Monday, 6 July 2009

Anti-Plagiarism Day: Friday 17 July

A few weeks ago I watched a nasty case of plagiarism unfold which involved some writers I’ve had close dealings with over the last few months.

One trusted, talented member of an online writing workshopping group went much too far when looking to his colleagues’ writing for inspiration, and ended up in deep and particularly dirty water. He won at least one cash prize with a plagiarised story, and there are possibly more out there which have not yet been discovered or acted upon.

His actions were hurtful and distressing to all the writers concerned. The plagiarised writers are terribly upset and understandably angry, while the plagiarising writer has lost the support and friendship of a valuable critique group and is unlikely to ever be published again by anyone who is aware of this whole ugly mess.

The plagiarising writer still insists that he did nothing wrong; I don’t think he’s even aware of how deeply he has hurt his friends and his own reputation, or of the corrosive effects that his actions will continue to have. I don’t think he had malicious intent: he just didn’t consider what he did to be stealing, and he still doesn’t seem to understand what is and isn’t acceptable when seeking inspiration.

I wish I could have made him aware of the facts before he went so far: it’s too late to help him now. However, it’s not too late for other writers and I’d like to try to reach some of them, with help from all of you.

I’m declaring Friday 17 July Anti-Plagiarism Day. On that day I’m going to blog about plagiarism, and I’d like you to do the same: on your own blogs, on message boards, on Facebook or Twitter: anywhere where writers congregate. If you don’t have a blog of your own but would like to get involved then email your piece to “hprw at tesco dot net”, with a subject line of “HPRW anti-plagiarism day”, and I’ll post it here. Send me links to your blog posts or message board discussions and I’ll edit them into my piece.

You can write about anything you like, so long as it’s based on plagiarism: what it is, what’s allowed and what’s not, famous cases of plagiarism, how it feels to be plagiarised, and what effects plagiarism can have (on both of the writers involved): anything which is plagiarism-related, honest, well-researched and properly informed.

I hope that by extending this theme across a lot of blogs and cross-linking between all the pieces we’ll create a network of articles and discussions about plagiarism which we can point to whenever we feel another writer is veering too close to the edge, or when a new writer asks why it’s wrong to “borrow”, or when an established writer grows lazy in her ways. We’ll reach writers who are unaware of the laws and conventions, or misinformed about them. And if in the future our work stops just one writer from making the same mistake my former friend has made, then we’ll have done a little bit of good.

Spread the word.

48 comments:

Merrilee said...

I'm in.

Sorry to hear about the situation, but not surprised that the plagiarist doesn't think he's done anything wrong.

Plagiarists seem to be willfully ignorant when it comes to rights.

Lexi said...

Goodness, I thought in the world of publishing plagiarism was all in the minds of novice writers. Except possibly for titles - and coincidentally, I blogged about this on the 27th June.

What did the writer steal - plot, characters, nifty metaphors, chunks of prose?

HelenMHunt said...

Very interesting subject. I'll give it some thought between now and 17 July.

Mark Lord said...

Is plagiarism within fiction writing really a big problem? I'm looking forward to reading the blog posts on 17 July as I wasn't really aware that this went on on a large scale. Have you got many examples of it happening?

Nik Perring said...

Excellent idea. Be a good thing to see something positive come out of a horrid situation.

Anonymous said...

I see the Daily Telegraph has jumped on your bandwagon, Jane - your influence is far-reaching!

Cryptic crossword in today's paper: 8 Down - Copy-writer (10 letters)

Gerald Fosdyke

Teresa Ashby said...

Great idea, Jane - as a victim of this myself I'll definitely be writing a post on Anti-Plagiarism Day! Actually I'm just dusting off my soap box and preparing to climb on my high horse as I type . . .

Vanessa said...

I was/am one of the writers whose work was used. Jane, I am delighted that you are doing this and hopefully it will be a postitive thing to focus for a short while on something that is so hard to define, so easy to NOT do, and so appalling for the victims.

For the record, this is what it feels like to have your work 'used' by another writer. (In my case, an unpublished novel section sent to a'trusted reader' for feedback.)

