Stop Thief.

In the recent discussion of McEwan, Andrews, plagiarism, and punishment, there was a link provided by sherryfair to a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell wherein he describes his reaction and subsequent research into plagiarism after text from an article he wrote was lifted for content in a Tony-winning play by Bryony Lavery.

In the article, he states,

A successful music executive has to understand the distinction between borrowing that is transformative and borrowing that is merely derivative, and that distinction, I realized, was what was missing from the discussion of Bryony Lavery’s borrowings. Yes, she had copied my work. But no one was asking why she had copied it, or what she had copied, or whether her copying served some larger purpose.

That entire idea threw me for a big, big loop, and ultimately, as I wrote in a comment to the original discussion, gave me a lot to think about. Plagiarism excused by the idea that the words stolen were used in service to a greater art? Color me befuddled. The discussion of McEwan’s plagiarism of Andrews’ work also touched on the question of what IS plagiarism, and is it ever ok in the course of writing?

The issue of plagiarism comes up every so often, and there is usually a lot of discussion about the idea when it does – from “what’s the big deal” to “how come the penalty isn’t more serious?” When the story broke about Opal Mehta, our focus at SBTB was on Alloy, the book producer, and what role they may have played in allowing a book that lifted from so many sources to be published and optioned for film. With McEwan, Candy mentioned a feeling of personal shock: “It was almost like finding out my best friend had been cheating on her husband without my knowledge all this time; there’s a distinct feeling of ‘how could you?’”

The language of plagiarism itself is so damn bizarre: ‘borrowing.’ ‘Lifting.’ ‘Unintentional copying.’ Like someone’s book slipped and fell into the scanner. Oops!

Since this discussion was taking on a good bit of heat and debate, I did some asking of nosy questions about plagiarism in the romance publishing world. Whom did I ask?

Nora Roberts, who has quite a bit to say about the subject.


Sarah: I know in some interviews I’ve read, you’ve called it “mind rape,” which is a very apt description. How do you answer those who say it’s no big deal, or answer anyone who tries to define when it’s ok to lift passages without attribution and when it’s not? Somehow there seems to be a debate that sometimes it is, and when that might be. To quote Candy: *headdesk*

NR: It’s amazing to me how many people—readers, writers, publishers, shrug it off as if it’s no big deal. It’s the biggest deal there is for a writer….

It’s pretty hard to debate or discuss with someone who considers theft—and plagiarism is theft—no big. I even had several other writers suggest that it was flattering when it happened to me.

My response was something like: Admire my earrings, I’m flattered. Take them and claim them as your own, I’m calling the cops.

To me it’s black and white.

If you lift someone else’s work—a paragraph, a scene, a number of scenes—and pass it off as your own work you’re a liar and a thief. End of story.

I will never understand how some think it’s okay. But there are a lot of things I don’t understand.

When those who take another’s work and change a word here and there, do some subtle paraphrasing, it’s also obvious to me they KNOW it’s wrong. And then come the excuses when they get caught. They didn’t realize, it was unintentional, it was homage, whatever.

Believe me, I’ve heard it all.

And many will assume it HAD to be inadvertant when the victim is a well-known writer. Because it strikes people as stupid to steal from someone who’s well-read. But it happens often. The other pov is if you’re going to steal, why not steal from a proven product?

SBS: When the story broke about Dailey’s plagiarism of your work, the joke was “this is why romance sounds the same”  and it didn’t seem that the matter was taken seriously in the press, not that romance often is.  Was it difficult to pursue action at that time? Has the attitude changed or improved that you’ve seen?

NR: It was extremely difficult to pursue the plagiarism with Dailey. Emotionally, it was a bitch. The press was, for the most part, snarking and sniping, and I had to answer it. What choice was there? Letting it go was never an option, though dealing with it quietly was my first choice. She opted otherwise, and again from my pov, that strategy back-fired on her.

Honestly, I haven’t seen much change in attitude, not from the press, other writers and some readers. And so whenever the issue crops up, I speak out again. I consider plagiarism the most important line no writer should cross, and certainly one no writer should be allowed to cross with impunity.

Comments are Closed

  1. Ann Aguirre says:

    I’m astonished she’s still getting published. Something like that should ruin a writer, imo. I don’t care what kind of stress she was under.

  2. This was a thoughtful piece, and I’m glad the SBs and Nora took the time to discuss this issue. I really resented the whole jokey attitude of the press at the time of the Dailey incident, laughing off a serious theft because it was only a couple of romance writers squabbling.

  3. mirain says:

    I teach at a rather highly-ranked university which shall remain nameless. I know student plagiarism is a slightly different issue as they are not attempting to publish the material in question, but it still shocks me not only how many students plagiarize, but how casually it is viewed by most faculty and administrators. Even failing the student on the plagiarized assignment is regarded as excessive—the norm is to give them an extension so they can rewrite the material. So basically they are getting a reward (extra time) for cheating. If this is what bright young people are shown as acceptable in school no wonder they don’t take it seriously when they see it happen elsewhere.

  4. Kalen Hughes says:

    I’m 100% with La Nora. I don’t care if you’re a college student (you shouldn’t just be flunked, you should be expelled; and you would have been at my small liberal arts college), a young writer under tremendous pressure, or an award-wining writer (who should SO know better). Wrong is wrong. Theft is theft. I don’t get why so many are willing to give McEwan a pass on this.

  5. tisty says:

    Okay can someone give me the gory details of this laNora theft?? obviuosly the news hasn’t broke yet under the rock in which Iam living!!!!

    Plagerism = bad. It’s a simple 2 element equation really. But I was wondering is how it compares with all the music sampleing and the like, a lot of which isnot atributed etc. is there an ‘in the name of art’ defence???

    though I like Nora’s Earing analogy!!!!!!

