Showing posts with label copyright. Show all posts
Showing posts with label copyright. Show all posts

Friday, 17 July 2009

Anti-Plagiarism Day!

Before I start, I have to point out that I don’t want to scare anyone here. Despite the fears of many novice writers, plagiarism doesn't happen often in the professional arena. Very few jobbing writers would ever even consider it as an option, and the odds in favour of a publisher or agent stealing the work of an unknown writer are almost infinitesimal. It’s more likely when you’re dealing with people who don’t know the rules, or who don’t have respect for other writers: as ever, if you take some care when deciding which company to keep, you’re unlikely to ever encounter a plagiarist.

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.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Anti-Plagiarism Day: Friday 17 July

Just a little reminder to you all that on Friday I'll be blogging about plagiarism, and hope that some of you will write about it on your own blogs. If you've already written on the subject send me links (by email or in the comments to my plagiarism posts) and I'll edit them into my piece on the day.

Thank you!

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.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Message-Board Plagiarism (Part II)

This piece is one of a small group of my published posts which recently decided to hide themselves from view and move to my drafts folder. I am inept, and don't know why that happened, but I'm posting them all again and hope that this time they stay where they're put. Apologies for any confusion.


My earlier post about message-board plagiarism and copyright infringement kicked up a bit of a storm at a writers’ message-board.

The discussion centred around comments like, “I don’t know what the fuss is about,” and, “what harm does it do?”

The answer is simple: it’s against the law!

Such use is theft: not just of intellectual rights, but of cold, hard cash—albeit indirectly. By reproducing articles elsewhere, you’re using up rights to those articles which the author might otherwise get paid for.

When an article is bought by a newspaper or magazine, it will usually appear in both the print and the online editions. If the writer retains all other rights to the piece, they are free to sell it elsewhere. I’ve done it, and so have most of my writer friends. My standard procedure is to let the new editor know exactly where a piece first appeared, and when, and to give an undertaking not to offer it elsewhere for a reasonable amount of time after their publication (which can mean days, weeks or months, depending on the periodical I’m negotiating with and how much they are going to pay me). If the new editor subsequently discovers the piece elsewhere within our agreed timeframe then I'd be trouble, and would lose the sale—whether I had agreed to the second use or not. It can be difficult to develop good relationships with editors: appearing dishonest, even when it’s due to someone else's lazy habits, lays waste to all that effort, and makes it pretty unlikely that I’ll ever work for them again.

But my main objection to this casual copy-and-paste misuse isn’t fuelled by any potential financial loss. What really irks me is the total disregard that such copyright infringement shows for writers and our work. It’s bad enough when non-writers see no value in our efforts: when other writers treat our work with such a shameful lack of respect, it’s reprehensible.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Train Wreck Now Boarding On Platform Two!

This one is going to be good. It's so good I wonder if it's just a staging for an elaborate April Fool's Day Special To Trump All Others. But even so, here it is for your enjoyment just in case it's for real.

An unknown writer called Lady Sybilla has announced that her book, Russet Noon, will be published in September of this year. Despite its odd title it isn't a new form of potato-porn: it's far, far better than that.

It's fan fiction. An unofficial sequel to Stephenie Mayer's Twilight series. And, children, we all know what fan fiction is, don't we? Say it with me:

Copyright infringement.

Lady Sybilla insists that her book doesn't infringe any copyrights because, as she writes in the comments thread here,

The characters in SM's novels were not copyrighted because she never drew them or hired an artist to draw them. Today she shares her character copyrights with Summit. And, no, Russet Noon does not have direct permission from SM to publish this sequel, which is why the article says that it is a "Tribute" or "Unauthorized" Sequel.
Unsurprisingly, Lady Sybilla got a swift response when she defended the book's publication at the Twilight Lexicon and pointed out that other people had also written Twilight fan fic: the Lexicon's owners responded,
So when it comes right down to it, you’re a self admitted thief whose only defense is “well they were doing it too.” (*Insert foot stamp, pouty lip, and flounce here*)
Lady Sybilla is talking nonsense, and is going to get sued from here to Pluto and back if she persists with this publication. Especially if anyone were to sell copies of the book on eBay ahead of the publication date, which someone has tried to do (you'll note, though, that the auction has ended and refunds have been promised: perhaps the lawyers are onto Lady Sybilla already).

There's an active discussion about this already at Absolute Write; Lee Goldberg has blogged about it beautifully; Fandom Wank has an excellent analysis in which Lady Sybilla's casting-call for models for the graphic novel edition is revealed; if you want to read the preface to Russet Noon it's been copied into the comments here; and there's even a YouTube reading available if you want to enjoy the full russet-rich experience.

Edited 5 April

Many of the links I provided originally are to pages which have now been taken down. The eBay auctions have been closed ahead of time; the Russet Noon website has been closed, apparently by Lady Sibilla herself. She is now complaining about Fandom Wank's postings about her, but has only encouraged more people to point and laugh. And blogger Dal Jeanis has posted a great Russet Noon Analysis, and another post in which he suggests How to Win the Russet Noon Lawsuit, and points out that titles are not copyrightable. I can feel another Atlanta Nights coming on... anyone?

