Friday, February 20, 2015

My opinon of PLAGIARISM AND COPYRIGHT INFRINGMENT

I've mentioned frequently over the last few months that I have accomplished very little writing on my own projects, and have opted to fill my literary time with reading. Mostly indie/self published books, but also from small, unknown/little known publishers. As an unknown, aspiring author myself, I am keenly aware of the difficulty in writing an original story concept that is appealing and marketable. I like to write in overdone tropes about vampires, werewolves (or other shifters), mythological creatures and, probably favorite of all, twisted fairy tales. I have the most ORIGINAL Sleeping Beauty twist! So, I really need to stop reading fairy tale type stories so I don't find, or duplicate, my ORIGINAL concept anywhere else before it gets (written) published.

Since I've been reading in the indie/small publisher venues, I have noted that sometimes the line between original idea and copied concepts can get a bit fuzzy without an Agent or Editor on board to catch the unintentional (or intentional) infringements. Plagiarism has become so prevalent in self publishing that Dear Author.com posted a Wednesday feature suggesting that Amazon and other indie programs institute the TurnItIn software colleges and high schools use to detect plagiarism on term papers.

Dictionary.com defines plagiarism as "an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author's work as one's own, as by not crediting the original author;" and further defines Literary Theft as: . . when a writer duplicates another writer's language or ideas and then calls the work his or her own. Copyright laws protect writers' words as their legal property. To avoid the charge of plagiarism, writers take care to credit those from whom they borrow and quote.

According to plagiarism.org, ". . plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else's work and lying about it afterward" and includes acts such as:
  • to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own
  • to use (another's production) without crediting the source
  • to commit literary theft
  • to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source 
ALL OF THE FOLLOWING ARE CONSIDERED PLAGIARISM:
  • turning in someone else's work as your own
  • copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
  • failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
  • giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
  • changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not (see our section on "fair use" rules)
Plagiarism can be easily avoided by simply citing your sources and giving credit for the idea, quotes, or descriptions within your own work. Like writing your college papers, this can be done through a bibliography of sources, through the acknowledgements page, author foreword, footnotes, appendix; or directly within your text or on the pictures with links. We all learned in college, or even high school English/Reading & Comp, history, etc, that writing more than three consecutive words in any sentence from a published work would be detected by their software, and could get you expelled (or otherwise penalized) for plagiarism.

Don't get me wrong, I do not read a book - indie pub or traditional - with the purpose of discovering plagiarism. And I don't feel that self published authors are trying to get away with publishing shoddy work that no reputable agent or publisher would carry. There are some awesome indie pub'd novels/novellas out there that just don't make the preferred criteria of traditional publishing.  That said, over the last few years I've become aware of four instances of blatant plagiarism, and one instance so minor it may not even be copyright infringement, but it made me question.

So how did I become aware of the plagiarism/copyright infringement if I wasn't specifically looking for it? Simple curiosity. The same research motivation that the author of the book I was reading probably went through in the plotting and draft stages of story concept.

When I read a story and something peaks my interest, I immediately pull up the internet (even if it stops me from reading the novel for a time), add some search terms to Google, and click on several of the result links. I don't do this with just self published or small press published books. While reading Stephen King's novel Cell, I became so intrigued by his explanation of how The Pulse could affect people and the technology behind it, that I had to look up the possibilities. Luckily the author himself (in the afterword), and the sites I visited debunked the idea that cell phone signals could be used to turn people into zombies in the manner King describes in his novel. Whew!! I learned a lot about cell phone and other micro-computer technology in the process. Some of this research I saved for my own writing projects.

I conduct the same research in historical novels, crime/mystery fiction, spy novels, sy-fy/spec fiction and steam punk that integrates believable medical and scientific technology or genetic manipulation (particularly stem cell research) and horror/thriller that has at its core psychopathic killers. Seriously, give me a reason to consult my DSM IV and I'm lost in a tangent. When it comes to mythology, fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal and supernatural, if you introduce me to a new term, a God/Goddess, an Angel/Demon, or reference a biblical prophet/character, I'll likely want to know more than the author has hinted at in the story concept. As authors, we all know not to let our research panties show in the telling of a story, no matter how intriguing the info. Nix on the info dumps; let the reader discover their own research if interested in the subject matter. Right?