Shock. Physical sickness. (I was actually sick). Numbness. A sensation of total dislocation. (Where am I, what am I doing?) Deep hurt, and panic. (Should I now abandon this work, what will he do with it now? If he can do this, what else can he do?)

I guess its like being raped. Not physically of course, and I have no wish to pretend it is as bad. But the sense of violation must be akin.

It was interesting to find other writers telling me I was being silly. 'It is only writing' one said.

Yes. It is 'only writing'. But when it is what you do, and how you define yourself, this hit at something fundamental.

It is some time ago. It is still not gone. I have changed how I work. I no longer trust people as much. I will not show unpublished work again, easily. If at all.

Imogen said...

Particularly sad to read this just a short time after reading several enthusiastic endorsments of online writing forums where one can share work and get a range of comments and critique from other writers... and now I see this and feel slightly sick at the thought... This is awful!

I've got a couple of "plagiarism stories", which I'll try to post by the 17th...

denise said...

here in brazil we have a great problem with plagiarized translations. some publishing houses take up old translated works, out of run, and republish them crediting the translation to some one else - usually a non-existent name.
i keep a blog, called "não gosto de plágio" ("i don't like plagiarism"), showing these frauds. i's a shame!

nice work of yours - i will post about 17 july, great idea.

Diane said...

Thank you for sharing. Great points!

Sally Zigmond said...

I shall do my bit on the day, Jane.

Whilst it's a false fear often held by newbie writers that if they send anything they've written to an agent, book or magazine editor, someone in house will steal their ideas. It can happen I suppose, but it rarely does.

As we all know there is no copyright on ideas and that plenty of writers can be inspired by other, better writers or writing about the same themes and subjects at any one time. Many people, or so they say, were thought about writing a novel about a boy wizard before a certain Ms Rowling stole their thunder.

However, what Jane is talking about, I think, is a writer who takes a distinctive and original story written by someone else that he or she has had the privilege to see in its working stages then changes the name of the protagonist, adds extra bits from another story by someone else but essentially maintains the very same distinctive narrative line and structure.

Now, perhaps this writer can't see what he's doing is wrong and believes he's written a different story. If that's the case, then he needs help. Methinks he doth protest too much.

It's a question of how much is inspiration and how much is just lazy copying. More than a nod to another writer--and when a clear and unequivocal connection can be traced--

It's bad, especially if the result wins a cash prize.

I can understand Vanessa's pain. It isn't a trivial matter. It's a betrayal. And that, physical assault apart, is one of the worst things someone can do to a fellow human being.

Jane Smith said...

Thank you all for such a positive response to this post: as Nik wrote, it will be good to see something positive come out of such a miserable event. I hope you all manage to get something posted on the 17th, and do please spread the word in the meantime so that as many people as possible take part. I hear that twittering might be useful.

Just to reassure everyone, I don't think that plagiarism is widespread or frequent among writers or among agents and editors: but I've seen both editors and writers plagiarise, so can't say it just doesn't happen.

One of the advantages of good online critique groups is that you usually get a decent number of people reading the work that's put up so if and when anything is plagiarised there are more people who are likely to spot it, and more people who can provide evidence that plagiarism has taken place. So don't all start worrying that you'll lose your work: as I said, it is very rare.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jane, I'm definitely with you on this and will do my bit on July 17th. And yes, we are talking about really clear plagiarism, not just the genuine coincidence of two writers having the same idea and coming up with a totally different take on it; or two writers coming up with the same title, or even character names. I have been genuinely plagiarised myself once (to my knowledge) and it was so obvious that actually I laughed. (In a strangled kind of way!) But I also had an interesting situation (which i will blog about) which to the outside world would look like plagiarism but which both authors know can't be, for very good reason!

catdownunder said...

Plagiarism is theft. The tip of my tail is flicking!

BuffySquirrel said...

This is the sort of story that makes editors in the small press (like me!) lose sleep.

One magazine I worked for had a very narrow escape from publishing a plagiarised poem. Imagine an entire printing run being recalled and destroyed, and the effect that could have on a small magazine--both on its reputation and financially.