  6. Robin says:

    I have been both plagiarized and in the position of turning students in for plagiarism.  By far, the second of these was harder on me.

    While I am sure there are people out there who don’t take plagiarism and copyright infringement seriously, I think that the greater divide might be along mora lines.  That is, there are folks who believe that plagiarism has a strong essential moral dimension to it and folks who don’t, and likely a continuum along which opinions run.

    I seem to have an “eye” for plagiarism in students, and have caught a number of cases, from a student who I really don’t think understood what she did was wrong to a student who I’m certain purchased a wholly plagiarized paper (he was clearly surprised on both counts).  In every case, while I did not hesitate in turning in the student, it took a toll on me, because while these kids obviously engaged in dishonest behavior, I would never label any of them “thief” based on the single incident I witnessed.  I can’t attest to how the other 99% of their actions and their lives proceeded—perhaps some of them were thieves in a general sense.  In the one instance of dishonesty I witnessed, though, it struck me as slightly ironic that the punishment for these students could be expulsion, when I thought the most important thing for them would be to remain immersed in an environment that aimed to TEACH students why intellectual property was important and how to follow the rules.  To me what they needed was MORE school, not less.

    I understand that plagiarism has a deep moral element for some people, and I can see why that is, especially for someone like Nora Roberts, who had such an enormous case to deal with.  And I don’t think there’s any ambiguity where Janet Dailey is concerned that she committed an act of theft.  Does that make her a
    “thief”?  To Roberts is does, certainly, and understandably so (I’m not sure what she meant when she referred to untrue accusations by unpublished authors, though, and the distinction between published authors).

    For me, though, plagiarism doesn’t *fundamentally* implicate specific moral judgments, and my response to alleged cases is not a “pass,” but a “let’s see what really happened here and why.”  Then again, I tend to feel uncomfortable with what I see as a generally punitive rather than rehabilitative approach we have to wrongdoing in this country, which likely colors my approach here, as well. 

    For me, I guess, I can see the act of plagiarism as wrong without *necessarily* feeling the need for some specific or societal punishment (on a case by case basis, of course).  It used to be that one’s reputation was the greatest personal property one owned, and I think merely a charge of plagiarism damages one’s reputation.  I can see the need for a *remedy* for the person plagiarized against, but I guess I see it as more in those terms than in punitive terms (one more reason I won’t be going into criminal law).

    It’s not that I don’t understand why people feel a great moral wrong is committed when someone plagiarized.  It’s just that I think there are people who don’t incorporate that level of morality into the act of plagiarism, and those folks (myself being one of them), are often seen as “soft” on plagiarists.  Just because I’m not ready to erect the pillory for Ian McEwan doesn’t mean I think there’s nothing wrong with what he did (of course, I’d like to know EXACTLY what that was, before I come to my own conclusions).  There are plenty of things I think are wrong that I don’t feel that *punishment* remedies, even though I think there should be definite *consequences* for many of those things, including plagiarism.

  7. SB Sarah says:

    Janet Dailey admitted to plagiarizing several of Nora Roberts’ books in 1997. (Damn, has it been 10 years already?)

    One of the better write-ups of the events that also discusses the horrible press coverage, which carried on as if the whole story were a big joke, is over at Laurie’s News & Views from 30 July 1997.

    Ultimately, Dailey got a four-book allegedly seven-figure book deal from another publisher, and continues to write.

    If you ask me, as a former professor of remedial college composition, the penalty isn’t stiff enough, not on the college level, not on the professional level. I hated when I was told that failing a student for plagiarism was too harsh a punishment. I also hated that fellow professors would feel badly for the bawling, apologetic student who got caught and didn’t want to fail. To quote another colleague, “Do you want me to cry so you’ll feel badly for me, too? She’s not crying because she’s sorry. She’s crying because she got caught and her actions have consequences she doesn’t like.” I often thought the official attitude had a tinge of “everyone does it, no one turns their fellow cheaters in” syndrome.

    Regardless, I’ll still think that plagiarism is a 10-letter word for theft worthy of at least an F.

  8. SB Sarah says:

    Also, this is the AP Article about the story when it broke.

  9. SarahT says:

    Regarding the AP article, why are romance novels always singled out as being samey? How is the romance genre less formulaic than, say, science fiction or thrillers? I just don’t get it!

  10. Nora Roberts says:

    I should have been more clear there, but it would’ve taken up a lot of space. Briefly, and for a specific example: I once did a favor for a relative and read her friend’s unpubbed ms. It was, frankly, awful, but I did what I could in the way of advice.

    Less than a month later, a book of mine came out. The unpubbed wrote me and commented, several times on how ODD it was that our stories were so similar, that our characters were so close to the same, etc, etc.

    Now, my book had been written a full year before I read the unpubbed work, and believe me, there were no similarities whatsoever. But it upset and irritated me enough, this implication I’d copied her work, that I’ve never read an unpubbed ms since.

    I’ve also heard stories like this from other published writers who’ve done favors or judged mss.

    I also don’t mean to imply that it never happens—that a published author without ethics could steal from an unpubbed.

  11. Joy says:

    Having been strictly honest in my own writing, I was plaigiarized back in the dark ages by a hack for an online magazine(watch the whole gory thing go down here). There were NO consequences—other than a few insults on the newsgroup—to the person who plaigiarized me. I was shocked and surprised at how angry I was and how no one else seemed to even *care*.  I agree with Nora Roberts 100%; and even for us who do not make a living writing novels, this is theft.

  12. sherryfair says:

    Just some questions, as I try to draw the boundaries here:

    Is fan fiction plagiarism?
    Is, for instance, “The Wide Sargasso Sea” plagiarizing Jane Eyre?
    Is parody plagiarism?
    If something is in the public domain, and you make extensive use of it, are you plagiarizing?