Call me a research nerd and I'll be doing the snoopy dance. (image source)

For that first shocking experience of research plagiarism, I had read a historical ghost story by a co-worker that involved the mission at San Juan Bautista. A few weeks before that reading, my son was tasked with building a mission for his fifth grade (I think) history class. He was assigned to recreate the mission at San Juan Bautista and given a lot of information, both written and with internet links, to create his model. I was shocked when I read several paragraphs of copied description in the self-published author's novel. Who would care how thick the walls were or how high the single window in each cell since nobody in the novel tried to escape through them? Although the knowledge was disturbing, I said nothing to the author, as at the time I was new to writing and he had been writing for a good portion of his adult life. This latest incident, just one sentence with several changed words that I had read within a week on another forum (blog post or Quora Digest, not sure where), but after reading this article at Writers In The Storm by transactional attorney Susan Spann, I wondered if the author should have made some reference to the theorem he was using as a fictional magazine review of his character's art. (The questions and answers posed in the comments are as informative as the narrative post itself.)

The other three instances that come to mind? Well, the setting descriptions read like a Wikipedia article, complete with parenthesis to denote geographic locations or other resource material. And/or it was so factually well written I wanted to know more about the political and cultural environment. As I've mentioned, I'm interested in all things in the nature of history, psychology, sociology, mythology, bibliography. Sometimes politics and anthropology (The Mummy) or religion and Scientology (The Omen) make interesting reading. And instill a quest for intellectual fulfillment.

I read some Regency Romance that consistently referenced a common term: The Ton. Not being familiar with the term that was so common as to be a household concept for Regency readers/authors, I had to look up the intriguing era because authors did not explain in their stories. Much the same as science fiction authors never explain what a warp drive, phaser, or replicator is; or a contemporary writer doesn't explain the difference between a tissue and a Kleenix is or cite a reference to "that's how I/we roll." Some terms/phrases are so everyday common they transcend the usual citation because of trademarking.

I am not an industry professional, and have barely scratched the surface of copyright laws. All I am is an opinionated reader, and self conscious writer. I look into the legality of copying certain published material simply because it has come to my attention as an author, but more importantly, as a reader. I just don't believe I am the only reader to ever come across an idea/phrase that I found interesting enough to research, and found the author had "borrowed" or "cribbed" the writing from others and not left even a cursory credit to the original author/publication.

What is the likelihood of an indie published book being recognized as plagiarism? Not much really. If a book reviewer reports the fraud on KDP, Create Space, Wattpad or any other self publishing program the author may be requested to unpublish the offending material. But for POD or vanity publishing; who is monitoring those? And, who cares?

As an honest book reviewer, if I discover plagiarism (and it really has to be purely accidental for me to discover it) I will refuse to review the publication. I don't believe in public shaming (thanks for the timely article on internet bullying Nathan Bransford) over an accidental event, but I won't put my name to an endorsement no matter how low the rating. Other reviewers or readers may not be as persnippity as me. A good story is a good story, regardless of its origins. Many may adopt the "why re-invent the wheel" doggerel when it comes to the formality of setting description, monologue, step by step storyline; but for me, writers should try to be original as much as possible, even in a world where there is "nothing new under the sun." Would you accept as original an exact copy of a Monet painting from an unknown artist just because the tower was on the opposite shore or the color scheme altered?


                                                         (source)

This blog post is my own opinion of plagiarism and copyright infringement, and is the extent of my indignation over the issue. I end this rant with one final definition from Mirriam-Webster online dictionary:

Full Definition of INTEGRITY

1
:  firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values :  incorruptibility
2
:  an unimpaired condition :  soundness
3
:  the quality or state of being complete or undivided :  completeness

36 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Integrity is tough to come by these days.
Why would someone risk copying something? All it takes is for one person to notice.

