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: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.
- 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)
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?
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
: firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : incorruptibility
: an unimpaired condition : soundness
: the quality or state of being complete or undivided : completeness