    That’s what I think Gladwell’s article is about, in part.

    And also about how much creativity depends on the existence of previous models or influences.

    And what about trends, anyone? And the advent of subgenres? How much copying or modeling from other writers’ work happens there?

  13. Robin says:

    I hated when I was told that failing a student for plagiarism was too harsh a punishment.

    I guess it depends on the institution, because the two universities I have taught at (one in Michigan, one in California), took plagiarism very seriously, with failure a MINIMUM penalty, along with a permanent mark on the student’s transcript.  Neither faculty nor academic or student affairs adminsitrators saw it as minor or easily forgivable. 

    As someone who has always been very, very conscientious about following “official” rules, especially those related to ethical and academic honesty, I’m surprised I don’t have a black/white attitude about plagiarism. 

    And thanks, NR, for the clarification; now I understand the reference you were making.

  14. Nora Roberts says:

    ~Is fan fiction plagiarism?~

    I don’t read it, but I believe it’s generally a reader’s take on what they’d like known characters to do, or how they’d like a story to go. They’re not copying, but springboarding—and not for publication, or passing the characters off as their own. If they were doing either, I’d see it as plagiarism.

    ~Is, for instance, “The Wide Sargasso Sea” plagiarizing Jane Eyre?~

    I haven’t read it, so I don’t have a clue. But if it’s something like West Side Story taking Romeo and Juliet and remixing it—I wouldn’t take it as plagiarism.

    ~Is parody plagiarism?~

    Then Mad Magazine’s in big trouble. I’d never think of parody as plagiarism, as the parody doesn’t expect, by it’s very nature, to ignore the originators.

    ~If something is in the public domain, and you make extensive use of it, are you plagiarizing?~

    I’d think if not plagiarism, it’s pretty damn lazy writing. I often use quotes—that are fair use—to open a book. And I credit the originator.

    All the above is my take.

  15. --E says:

    What sherryfair said. Virgil was writing Homer fanfic.

    I think we would all agree that a student buying a paper online is committing both plagiarism and fraud.

    A writer stealing a plotline and characters and very specific scenes, with no acknowledgement of the original—plagiarism.  (“Acknowledgment of the original” would be, for instance, that Gregory Maguire does not pretend he isn’t following on L. Frank Baum’s work.)

    A writer lifting distinctive phrases, sentences, paragraphs: plagiarist.

    But while we can possibly put a bright line on the continuum, I think we cannot deny the continuum. Everyone who’s ever uttered (or wrote) a cliche is guilty of a variety of plagiarism: picking up a specific phrase from someone else and using it for their own.

    If you are the sort of person who reads and re-reads and re-re-reads some books, it is terribly likely that some of the non-cliche phrases will sink into your psyche, and perhaps pop out in your writing, very likely in similar sorts of scenes. We all write because we were inspired by earlier writers to try our hand at it. I bet most people write in the same genre as their favorite author.

    Now, I like to think that in the same way when I’m quoting from a movie and know what movie I’m quoting that I would remember a particular phrase from a book. I like to think it. I really do. I have never, so far as I know, copped another writer’s distinctive phrases. I hope to Crom I haven’t done it unknowingly. But no one can say “This is impossible to do by accident.”

    The burden of “preponderance of the evidence” (the legal requirement in a civil suit such as might follow an act of plagiarism) is a good one. One or two phrases may be an accident. Whole scenes, numerous phrases, and suchlike…the preponderance grows ponderous.

  16. Emily says:

    Re: fanfiction & copyrights, my understanding is that 100 years after the death of the author, the copyright is released into the public domain. Hence why Kevin Sullivan waited so many years to make Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story because the end of Montgomery’s copyright meant he could do pretty much what he wanted with her characters, which he did, and good God that was wrong, but sadly, sometimes that happens.
    So Wide Sargasso Sea shouldn’t be infringing on anything that I know of.
    The fandoms I write fanfiction for are all in the English-lit-nerd category, and the authors are all, sadly, long dead, so I don’t give much thought to copyright, and unlike some I’ve seen, I’m not trying to make any kind of profit. Disclaimers are usually appreciated by some readers, but more often that’s in the “modern” fanfictions, like Harry Potter.
    That’s how I play the game, but as one can see from a peek into the Pit of Voles, the rules are a bit fast-and-loose there.

  17. Kalen Hughes says:

    Is fan fiction plagiarism?
    I wouldn’t call it such. Like parody it springs from the original, but is tied to it as well. Additionally, with fan fic there is no claim of having originated the characters, or of any lifted line. Things such as lifted dialogue are EXPECTED to be recognized as quotes.
    Is, for instance, “The Wide Sargasso Sea” plagiarizing Jane Eyre?
    Haven’t read it, but unless it lifts passages from JE wholesale and doesn’t tell you they’re lifted, then I’d say it isn’t. Just as I don’t think all the “Mr. Darcy” books are examples of plagiarism.
    Is parody plagiarism?
    Parody is legally protected. See the whole fight about whether or not the “sequel” to Gone with the Wind was a parody for tons of info on this.
    If something is in the public domain, and you make extensive use of it, are you plagiarizing? 
    If you lift it and don’t indicate that it’s a quote of some kind, then hell yes it’s plagiarism. I can’t slap my name on Pride and Prejudice and say I wrote it just because it’s in the public domain, nor can I artfully tweak it and say it’s my writing. What I can do is steal the plot and write my own book about similar characters.
    And also about how much creativity depends on the existence of previous models or influences.
    Not Germaine to the discussion at hand, IMO. We’re not talking about taking inspiration from another writer’s work. We’re talking about lifting the actual passages from said writer. About stealing their words.
    And what about trends, anyone? And the advent of subgenres? How much copying or modeling from other writers’ work happens
    Again, this really isn’t what we’re talking about. Hell, yes, a lot of books (in any genre you can name) are derivative, but derivative isn’t the same as plagiarized. For example. Eragon seems extremely derivative of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, but I don’t think he plagiarized McCaffery.