It's bad enough that writers routinely send us work that contains material copyrighted to someone else--frequently without attribution, and often without any indication that it's a quote. Then they wonder why our contract allows us to settle lawsuits without reference to them. "I didn't do anything wrong". Yeah, right. Tell that to the judge!

Maggie Dana said...

Jane, I just Tweeted about it. Will post more Tweets in days ahead as well.

spamwarrior said...

I'm definitely in.

Masha said...

I'm not a blogger and have no connection to these blogs, but they've done a lot for plagiarism awareness, so you might want to contact them: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Dear Author.

j purdie said...

I suppose one of the main problems is that with copy and paste plagiarism can be so casual nowadays. We've all seem the forums where articles have been posted verbatim without references or accreditation. The more it's done and not challenged the more it's accepted. And there are still people that think if it's on the internet then it's public domain.

j purdie said...

Forgot to add a bit about automatic blogs. I've come across a few that take posts from other blogs and re post them. Some only take a few lines with a 'read the full post here' link but some take all the posts.

Sue Moorcroft said...

Maybe the blogging against plagiarism day could be taken further to encompass all 'borrowing' of digital media? When I ask people whether they'd shoplift a book the answer is invariably 'No!' But they see any text or pix on the Net as fair game to be reproduced anywhere they fancy and think illegal downloads are fair game.

DOT said...

I shall blog on the topic as I believe plagiarism is not a simple black and white case of never, ever copy anything anyone else has ever done. Neither that we are not all guilty by default in terms of conscious or unconscious influences that affect our own work.

I recognise, of course, the subject you have posted on is straight theft and, therefore, not to be condoned but I would like to explore the grey areas. So thanks for the inspiration.

Dan Holloway said...

Jane, funny I should read this after coming out of the Banksy exhibition in Bristol. Not only is it one of teh best shows I've ever been to, but my admiration for the man who inspired a central character in my latest boko was further increased. Relevant, of course, because of his defacing of the Picasso quotation about great art stealing.

I am, I must say, 100% behind you, which will surprise many who know me. This is because I give my work away for free and in some cases choose to make it open source. The key word there is choose.

But I can't help feeling ambivalent. I am unable to quote song lyrics when I need to because a band's MGMT won't get back on my permission request. I fear posting a photo of almost anything in case I'm infrnging someone's copyright. So I sometimes feel my work is compromised by the stridency of many of the antiplagiarisers.

So it's a complicated issue. And i think where I take issue is always with turning a complicated issue into a simple one. In this case, though, I am more than willing to lay personal reservations aside, and will blog on the subject on July 17th, flying the flag for FACT, ACID, and all the other people who care about preserving a creative's IP. Jane, is there a place we can post links so everyone links to everyone else?

Jane Smith said...

Thanks, all, for the promises of support. And I'm glad that some of you are questioning this, and the issues of plagiarism vs access to quote and so on--it should make for some interesting debate.

When you take part on the day do link to my post if you can and then links to your pieces should all appear at the bottom of mine; and either email me a link or leave a link in the comments. I'll write a link-filled summary of everyone's activity and edit it into my main piece at the end.

And meanwhile, if you read any good pieces about plagiarism, do let me know (again, either by linking here or via email), and I can incorporate them into our Big List Of Links on the day.

Phew. I think that's all!

Tam said...

Have tweeted this already and will certainly be blogging about it on the day. Thanks for doing this.

Julia Bohanna said...

What a wonderful and stimulating discussion. It's such a tricky area, because by the very nature of sending unpublished work out to competitions, we writers are entrusting ideas to others. We all have to at some stage. I once sent a set of ideas for a major newspaper competition - the winner got to edit the paper for the day. I didn't win but two months later one of my ideas was used in an editorial. The idea was so specific and contained so much of the extra detail that I had added to the mix. that coincidence would have been very unlikely.

But did I 'give the idea away?' by entering the competition? Could it ever be proven?

I was also a witness to the intellectual 'rape' that Vanessa mentions - I don't think rape is too strong a word in this context. Instead of the body, you have the mind - a repository of ideas, hopes, original thought. To take any of those, you have to be dirty, ruthless, unashamed. It may be 'just writing' to some but for others who breathe and live the written word with pleasure, passion and gusto - it is much much more....

