of exactly what you are talking about, and she had all her books yanked by the publisher and there was talk of the other publishers suing her for plagiarism but I don't think anything came of it because the books were yanked so quickly.

Travis Erwin said...

What is ans isn't plagiarims aside I think the ultimate decision rests with readers. If they think you copied someone else and didn't bring a fresh voice, feel, or edge to pices it is unlikely they will read you again.

I guess you can argue that eh person that did it first can suffer if no one discovers them until after the second but I still think he or she who does it best will be the one to prevail.

Angie said...

Charles -- I have no doubt that it's unethical, but I honestly thought that skated the line just this side of legally being plagiarism. Paraphrasing is "legal" and that seems to be what this is, in a way.

Bernita -- I like that Atwood quote too. :) Apparently this one writer thought the whole book was pretty shiny. [wry smile]

Ello -- I have a hard time imagining, though, that the same rule holds or could hold for fiction. And even in academia, three words? Which three words? What kind of words? If someone else said, "Therefore it is" does that mean I can never say it without a footnote? There has to be some sort of leeway regarding which words and what's being said, rather than just counting numbers. [ponder]

Also, in academia, the focus is on ideas; having been the first person to think of a particular idea is a big deal and needs to be protected. In fiction, ideas are a dime a dozen and it's what you do with the idea that's important. Hamilton and Brite and Yarbro don't cite Stoker (who actually would've had to cite Polidori, but anyway) and that's okay; they'd only have to if they quoted him, whereas if someone came up with a new idea in academia, later scholars talking about it would have to cite the first author even if they didn't quote him or her.

Maybe I'm making this more complicated than it needs to be, but it seems to me that there's a fundamental difference here between fiction and non-fiction. [more pondering]

Travis -- definitely. [nod] Whether the second author has done anything legally wrong or not, reader attention is probably what'll have the most impact at this point.

Thanks, all.


Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Point well taken, Angie. You are absolutely right on the difference between academic writing and fiction. I shouldn't have mixed the two. But I do think that there is definitely less of a tolerance for plagiarism now that we are in the internet age where plagiarism softwares abound and people are just looking to find out who might have plagiarized from who, you know what I mean? I'm just thinking about the fact that some of the recent plagiarism cases were actually caught by fans who read and noticed similar passages in books. Anyway, really interesting post as usual!

Anonymous said...

Great work.

Angie said...

Dorothy -- thanks. :)