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Assigning Copyright

Some publishers demand that their writers sign over their full copyright as part of a publishing deal: this is rarely a good thing for the writer, and but can be very lucrative for the publisher.

All sorts of different rights coexist in a single piece of work, and each can be sold: for example, rights to publication in hardback and paperback book form in home and foreign territories, rights to newspaper and/or magazine serialisations, e-book rights, character licensing rights, radio serialisation rights, and TV and film rights. If that seems like a lot to you, bear in mind that it is not an exhaustive list and each different set of rights could generate income for whoever owns them.

You might assume, therefore, that the best contract from the writer’s point of view gives up as few rights as possible to the work, because then all of those other rights might well be sold elsewhere: but that isn't necessarily the case. The best owner for rights is the one who is going to sell them, whether that's the agent, the publisher or the writer, as that will then generate further income for the writer—and with writers’ incomes usually being so low, that could be a very good thing.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Copyright vs. Publishing Rights

Copyright and publishing (or reproduction) rights are two different things.

Copyright is a legal term. In the UK and the USA at least, all writers automatically own full copyright in their work as soon as they create it, and laws exist to protect them.

Publishing rights are what writers sell, assign, license or otherwise hand over when they allow others to publish their work.

The distinction between the two might seem clearer if you think of publishing rights as “the right to publish”.

Writers can assign publishing or reproduction rights to their work to enable others to publish it. If someone takes a piece of work without the copyright holder’s permission, whether from the internet or anywhere else, they’re stealing publishing rights which might otherwise have been sold elsewhere. They are in breach of the writer’s copyright, and liable to be prosecuted.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Who Owns the Copyright?

Ownership of printed material does not constitute ownership of the copyright in the words that are printed on it. So, while you might own a bundle of letters which your first boyfriend sent you, you don’t own the copyright to what he wrote in them—that remains with him. Just as copyright in books remains with the author, and not with the people who buy the book.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Quoting And Copyright Law

In its Quick Guide to Permissions, The Society of Authors states that “you need permission to quote from works that are in copyright”.

In order to establish if a piece of writing is in copyright, you need to know two things: the country in which the work was published, and how copyright law works in that country.

In the United Kingdom, as a general rule, work remains in copyright for seventy years following the end of the year in which the author died.

In order to quote from work which is still within copyright, then, you will need permission from the copyright holder. Yes? No!

The Copyright Act states that if quotations can be regarded as “fair dealing... for purposes of criticism or review”, then they can be used without permission, so long as both the author and title of the original publication are cited.

The Copyright Act, however, offers no clear or legal definition of “fair dealing”, so the Society of Authors and the Publishers Association have provided their own:

A single extract of up to 400 words or a series of extracts (of which none exceeds 300 words) to a total of 800 words from a prose work [or] extracts to a total of 40 lines from a poem, provided that this did not exceed a quarter of the poem.... the words MUST be quoted in the context or of “criticism or review”.

While that definition is not part of the Copyright Act, and so cannot be used as a legal definition, it has been accepted in Court as a useful guide—although not a definitive one.

If you are in any doubt then obtain permission before you quote, or don’t quote at all.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Copyright vs. Copywrite

Copyright refers to the rights that automatically exist in a piece of work as soon as that work is created. The owners of those rights can transfer, assign, license, sell or otherwise hand over those rights in full or in part to second parties in the form of publishing rights, performance rights or reproduction rights, usually in return for one of those much-coveted cash-and-a-contract combos.

Copywrite is an odd hybrid of copy and writer, two words which work perfectly well on their own; or perhaps it’s a barely-truncated truncation of “copywriter”, which isn’t much better. It doesn’t appear in my dictionary but might just feature in George Orwell's 1984, in which the Ministry of Truth compounded and reduced words and phrases to neutral nonsense. Its only relationship to copyright is that the two words sound the same and no, despite what some internet posters might insist, it isn’t a legal term.

I hope that’s clear.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Copyright: a Brief Introduction

When you write something, you own it and, in the UK at least, the laws of copyright give you automatic protection against your work being stolen.

There’s no need to plaster your work with copyright symbols and declarations of ownership before you submit it: good editors and agents already know the rules of copyright, and don’t need to be reminded of them (and you’re not going to submit to anyone dodgy). Posting your work to yourself by registered mail is known as "poor man's copyright" and as far as I know, it's never been enough to protect anything, let alone be acceptable as evidence in litigation.

There is no copyright on ideas, only on the execution of them. For example, Bridget Jones's Diary was a re-working of the story of Pride and Prejudice, and so caused no problem with copyright infringements. Had Helen Fielding simply submitted Pride and Prejudice with Austen's name scribbled out and her own put in instead, then that would have been a copyright infringement (OK, so that's a bad example as Pride and Prejudice is well out of its copyright period, and strictly speaking such misuse would be plagiarism rather than copyright infringement--but you get my drift).

The upshot is that you can't protect your idea unless you actually write it. Then your specific arrangement of words and the various specific ways you've expressed your idea, such as your structure, detail and characterisation (which together constitute the story you've written) will be protected, but the idea (the storyline) will not be, as ideas are fair game.