Will try and blog on the day.

Vanessa said...

Many happy greetings from the West Cork Lit Fest, where I'm taking the short story workshops, have fifteen wonderful 'students' (ha! they are just terrific writers!) and I am still reeling from meeting Annie Proulx briefly on Monday.

I'd like to reassure people about working together. And will do that here, cos I want the post I do on Friday next to focus on the positives... so will strart now.

We NEED to share our work. We NEED feedback. I dont know about you but I have days weeks months where I know for sure I cant write and have never been able to. It is all a chimera.

And I NEED to be told to snap out of it because this bit is OK, this bit is bad but with work... this bit doesnt quite make sense. This character is emotionally engaging, but this one isnt. etc etc etc.

More than that, I NEED to analyse the work of others. It feeds my knowledge of what works and what doesnt.

And I like to think that although I ran up againt a man with a serious problem, (and thats his issue to resolve, if he can be bothered) the vast majority are good straight peeps who are treading this path with me. Honestly.

Jaye said...

I wasn't aware it was such a big problem - I'll look forward to reading your post tomorrow.

Jane Smith said...

My post for Anti-Plagiarism Day has now appeared. Do please link to it wherever you can; and if you've been able to join in with your own anti-plagiarism post, add a comment with a link to your piece and I'll edit it into my main piece. Thank you!

Lee said...

When is it plagiarising, when remixing - or even intertextuality?
Welcome to the 21st century, folks.

Julia Bohanna said...

Remixing in the Arts if course is common Lee...after all there is little that is truly original, as we are influenced by so much. Music for example is very much the sum of what has gone before. But copying whole passages from someone else's work, or stealing a character with all their machinations, is not remixing at all. It shows a lack of imagination and at best is dull. At worst, intellectual theft.

Nothing real to do with getting with the twenty first century..or being old-fashioned. Being decent, being proud of what you created..because it's YOURS. They are universal and timeless themes....

Acknowledging influences and obsessions that might shape you as a writer, that's a whole different thing.........

But you can't remix writing - a little bit of Henry James here....throw in some Will Self and a splash of Amis. It's not a film pitch, where conversations that begin: 'Well it's Terminator crossed with Legally Blonde' are common...simply because people in the industry need terms of reference. We are talking literary fiction, which needs to be of a certain quality to qualify for the genre....

Lee said...

Intertextuality is a very effective form of remixing - when well done. I am always talking of literary quality, by the way ... in any genre.

Julia Bohanna said...

Still not convinced, Lee..although it's an interesting point. Have you any examples?

Lee said...

This is what got me commenting here, though as an online writer I basically feel it's pointless to worry much about plagiarism. You can't criminalise what you can't control. And literature is rife with borrowing - when well done, you make it your own anyway (see TS Eliot's poetry, for example):

http://mumpsimus.blogspot.com/2009/07/some-notes-on-burgers-daughter.html

Jane Smith said...

Lee, there's a big difference between being inspired by something, and plagiarism.

You can't criminalise what you can't control."


If we followed your logic here, NOTHING could be criminalised: not murder, not rape, not stealing. We can't control what some people do, but to say that there's therefore no point in criminalising it, or announcing that it's wrong, is complete nonsense.

Nik Perring said...

A question to Lee: You discover that someone's taken your YA Fantasy story from the web, got a publisher, put out the book which has won awards and made the 'writer' loadsa money. How would you feel?

Nik

Lee said...

Hi Nik,if someone makes money from my work - a lot of money - I'd feel cheated. Otherwise, I'd be honoured to be a model; and to be widely read.

Jane, I don't feel it's nonsense at all. The internet is meant to disseminate - that's it's very purpose.

Jane Smith said...

How can you reconcile your feeling that you'd been cheated with your view that it's OK for people to use each other's work? Where are the boundaries for you, Lee? I'm interested to know.

And you missed my point about criminalisation: I wasn't arguing for or against using the internet to spread information; I was pointing out that your statement is fallacious. You wrote,

"You can't criminalise what you can't control."

If you use that statement to argue that we can't stop plagiarism therefore we have to accept it, then we also have to allow the argument that we can't stop murder, rape or robbery, and therefore we have to accept it and not consider them a criminal act. Which is clearly wrong.

