Having said all of that, I've known a few writers who have fallen foul of plagiarists and every single one of them has been significantly hurt by seeing their writing so misused. Few have received a proper apology, let alone decent compensation for their distress: they've lost money, publishing contracts, and years of their life to plagiarism and despite it being recognised as wrong, it seems that little action is taken against those who commit this crime against their fellow writers. Having spent most of May and June watching as a new case of plagiarism unfolded before me, I announced two weeks ago that today would be Anti-Plagiarism Day, on my blog at least, and invited anyone who cared about it to join in.
I had intended to use this post to provide my own definition and discussion of plagiarism and copyright infringement—what each one is, where the two transgressions overlap, and how to avoid committing either—but discovered that it had already been done far better than I could manage at Dear Author. So instead, here is a roundup of some of the more notorious and entertaining plagiarism cases that I've heard about, for you to boggle at and enjoy.
In January 2008 those lovely girls at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books revealed how New York Times bestseller Cassie Edwards appeared to have plagiarised others in her novel Shadow Bear. A reader had found several passages of exposition in the novel which seemed very different in tone to the rest of the text. When she typed those passages into Google eerily similar passages turned up, all of which were attributed to other writers including one piece which concerned black-footed ferrets (and if you click on none of my other links you MUST go to that one: it’s priceless).
Further investigations revealed similar problems in other Edwards titles. Edwards appeared to have been caught red-handed but in a letter to the Smart Bitches, Edwards' publisher Signet was at first rather bullish.
Signet takes plagiarism seriously, and would act swiftly were there justification for such allegations against one of its authors. But in this case Ms. Edwards has done nothing wrong.Signet later repositioned itself in a somewhat coded fashion when it wrote to the Smart Bitches again to say,
Our original comments were based on Signet’s review of a limited selection of passages. We believe the situation deserves further review. Therefore we will be examining all of Ms. Edwards’ books that we publish, and based on the outcome of that review we will take action to handle the matter accordingly. We want to make it known that Signet takes any and all allegations of plagiarism very seriously.As far as I know Edwards is still being published, and her books—complete with the dodgy bits—remain available: and when it comes to borrowing words from others but remaining in print, she's not alone. “Wired” editor Chris Anderson found himself in a spot of bother last month when it was discovered that his book Free included at least a dozen unattributed passages from other works, including several from Wikipedia (which is renowned for its shifting and often unreliable content). He has at least responded with some grace by admitting the mistake and apologising for his error; his publisher, Hyperion, has stated that it intends to correct future editions; but that first edition of his book is still on the shelves, complete with the plagiarised passages.
Kaavya Viswanathan's novel was dealt with more appropriately. She was only nineteen when she reportedly received an advance of $500,000 for her novel How Opal Metha Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got A Life. Soon after her book appeared on the shelves it was noticed that it bore some striking similarities to two books: Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, both by Megan McCafferty. A print-run of 100,000 copies of Viswanathan's book ended up being recalled and while her publisher, Little, Brown, originally promised that a revised version would soon appear on the shelves, that new edition never materialised and nor did the second book which Viswanathan was contracted for. Whether she was ever required to repay her advance remains uncertain.
Not all writers who plagiarise get paid advances for their efforts or have a publisher with a legal team on hand to guide and advise. When a fan of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series announced earlier this year that she was going to write an unauthorised sequel to the series I blogged about it briefly here (if you’re interested in the fan-writer's many press releases and internet hissy-fits they’ve all been linked to, and discussed in good detail, at Absolute Write here and here). While Meyers’ publishers don’t appear to have taken any significant action against this ill-informed writer it’s important to remember that she’s not yet published her book: she's announced that it will be published in September 2009 and my hunch is that if she does go ahead with that publication she will very soon afterwards feel the full weight of Meyers' publishers' legal department on her shoulders. And if that happens, it’s going to get very nasty and very expensive for her, very quickly indeed.
If you are now convinced that all books either will be plagiarised eventually or are themselves the results of plagiarism I direct you to Neil Gaiman, who provides a welcome interlude of calm and reason to the debate; and from there, you might like to go to Jonathan Lethem's thoughtful and witty essay on the subject, which appeared in Harper’s Magazine (to get the full impact of this piece make sure you read down to the key: I loved the joke but admit to being a sad obsessive about such things).