DEZMOND said...

Such a short rant it was, sister :PPP
Methinks, most people are copying eachtother these days... it's so hard to find anyone original.... and not just in publishing, but in movies, music... anywhere

Pat Hatt said...

Everything seems to just be a copy off another these days. Whatever hits big, the next day 50,000 books based on it comes out. But yeah blatant plagiarism shouldn't be tolerated what so ever.

Dixie@dcrelief said...

Uh-oh, I may have had the same thoughts as someone else, especially when it comes to peanut butter cookies.

Excellent rant and education!

Tara Tyler R said...

highly intense and informative post! i love research too. the problem with story writing, there is nothing new under the sun... but that's no excuse for copying, that is terrible!
thanks for your input!

Elizabeth Seckman said...

I once read in a history book that that the water in a river was like sweet tea. I loved that description. I've often wanted to use it, but never will. And I can't remember the writer's name to give him credit.

I enjoy research too. First day I had internet in my house, I was consumed with link clicking. It was like having a library at my fingertips and it was amazing!!

dolorah said...

Alex: I'm hoping integrity is just keeping humble and still exists in abundance.

Dez: may not be too many original ideas, but people can make the idea into their own original take on it. And when you do copy, just need to cite the original. Some things should not be copied in writing though. I was rather short today, wasn't I, heheheh.

Pat: you've managed to come up with several original stories. I am sure lots would like to copy your style, but it would not be the same. I am sure you would not be flattered for someone taking credit for your writings.

Dixie: you can copy those, as long as you share :)

Tara: thanks for your comment Tara.

Elizabeth: Even when you don't remember the author, you can state it isn't your original idea. Research is one of my favorite ways of procrastinating. I would never copy the writings and use them as my own descriptions though.

farawayeyes said...

This really was an interesting post on a topic I had never thought much about (at least not since H.S.).

It shocks me to think that someone writing their own work would blatantly copy, as in word for word, from another's book. I mean there aren't a whole lot of totally new concepts, but word for word. I am surprised.

I too enjoy research and have gotten myself way off track many days when I should be doing something else following 'strange threads' down 'rabbit holes', but it never occurred to me to research another's work (especially works of fiction) to check for plagiarism. Your comparison of the painting that simply inverted, was perfect.

Christine Rains said...

Well thought-out post. I've come across a few instances too. One blatant and the other not so much. I can't believe that people dare copy like that. It's horrible.

Denise Covey said...

Hey Donna. Well researched post on a worrying trend. I know there are companies that blatantly copy whole books and sell them on the black market. Plagiarism seems to be like a horse that has bolted and no one can catch it. There is no copyright on 'ideas' so I guess it's okay to like an idea then completely change it for your story, but as far as copying pages and pages of text and not even bothering to change it at all or acknowledge it seems a bit off to say the least. Sad that some self pubbed authors are doing this. But even in traditional publishing I have heard of it going on. These days editing budgets are slashed, so a lot more must get by if the amount of typos and other formatting bloopers are anything to go by.

'Is anything new under the sun?' Apparently not, sadly. (I'd love to hear from indie authors who have generously plagiarized. I've heard some say why re-invent the wheel?) And now I hope I've not reviewed books that have been guilty of plagiarism.

Denise :-0

Denise Covey said...

Yeah, Alex, and then what? It seems no one is bothering to bring writers to task on this one.

Gossip_Grl said...

I ranted about a book that I read that had many similarities of the popular E.L. James best seller. It was almost as if the person copied and pasted the book, changed the names but in the attempt to change the story none of the story line made any sense.

I had authors who emailed me telling me how uncouth I was to call out another writer. : /

Donna K. Weaver said...

Yes, a local author has been dealing with this issue where a woman literally to her book and changed out the POV (from third to first or vice versa) and little else. The plagiarist took a Christian romance and changed it to erotica, I guess assuming the same people would have read both. When my friend asked for a copy of the ARC, the plagiarist went full on with bullying. It was insane to watch the whole thing unfold. All authors are vulnerable, but especially indies who don't have a big publisher behind them.

dolorah said...