  18. Doina says:

    I too agree with Nora Roberts.

    A little funny story: I tried my hand, writing a novel, first draft almost done. In first part, the leading female character finds herself in the middle of a dance floor in a nightclub, where she’d never been. She doesn’t know how to dance, and feels like an idiot, thinking to herself that she looks like a marionnette with strings attached to a drunken puppeteer. Oh my, how proud I felt for my little metaphor.

    And then, bang. I just finished reading last week White Oleander—Janet Fitch. The narrator at some point looks at another character who bobbs her head like a puppet in the hands of an unskilled puppeteer.

    I felt my chest sinking.

    Okay. I am a nobody, and no one so far has ever read my manuscript in its entirety, written more than two years ago. Janet Fitch published her book in 1999 and I didn’t read it until now. I did not copy that metaphor from her book, of which existence I did not know. It is, I say, just pure coincidence that that famous writer (whose book had been made into a movie) and truly humble yours used the same metamophor.

    Of course, I deleted mine, just in case, but I almost cried, and had to squeeze my brain to find something else, whining for my lost metaphor. It did fit so nicely…

    I am sure that many metaphores are cliches, over-used, so here it comes the originality of a creative mind, to stay away from them.

  19. Abalina says:

    Having *just* finished a course on intellectual property and copyright,  I thought I’d share a couple things from U.S. Copyright law as explained by Kenneth Crewes in Copyright Law for Librarians and Educators 2nd ed. ALA, 2006. 

    1) Most new works are copyrighted for the duration of the author’s life, plus 70 years. (pg 15)

    2) “Fair use” as set out by Supreme Court interpretation (meaning that it is not an actual law) of Section 107 of the US Copyright Act balances four factors is favor or against fair use:
      a) The purpose of the use, including non-profit educational use
      b) Nature of copyrighted work
      c) Amount of work used
      d) effect of the use on the potential market for, or value of, original work. (pg 39-43)

    With that being said, any work that does not meet the four standards, is considered a violation of copyright and is plagiarism.

    Anyways, copyright has been on the forefront of my mind since I just finished the course.  Also check out for the complete legal standings.

  20. dl says:

    Not all educational institutions take plagiarism casually.  As a high school freshman, my son (a lazy student at the time) neglected to submit a works cited page with his first English paper.  He received an automatic F, and I received a call from the teacher regarding the seriousness of plagiarism.  He was given 24 hours to submit the works cited page for partial credit.  At the time I thought her attitude overly harsh, but apparently not – given the access writers have to so much quotable media in this modern age.

  21. Helen M says:

    I am now an even bigger fan of La Nora.

    Having recently finished a post-grad degree (which came straight after three years of being an undergrad), I’m still in ‘plagiarism = not being allowed to graduate! oh noes!’ mode*. But then, I think I always will be of the ‘plagiarism = A Bad Thing’ persuasion, because in my (admittedly very tired atm) mind, plagiarism = (at the very least) cheating, and a cheater shouldn’t come out on top, esp when others deserve to have won. Credit earned through cheating is undeserved. Want to come up with a better description of my feelings, but I can’t. Ugh.

    Doina, I know that heart sinking pain. It sucks! The number of time I thought I had thought up some lovely original interpretation / example / hypothesis / turn of phrase for decribing the situation / whatever for my dissertation, only to stumble accross something too similar in a book or journal paper a couple of days later… just not funny. Sure, supporting / illustrating quotes were useful, but I needed to demonstrate original thought!

    On the subject of fanfiction (though I only read in two fandoms), stuff written / archieved recently almost always has a disclaimer, even if it is along the lines of ‘I don’t own the characters, X does, but I wish I did own them!’. Also, I see fanfiction as similar to conversations people have after reading / watching something where they didn’t like what had happened to the characters – ‘I think X and Y ought to have done Z!’ (even if ‘Z’ is more ‘been born as vampires’ than ‘kissed’). Also, readers of fanfic know that the characters originate elsewhere – no one who reads LOTR fanfic on purpose, for example, is going to think that MarySue created the character of Aragorn, or the environs of Rivendell, etc.. And I would think that few people read fanfic without knowing that it is fanfic. Indeed, many fanfic authors rely on their readers’ previous emotional investment in characters from the original works and assume a prior knowledge of the original work. Alternate Universe fanfics are often accompanied by ‘I know it’s different, but I think it works!’ explanations of why the fanfic author has changed something from the canon. Even if it is ‘Rogue can control her powers now’ so the fanfic author can write some Rogue and Remy smut.

    With respect to Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea: Firstly, it’s at the top of my TBR pile, and I’m really wishing I’d read it already so I could post more intelligently. Secondly, as far as I understand, Rhys never claims the (relevant) characters as her own, instead of being Charlotte Brontë‘s. (For those who don’t know WSS, it’s a prequel to Jane Eyre, with the first Mrs Rochester – from before she was Mrs Rochester – as the main chracter.) Also, (from having reading the foreword and some of the notes to the book, though again, not the actual book itself), Rhys seems to assume that readers of WSS have read JE, when characters are alluding to events / people.

    OMG, I think I just compared Jean Rhys to a MarySue fanfic writer! Time to go to bed, I think.


    *I’m very surprised to read that some universities give extensions in the case of plagiarism. Throughout my uni experience, any assessed essay, no matter how little it contributed to your final mark, if found to contain plagiarism, would mean that you would not be allowed to graduate from your degree.