In an attempt to provide a little balance to my rant, I have found a few pieces which suggested that plagiarism isn't always carried out with malice in mind. My favourite among those essays appeared in Newsweek when Russ Juskalian discussed the suggestion that unconscious plagiarism, or “cryptomnesia”, could be to blame. This excuse has been used by several writers who have been accused of plagiarism but, like me, Juskalian is not completely convinced:
Unconscious plagiarism does exist, but writers who don't take proactive steps to avoid it are often either being lazy, or they have a diminished fear of being caught.In my view, Juskalian’s opinion is reinforced by the Edwards case. When such large chunks of text appear to have been borrowed, it seems to me that a writer would have to have a very capacious unconscious indeed in order to retain so much text in her memory. If it wasn't plagiarism, then sloppy record-keeping is far more likely to have been the cause; but that since several of Edwards' novels have been found to contain many such “borrowed” passages, her sloppiness appears to be more of a confirmed habit than an occasional lapse.
Not everyone agrees that plagiarism is a bad thing: I've found countless articles online which argue that our works should be made widely available and distributed freely: but they all seem to ignore that writers have to earn their livings somehow; and the terrible hurt and anger that plagiarism can cause. Not only can it mean that a writer who has worked for years on a book sees it suddenly valueless if a plagiariser steals from it before it's published: there's also the senseof intrusion and violation which the plagiarised writer feels:
I feel as if he's broken into my house, stolen my computer, defaced all my family photographs and crapped on my bed. I've lost the better part of two years' work because of him and now it's been made public he's not had to pay back the money he has been paid for my work, he's had no more than a slap on the wrist. He's been boasting that all the publicity he's received has put the sales of his other books through the roof. And he's not even bothered to apologise to me.I'll give the last word to Nora Roberts, a best-selling and highly prolific writer who endured a two-year-long legal battle after it was discovered that fellow romance writer Janet Dailey had plagiarised her widely and often. When the court case was over Roberts wrote,
Until we, the writing community, take a strong, public and no-nonsense stand against plagiarism, the publishing community will, I think, continue to downplay it, to keep violation after violation quiet--or attempt to. And the reading community will go on largely in ignorance.
Many people have supported Anti-Plagiarism Day, and here are links to their pieces, in no particular order. Let me know if you'd like me to add you to the list.
Tania Hershman happens to be a brilliantly gifted writer, a lovely woman, and a birthday girl today (happy birthday, Tania!). She has chosen not to dwell on her recent plagiarism trauma and instead discusses inspiration and intent in her characteristically engaging piece, This Day.
From Manuscripts Burn, a personal account of plagiarism and being plagiarised, which ends with this great quote: The moral of the story, kids, is that plagiarism hurts people. It might seem like a victimless crime, but when you steal someone else’s ideas they sit in their metaphorical elementary school chairs angrily not getting their metaphorical extra credit.
From Quiller's Place (the blog of writer Sally Quilford), a useful discussion of plagiarism, fan-fiction and betrayal with a useful list of links at the end.
The incomparable Nicola Morgan exhorts us all to not copy her, and reveals her own amazing story of not-plagiarism.
Even without adequate doses of ginkgo biloba, Sally Zigmond cuts the mustard: If another writer is generous enough to allow you access to their work in progress, then it’s wrong to ‘rewrite’ it for your own gain... that is not homage. That is not zeitgeist. It is a betrayal of trust. It is theft. Pure and simple. And it stinks.
Dear Author's Top Ten Tips for Plagiarists.
Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware provides a little history and perspective.
Dan Holloway points out that although he chooses to give some of his work away for free, you're not automatically allowed to take the rest without asking.
Catdownunder gets to grip with a hairy issue.
Miriam Drori supports Anti-Plagiarism Day.
Teresa Ashby tells us how she discovered that her own work had been plagiarised: "She said that she loved the stories so much she just wanted to write something similar."
Editorial Anonymous discusses how publishers are unlikely to plagiarise.
Marion Gropen beat me to the finish line, and covers a lot of ground with her post about the causes and limits of plagiarism.
Karen of Get On With It decides that enough is enough!
Nik Perring lightens the tone with a great interview of a brilliant writer, has a short rant against plagiarism and plagiarists, and remembers to wish the great Tania Hershman (read her book NOW) a very happy birthday.
At (W)ords and (W)ardances Jodi Meadows feeds her own ferrets duck soup, and sends her best wishes to the black-footed variety.
At Crawl Space, Sarah Hilary discusses how voice, influence and plagiarism can sometimes overlap, and lists some of my favourite short story collections.
Authonomists discuss Anti-Plagiarism Day.
Lisa Gold discussed academic plagiarism on her blog last week.
iThenticate congratulates us at Twitter!
David Tulloch draws us a cartoon. I hope he didn't copy it.