FAE: it is shocking to find. I don't look for it specifically, but sometimes it stands out. And I like chasing strange leads down rabbit holes too :)

Christine: yep, horrible describes it.

Denise: It is even more shocking to see publishing companies doing it. I guess you can black market anything! We all get "ideas" from watching or reading something, even songs will spark a story idea, but making it all our own spin is what keeps the market "original". I may have reviewed books guilty of plagiarism - I don't check everything, just when it is glaringly obvious. Thanks for your support Partner.

Cindy: "Uncounth," a nice old fashioned word; I like. Seems to be a lot of plagiarism for EL James, Stephenie Myers, JK Rowling, several other big authors in the erotica and YA fantasy/romance. Like the readers think to themselves: wow, that's such a simple plot even I could write that and make a million dollars. The authors don't deserve to be copied.

Donna: That kind of plagiarism is shocking, and just sick. And then to bully the original author; what a sad person the thief is. Almost makes you feel sorry for her. Almost. I agree indie authors can be the worst hit, but they can also be the worst offenders too. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Natalie Aguirre said...

That's terrible when people copy someone else's work, especially when it was so obvious to you.

Lexa Cain said...

On the surface it seems very clever (in a criminal way) for an author to steal another's work and self pub it. But the truth many of us know is that it's super difficult to sell anything. Promo-ing and marketing take a lot of time when you're an unknown. The higher the plagiarists raise their visibility, the more likely someone will discover the ruse. So I wonder if the thieves are making any money... Great post, Donna. Keep up that amazing research! :)

Arlee Bird said...

Outright plagiarism is very wrong and I would find it difficult to believe that anyone would subconsciously unknowingly replicate a work or any lengthy passage from memory. I could possibly see it happening with short passages and perhaps find this somewhat excusable. It's kind of like song lyrics. There are certain lyrics that we hear repeatedly in songs because they've apparently become part of the language.

When I was finishing up my college degree a few years back they had some sort of software or website we'd run our papers through to be sure there was no plagiarism present in our work. It was very cool. I guess it's available to anyone but I don't recall what it was called. Probably easy to look up though and I'd imagine there are more than one variations available. Now I want to look for this.

Arlee Bird
A to Z Challenge Co-host
A Faraway View

VR Barkowski said...

Great post, Donna. I love research, too. So I understand the draw.

Writing is hard, and some people consider plagiarism a short cut. Personally, I find it reprehensible, but maybe that's because words don't come easy to me. Sometimes what appears to be plagiarism is coincidence. For example, I've run across turns of phrases I've used AFTER I've written them. It's not uncommon for writers to come up with parallel expressions independent of one another. When that's happened, I've never gone back and changed my wording. But when it comes to whole passages of lifted text? It's theft, and I believe it should be made public as would any criminal act. I'm not talking about bullying, but rather forcing an individual to take responsibility for their actions. That we don't do more of this is exactly why the problem is escalating.

VR Barkowski

A Beer For The Shower said...

Now, I don't think you have to "shame" anyone, but I think it's a person's duty to report plagiarism when they see it, no matter how big or small. Even if that means sharing it via review. I know if someone was trying to steal my writing and profit off of my hard work I'd want to know. And if I was going to buy a book and someone wrote a review that said the work was plagiarized, I'd never buy it. Just my 2 cents.

Nick Wilford said...

For me, writing is all about finding something new, even if we can argue that nothing is truly new. But I try. You can put your own take on an old concept. But to copy entire paragraphs or pages, I don't see how you can call yourself a writer. I feel that strongly about it. I also think it's important to have respect for the hard work of others, by not ripping it off.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Interesting points that you make here, Donna.

DL Hammons said...

I just don't understand how people who plagiarize derive any satisfaction from it. Can they look themselves in the mirror?

Madeline Jane said...