  22. Helen M says:

    argh, didn’t preview it one last time:

    *Time to go to bed, I think, before I say anything else silly.

  23. Doina says:

    Helen, you didn’t say anything silly!
    I am a big fan of Nora, she draw amazing female characters. One of my favorite is Ariel from Dual Image.

    When I wrote my dissertation I ran through the same troubles, too. I feel the pain. As for my humble writing, I got another punch in my stomach. At some point, I wrote about my girl: “like a marathon runner approaching the finish line, she stretched (or pushed) her mental and physical endurance to the limit”—or something to this effect an important info about what’s going to happen next. She just had a gruesome examination and didn’t sleep more than three hours in three nights.

    Guess what? I read in another book (I forgot where): “like a marathon racer closer to the finish line.” Geez! Gone my marathon metaphor. Now what? Sobs!

    Because, you see, I can’t leave it there, knowing that someone else used it. It just gnaws at the back of my mind.

    Question: how many other words/experessions, loose to the world, I used unconsciously? I will never get published, but even so, I don’t like to think that I am not original. Vain, vain!

    Some time ago, I came across with an astrological site from where I picked up a paragraph about Jupiter sign, which works as a clue to the plot in my story. However, before I did this, I thought it was fair to ask permission, so I wrote to the lady who owned that site. I explained why and even offered to send an excerpt for her to see how it looks. She was very nice. She answered that she didn’t mind, and would love to read whatever I wrote.

    Good night, Helen!

  24. Therese says:

    In case anyone is curious, this page has a few of the bits that Dailey plagiarized from Roberts.

    I love that Nora is so vocal about plagiarism. All of the academic institutions I’ve attended had a zero-tolerance plagiarism policy. If plagiarism was reported, the student was expelled. I don’t see why it should be different for any other writer. McEwan is getting away far too easily on this one.

  25. eggs says:

    Plagiarism is theft, plain and simple.  Even if the author claims they didn’t “really mean to do it”.  Even if the author is very nice/cute/talented.  It’s still theft.  In my mind, the very fact that the authors concerned aren’t spreading their mea culpa’s far and wide when they are caught proves that they know they stole it.

    Think about it:  Imagine you go into a department store, try on a nice diamond necklace and then, after you start looking at other stuff, you “forget” you have the necklace on.  You head out the door, completely oblivious to the fact you have it hanging around your neck.  The store clerk follows you out onto the street.  He catches up with you a block later and says “Hey!  That’s our necklace!  You didn’t pay for that.  Give it back!”  Now, if you genuinely took the necklace by accident, the first thing you do is go bright red, freak out and start apologizing profusely for your inadvertent crime.  You give the clerk back the necklace with even more apologies.  Accidents do happen.

    But maybe you don’t do that.  Maybe you stare the clerk in the eye and say, “I believe you are mistaken.  This necklace is mine,” hoping that the clerk will back off and let you keep the necklace.  I mean, you made it all the way out of the store without getting caught, right?  Your chances of getting away with it are good.  The clerk calls the cops.  You go down to the station and swear black and blue it was your necklace all along.  Your lawyer arrives and talks about what a nice lady you are, pillar of the community, etc.  Everyone (sometimes even the clerk) starts to feel sorry for you.  Then the cops ask you to take off the necklace.  Hanging off the back is the price tag from the store.  At this point, you start angrily shouting that “it was an accident” and you “never meant to take it”. 

    Do you think anyone would believe you that the theft was “inadvertent” in the second scenario?  This is basically what happens when many authors are accused of plagiarism, and yet some people clearly want to let them off the hook. 

    For my money, the reasons people want to let plagiarists off the hook are more interesting than the reasons that people plagiarize in the first place.  I think a lot of it has to do with how easy it is to steal creative content these days.  Who wants to blame an author for stealing creative content when we all do it ourselves all of the time?  Pointing the finger at a plagiarist is uncomfortable if you regularly steal content yourself.

    How many people reading this website have a piece of music on their hard drive that they downloaded for free?  How many have clicked on a celebrity photo link to see the image for free on a site that steals content instead of buying the magazine that paid tens of thousands of dollars (or more) for the pictures?  How many people watch tv shows or movies on bittorrent, even though they know the producers & actors on the shows won’t get a penny in royalties from the viewing?  All of these things are a form of theft of creative content.  And millions of people do it every day without so much as a twinge of regret.  Then we ask these people to feel outraged when one author steals creative content from another and we wonder why everyone wants to look the other way and say it “isn’t really a crime.”


  26. Dalia says:

    Eggs said: How many people reading this website have a piece of music on their hard drive that they downloaded for free?…How many have clicked on a celebrity photo link to see the image for free on a site that steals content instead of buying the magazine that paid tens of thousands of dollars (or more) for the pictures?…
    Then we ask these people to feel outraged when one author steals creative content from another and we wonder why everyone wants to look the other way and say it “isn’t really a crime.”


    Perhaps the ‘emotional’ or social difference there is that the first two examples of theft of creative content involve a ‘channel’ or a ‘middle man’ in that the infrastructure is there which enables the end user to ‘steal’ while still remaining distant from the actual theft. Bittorrent users didn’t create the software to steal or even come up with the idea to do it. They benefit from it yes, so I’m not saying what occurs is not theft, but they still view themselves as several characters removed from the wrongdoing.

    With the author-to-author plagiarism, there is no middleman, there is no already present infrastructure. One person takes up someone else’s work, searches through it to find a line, a paragraph, whatever, that speaks to them for whatever reason, and then, themselves, write it into their work and accepts authorial rights over it. This theft is more ‘in your face’ and harder to ‘accept’.