Nik Perring said...

But you wouldn't be being widely read - whoever's name's on the cover would be. And how much is a lot of money? I'd have said it was pretty black and white because it's you who should be credited, and paid for, for your work.

Lee said...

When I say you can't criminalise what you can't control, what I mean is that if thousands & thousands of users/readers/whoever are going to do something, then I'd consider it a new cultural trend, not a criminal act.

Historically speaking, I believe plagiarism is a relatively new concept - though I'm not completely sure about this - and probably allied to the commodification of culture.

In any case, I'm happy to make my writing freely available and spend far more time worrying about doing it well (for my own satisfaction) than whether someone might try to steal it.

Lee said...

Hi Nik, just noticed your comment. Maybe then I'd try to make it public - a blog post? - that I wrote the original. But the main thing for me is writing, and writing well, so it doesn't really matter if people know who I am. In fact, I'd rather they didn't, since I feel author info/bios/interviews tend to be obstructive.

My only real reader, you see, is myself.

Who knows how much is a lot of money? Most of us will never make more than a few dollars/pounds/Euros from our fiction, and I prefer my independence in any case.

Nik Perring said...

Well, Death of an Author is one thing, but death of ownership is quite another. The fact is that when you create something you own it and it's not for others to take it as their own without your permission. I think it's admirable and selfless that you'd be happy giving the stuff you've (I imagine) worked so hard to produce but that's your choice, and is certainly not one any other writer I know would make. And again, if that was taken from them, without their permission, no matter where it's been published (internet or otherwise) then it's wrong morally and legally: ie it's theirs (they own it) and not someone else's.

Jane Smith said...

I don't know what you do for a living, Lee, but let's assume that you're a bus driver.

How would you feel if you spent all month driving passengers around, only to have the bus company pay your salary to some upstart who arrived at the bus station wearing a home-made uniform, and claiming that he'd been at the wheel of the number 207all month? Would you think that was OK? Would you feel that so long as the passengers reached their destination then it didn't really matter who got paid for it, or who was acknowledged to have driven that bus up and down the Uxbridge Road for all those tedious hours? Because I wouldn't: I need the money I earn from writing to do little things like feed my chlidren, pay the mortgage, and buy chocolate for my secret stash.

Lee said...

Anyone seen the Concord Free Press website? There are other writers interested in alternate models:

http://www.concordfreepress.com/

Jane, why don't we assume I'm independently wealthy and leave it at that? I will never convince you, I'm sure, that I actually prefer not to eat my words - or feed my family from them.

Julia Bohanna said...

Nope, not new - as this Ancient and disgruntled Roman writer (Galen) shows:

I was recently in the Sandalarium, the area of Rome with the largest concentration of booksellers, where I witnessed a dispute as to whether a certain book for sale was by me or someone else. The book bore the title: Galen the doctor. Someone had bought the book under the impression that it was one of mine; someone else—a man of letters—struck by the odd form of the title, desired to know the book’s subject. On reading the first two lines he immediately tore up the inscription, saying simply: ‘This is not Galen’s language—the title is false.’ Now, the man in question had been schooled in the fundamental early education which Greek children always used to be given by teachers of grammar and rhetoric. Many of those who embark on a career in medicine or philosophy these days cannot even read properly, yet they frequent lectures on the greatest and most beautiful field of human endeavour, that is, the knowledge provided by philosophy and medicine.

.....my books have been subject to all sorts of mutilations, whereby people in different countries publish different texts under their own names, with all sorts of cuts, additions, and alterations.... When in the course of time some of these individuals died, their successors came into possession of the writings, liked them, and began to pass them off as their own.

Lee said...

Julia, what an interesting example! Thanks.

Jane Smith said...

The writer whose work sparked off Anti-Plagiarism Day has now commented on my blog, here.

He feels that he's been misrepresented, so I've suggested (on my blog in the thread linked to above, and by email) that he put the story in question online somewhere, to give everyone who is interested the chance to compare it to Tania Hershman's story which it's alleged he copied. I've offered to host his story here, or to link to it if he posts it on his own blog. I look forward to his reply.