I have to use Turn It In for school, and my biggest fear is that my thoughts will come out like someone else's and the computer will consider it plagiarism. ;) There's only so much to say about Macbeth. But really, you make some good points. I also think there's a difference between reinventing ideas and stealing ideas.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Plagiarism isn't something I like to see. It can ruin a writer. I remember an author back about 20 years ago. Some great stories. She was under contract and from what I understand, having some problems. Anyway, rather than ask for more time, she happened to 'borrow' from another author who was up and coming and now an icon as well as a bestseller. Did the sh!t hit the fan. Whew. She lost all validity and blew her rep to pieces. I'm not saying she didn't deserve it because she did. The works that I did enjoy were combed for other instances of plagiarism. There weren't any in that particular series. She was basically blacklisted as far as the big 5 were concerned. If she wrote again, she'd have to self pub and use another name.

So why do it? Doesn't make sense to me. If you hit a writing block, find another way. Under contract and hitting a wall? Ask for more time. I'd rather lose a contract than my reputation.

In the paranormal genre there are a lot of Vampire and werewolfs and shifters of all types. It's a very popular theme. Nothing new under the sun and all that, but even with a popular, well used concept (vamps and shifters) bring something fresh to your story.. Add a twist to your concept of the world or where the characters come from. In that instance you are reinventing, as Madeline says above, but not stealing. :-)

Sia McKye Over Coffee

dolorah said...

Natalie: you know its bad when is just obvious.

Lexa: I would imagine the more read an author is, the more chance of catching a plagiarist. When the biggies in traditional publishing rep the author, they are sure to catch infringements and bring it to the author's attention prior to publishing. That is my hope, anyway. Gate keepers and all that tripe.

Lee: subconsciously paraphrasing to the point of too closely mimicking I can believe; and generally the newbie author would catch themselves. I've researched a topic so much I can practically recite certain portions of info in my sleep. Haven't we all? But to actually read a passage, highlight it, copy it, then paste it into a WiP; that is outright stealing. After some research on this topic, I am surprised Literary Agents, Editors and small publishers (including KDP, Create Space, Smash Words, etc) haven't purchased the software as an investment. You'll post your investigations on your blog, of course!?

VR: sometimes a "turn of phrase" is because something is close to a household phrase. And if you hadn't read it before, you can't very well copy it. Writers are thinkers, with a ready thesaurus at hand for those pesky blocks. It is likely that "turn of phrase" is not exact word for word either. I've had such moments of inspiration myself, and not changed what I wrote. There are certain "turn of phrase" that fits specific genre's, can't be helped. But, I am not hopeful an author would take responsibility for the action on their own; they stole, why would they tattle on themselves.

Beers: this post is a part of that reporting, to bring it to the attention of the blogging community that it does happen. And I did report what I discovered, with specific book/author, to KDP. I appreciate your candor here.

Nick: I agree. Writing is hard work, coming up with inventive ways to tell a story is difficult, and an author should respect not only themselves, but the hard work of others.

Thanks Mike :)

Don: I should hope not.

Madeline: since you are so conscious of your writing, I am sure "reinventing" is appropriate. From what I've read on your blog, cheating just isn't in your nature. Thank you for your student appreciation of this topic.

Sia: oh my, that is an excellent example of how plagiarism can ruin your aspirations. Such a tragedy; but I have to agree it was deserved. As writers we consider ourselves creative people - so create already.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Donna - what a great post - and certainly opened our eyes to the challenges. There's a lot of plagiarism out there - and people are getting called out for it - in writing up University Papers, other authors ...

I've never thought about researching information as you're doing - interesting to read about ... I do look things up ... fascinating post - thanks - Hilary

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Donna, fascinating post. I have seen so many books where the authors have lifted ideas (even the book covers are replicas of the original) from bestsellers. I wonder how the books were published or how the editors didn't notice them or take objection. I personally am petrified of such similarities crawling into my own stories.

Medeia Sharif said...

I've always believed plagiarism to be an ugly thing. To steal someone's hard work and call it one's own...ugh. I think it's easier these days to catch it. Writers have also been publicly put on the spot because of it. I read several places where some people are blatantly stealing entire books and self-publishing them under their own name to receive monies.

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