    Basically, a lot of people have the notion that theft is a physical thing – robbery they understand. I had it; I could touch it. You took it; now I can’t touch it. This is why plagiarism is hard to fit into their idea of theft because the author ‘still has her words’. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s difficult to see what was taken when everything seems to remain the same.

    Wrt music downloads etc, I think a lot of the ‘free-for-all’ and socially acceptable slant to theft comes from a Robin Hood sort of mentality; a ‘middle finger to the Man’ vibe, where people are saying: They’re obscenely rich already, these big companies. They shouldn’t be charging X dollars anyway the &#@!%$*. And it makes it easier for them to steal – along with the fact that ‘safety in numbers’ is a really powerful allure.


    Doina said: And then, bang. I just finished reading last week White Oleander—Janet Fitch. The narrator at some point looks at another character who bobbs her head like a puppet in the hands of an unskilled puppeteer.


    If you’re still lamenting the deletion of your original sentence Doina, go ahead and put it back in. Nobody can steal ideas and your drunken puppeteer and her unskilled puppeteer are similar *ideas*. If you’d be accused of plagiarising Fitch, Fitch could then be accused of plagiarising Author B who in 1988 wrote a similar metaphor also using the words ‘unskilled puppeteer’. But this would be silly to me as any amount of people could think up a marionette metaphor.

    In terms of fiction, when I think of plagiarism, I’m looking for more than just a random metaphor similarity. Few of us are that blindingly original that our ideas have not been written out before or will not soon be written out – by someone who has yet to know our name, far less read our work. What I’m looking for is sentence structure as well as word content.

    I’m looking for:

    Quantity. How many ‘little phrases’ or sentences/paragraphs have been lifted and placed, tweaked or not, into a new work. If the only similarity between Fitch and you is the puppeteer, you’re free to go, you can eve walk away slowly from the plagiarism police because they’re not coming to get you.

    Quality. Perhaps Fitch wrote White Oleander in 102 BC and that metaphor is better known than Genesis in the Bible. Also more well-loved. Then you put it in your book. Only that. But ‘only that’ is a big whopper of a line and I’d suggest you pick up the pace to make good your escape.

    Quantity & Quality: you’re a definite goner.

  27. JulieLeto says:

    While I was once plagiarised by someone writing fan fiction—they took one of my novels and “adapted” it to fit the characters from General Hospital…I still considered it plagiarism.  They even gave me credit! (The first time…the second time they posted it, all credits were removed.)

    I was not flattered.  And boy, did that ever piss off the fan fiction readers and writers.

    I know this isn’t the type of fan fiction other people think of, but it’s a world that breeds “it’s okay to steal” mentalities in my opinion because you are messing with someone else’s characters and more importantly, their world.  Writers spend as much time creating characters and world building as they do actually writing.  And while fan fiction (and I’m talking about currently living and writing authors like Rowling here, not long dead writers) is not illegal, it bothers me a great deal.

    In my case, I didn’t care that I was scorned by the GH fan fiction community.  My words were taken without my permission.  Paragraph upon paragraph with only the names changed—and then love scenes that were so hot, readers had to have them sent to them privately—which meant to me they were my love scenes word for word.  It was a really sexy book.

    This has happened many times over.  Plagiarism is a huge problem.  I do not download music for free and if a photograph I find on the Internet has a copyright, I don’t use it or else I pay for it like I’ve paid for the images on my website.  But stealing words is so much harder to do than stealing music and images…and in that case, I’m not trying to pass the music or the photograph off as my own.  Therein lies the difference.

  28. It surprises me that no one has mentioned the David Lodge case from the mid-1990s.
    Short recap—A respected UK newspaper accused a Mills and Boon writer of plagarizing a David Lodge novel. They were far too close etc etc. Lodge made some fairly strong statements. A nasty business. The accused author had just given her teaching job to write full time.

    The accused author took the Independent to court and won a very hefty fee for defamation of character. M&B published the books they had in the pipeline as she was not plagarist by any stretch of the imagination.
    She had NOT plagarised David Lodge. Contrary to his assumption about romance writers being iliterate and basically uneducated (and I forget the exact wording as it was a long time ago), her degree was in nineteenth century English literature. They had both used the same source material—namely Mrs Gaskell’s North and South as a basis for their respective books.
    David Lodge has continued to be inspired by a number of long dead authors. I believe his latest had something to do with Henry James… The M&B author no longer writes.

    Plagarism or sloppy writing.

    The media needs to be very sure before making accusations about individual cases. A lot can float around in the ether.

    As a side note, I understand there are moves afoot to republish Lucilla Andrews autobiography, so some good may come of the fuss.
    And the RNA lunch where she was supposidly going to give her J’Accuse was a wonderful occassion, honouring Mary Stewart, Rosamunde Pilcher and Lucy. The food was good, and the company lovely but the tour of the Scottish parliament building eccentric.

  29. Marianne McA says:

    That’s a very good article you linked to. I’ve always had difficulty imagining where the lines ought to be drawn in academic plagiarism. I can see why it’s wrong to buy a dissertation – but beyond that I get a bit confused. So much of my schooling seemed to be a process of learning and regurgitating other people’s knowledge and opinions – with better scores for more accurate recall – that it seems contradictory for schools to pretend to believe that a good student ought never to regurgitate another person’s work. No fifteen year old is going to research the reasons why the Liberals won the 1906 elections – so every essay on the subject is basically a copy of the teacher’s notes, which were probably in turn based on a history text book. If I lift the material straight from the text book I’m a plagiarist – if I include everything from my notes I’m an A-student: why is the one process morally better than the other?
    I thought the article was good on that – the difference between what he calls ‘boilerplate’ sentences and copying someone’s ‘musings, or conclusions, or structure.’

  30. Robin says:

    All of the academic institutions I’ve attended had a zero-tolerance plagiarism policy. If plagiarism was reported, the student was expelled. I don’t see why it should be different for any other writer. McEwan is getting away far too easily on this one.

    But there was a process involved, right?  Like an ivnestigation by judicial affairs and some sort of hearing? 

    What I take issue with is the idea that plagiarism can be “proved” merely by the public accusation of such.  Where’s the process of determination?  Essentially, in a case like McEwan’s and Andrews’s, a civil action between the parties would establish the guilt or innocence of the alleged plagiarist.  I can see how the public somehow feels wronged in a plagiarism case, but public judgment does not equal guilt.  Someone mentioned the Opal Mehta case in this thread—I remember when that whole story unfolded how one of the Harvard papers commented on how gleefully other students there celebrated Viswanathan’s fall.  It took nothing more than an accusation for her to be publicly drawn and quartered, all the while Alloy Books remained untouched.  Had Viswanathan not been a young girl with so little cultural cache and so much to lose, I can imagine that whole situation might have skewed quite differently, from her “confession” forward.

    If I lift the material straight from the text book I’m a plagiarist – if I include everything from my notes I’m an A-student: why is the one process morally better than the other?

    Many teachers will tell you they are certain their students know the difference, but I am not one of them.  Gosh, it would make me feel so much better if I could claim that kind of confidence in kids and young adults grasping what I think are pretty complex rules, even for adults, when it comes to the nooks and crannies of intellectual property rights.  That we *tell* students the difference doesn’t, IMO, mean they *understand* the difference, for some of the very reasons you point out.  Especially when students get to college, I think the system sometimes expects of them a level of intellectual maturity they just can’t yet match.  I had a student copy passages into her paper from the very reader we were using in class—and you know, I could understand how she thought that would be okay, even if I knew what she did violated academic honesty codes and required turning her case over to judicial affairs.  Did I explain well enough what plagiarism was?  That case, my first, made me really aware of how much I needed to focus on the hows and whys of academic dishonesty (and my final advice was always “ask if you’re in doubt”—a catchall provision I felt was the fairest way to put students on notice that the burden was with them).

    Even here, as many people as say fan fiction is not illegal, are in conflict with the views of someone like Holly Lisle, who has stated publicly that she will have anyone who she finds writing fan fic from her work “prosecuted” (  Fair use provisions remain terribly complicated.  And let’s not even get back into the ARC controversy.  Are these more difficult than “simple plagiarism” guidelines?  Maybe, but I’m not certain all cases of alleged plagiarism are so simple, either.

  31. DS says:

    Robin, your Holly Lisle url doesn’t go anywhere.  I would like to read that article so I’ll google to see if I can find it.  You raise some interesting points.  We can also so throw in some things such as the need to register the work with the U. S. Copyright offce before the copyright holder can sue for infringement—has Harlequin started doing that yet?  I know it was still a problem a few years ago when an up and coming young author copied the work of a veteran author published by Harlequin. 

    I sometimes wonder why we are surprised that the rest of the publishing world values romance so little when romance publishers lead the way by their own actions.

  32. Robin says:

    For links to the Lisle statement and comments from Lee Goldberg, who wrote on the topic, try here:

  33. Nora Roberts says:

    I don’t believe plagiarism can be ‘proved’ by public accusation. But I believe the public has opinions on the issue, as well as every other issue under the sun, and rarely hesitates to express it. This site is proof of that, certainly.

    I believe in the process—and in fact made use of it in the Dailey case. Interestingly, this was the only time I needed to make use of the process in the four instances I’ve been plagiarized. In the other three, notifying the publisher, and the publisher subsequently checking the scenes and passages listed, were enough to have the infringing work pulled.

    I suppose those three instances used process as well. The publisher of the infringing work didn’t just take my word for it—and before notification was sent my own agent and lawyer read, compared, assessed.

    Certainly, the Dailey case was the most egregious I’ve ever dealt with, and the most difficult to go through. Even her admission didn’t end the process, which took a full two years to wind up.

    However, in none of these cases would I blame the publisher. The writer signs a contract which includes a clause stating the work submitted is original. The editor can’t be expected to read this work and recognize passages and scenes written and published previously by another author.

  34. sherryfair says:

    Yeah, I am confused by the idea that fan fiction wouldn’t be plagiarism. That would suggest very specific strings of words by a writer would be protected, but that anything more general and diffused—such as the world a writer has created & all her work in conceiving & delineating characters & setting in motion their relationships—isn’t considered worth a damn as intellectual property. That’s difficult for me to accept. I think fan fiction is “socially acceptable” plagiarism— because it’s not profit-making, it’s not competing in the marketplace with original work & it’s sort of underground in that it’s not accessible without some slight effort of search on the Web. So there’s some sort of tacit agreement to give it a pass. (Only some writers haven’t gotten the memo & aren’t giving their tacit agreement.)

    Student plagiarism, on the other hand, is socially unacceptable, because it subverts the principles that the teacher is trying to model, and because threatens the whole foundation of a university (which ostensibly also serves as a research institution that propagates creativity & learning—that is, in addition to serving as a social club for those in their early 20s & bestowing brand-name credentials useful in the job market).

    An earlier poster said it best. I’m trying to figure out a continuum here that acknowledges how creativity works. Because otherwise this discussion would just run in a circle: “Plagiarism is bad. It hurts people. Don’t plagiarize.” Of course, I agree with that. We all agree with that. (At least, I hope we do, or we’re in a little trouble, not only in the publishing world, but as a society.) What I’m interested in the grayer area of dissemination of ideas, influences, homages, appropriation, sampling, fan fiction, reusing Melville’s or Mitchell’s or Bronte’s characters to retell classic novels, what have you. Can we agree there’s a continuum here?

    What I’m interested in runs sort of like this: If one person does it exactly like another, it’s plagiarism. If one person does it a lot like (but not exactly like) another, they’re being influenced by someone. If three are doing it, it’s a market trend. If 10 are doing it, it’s a new subgenre (vampires, anyone?). And if 100 are doing it over 20 years, then maybe it’s going to solidify a genre. (Woodiwiss, Heyer, what have you wrought?)

  35. Dalia says:

    I, on the other hand, can’t see how fan fic could *ever* be seen as plagiarism. Where’s the element of ‘passing off’ as your own? There are ‘Buffy’, ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Farscape’ fanfics (etc etc)- by their very nature, they proclaim: I am a fan of work not mine own.

    Now, fan fics as affecting the original author’s copyright – well that’s a whole other issue.

    But am I missing something here? I know American and English copyright laws are divergent and I fall on the English side, so maybe plagiarism does not need the ‘passing off’ element?

  36. DS says:

    The Lisle thing was interesting and sent me off in a dozen directions! 

    I don’t read fan fiction but I did read Enterprising Women by Camille Bacon-Smith as I think I mentioned elsewhere.  In part of this work she dealt with what happened (in a socialogical sense) when fans are denied the right to legally and publically engage in Fan Fiction—it goes underground and anonymous but does not stop.

    This appears to support the part of her thesis that a great deal of fan fiction serves an extra-literary purpose.

    This may seem far afield from the discussion, but I can see a distinction between the writer who steals the words of another for tangible or intangible pecuniary gain (e.g., a grade) and the writer who is engaging in a therapeutic exercise.  One you can stop with legal means.  The other you probably can’t.

    With regard to the first instance the casual reader may not learn the outcome of the process.  For instance Alex Haley was accused of lifting a large part of his plot and characters in Roots from a 1967 novel and I had no idea the outcome until I just looked it up.  Then there was Stephen Ambrose, the historian.  Whatever happened there?  The only recent case I knew the outcome of was the suit brought against Dan Brown in England and that was because it actually went to court.  Apparently most of these cases are solved out of court. 

    That brings up the axiom that in order to be effective justice must be done and be SEEN to be done.  By settling out of court there is no doubt that a lot of unpleasant publicity is avoided but it also does not provide examples of what can happen if someone plaigarizes. 

    This is an interesting discussion.  But then I expect this from the Bitches.

  37. Robin says:

    This may seem far afield from the discussion, but I can see a distinction between the writer who steals the words of another for tangible or intangible pecuniary gain (e.g., a grade) and the writer who is engaging in a therapeutic exercise.  One you can stop with legal means.  The other you probably can’t.

    One of the problems—as I see it—is that ‘plagiarism’ has become a catchall term for all sorts of intellectual property violations.  My limited understanding is as follows:

    In reality, there’s plagiarism, which is NOT a legally recognized category per se (in the same way that “murder” generally isn’t a legal category, but “homicide” or “manslaughter” are), but generally means the lifting, taking, and copying of words or passages or ideas of another and passing them off as one’s own.  Then there are trademark and copyright violations.  Trademark violations happen, for example, when Coach purses are knocked off and sold on the street.  Copyright violations are generally more connected to written media, although someone can have certain aspects of their written work trademarked (i.e. names or images or logos).  Violations of copyright and trademark are infringements of federal law.

    The kinds of issues we’re talking about here with copyright infringement are *civil* issues, which means that one party sues the other party for infringement (or threatens to), and the defendant may claim fair use under Titles 15 (trademark) or 17(copyright) of the US Code. Awards to the victor, if that person is the one allegedly plagiarized from, are generally monetary.

    While plagiarism may include copyright violation, it doesn’t have to, if, for example, something is plagiarized from an unpublished or public domain source.  And student plagiarism isn’t a legal issue unless the author who is plagiarized decided to take action.  Mostly, it is an administrative matter, and, as sherryfair noted, is very much connected to issues of academic honesty and the safe and honorable production of original intellectual property and the fostering of intellectual creativity.

    As for fan fiction, I guess that can either be trademark or copyright infringement, although my own views on fan fic are that it is *generally* not a threat to the original text of the author and should therefore not be stopped.  Personally, I believe that fan fiction can boost the original author’s sales, which creates an interesting twist to the idea behind profiting from another’s creativity.  There are, of course, cases where a fan fiction author might go too far, trying, for example, to claim that he or she originated certain aspects of the fan fiction by using so extensively the original text that it isn’t really “fan fiction” in the spirit of the term. I think it was Julie Leto who indicated her work was being used for General Hospital fan fic, which is, IMO, a different issue, as well.  Personally, I’m not a big fan of fan fiction, although I probably haven’t seen any really good stuff.  I wonder, sometimes, if it’s more frustrating for an author to see really well-written fan fic or horribly written fan fic.

    Because we live in a society that functions under a compensatory civil legal model (harms can be compensated for with money), intellectual property rights are often bound up with the way in which a competing work is or isn’t taking away from the profitability of the original work.  That’s why, IMO, the issue of power as one poster brought up in the other thread is quite interesting.  It’s often the powerful who claim claim the right to cry copyright or trademark infringement.

    For example some companies are threatening many of those so-called “gripesites” (like why certain airlines are so terrible) with trademark infringement, even though courts have generally upheld the free speech rights of consumers in those cases.  Often, the mere threat is enough to shut down the site.

    And if, for example, we use a more traditional property model for intellectual property, things can get real interesting, IMO, because there are a number of circumstances under which the law does NOT protect the original property owner or purchaser.  If I, for example, obtain stolen goods in good faith and with a valid title (not knowing they were stolen), and am therefore the “bona fide purchaser” my rights generally prevail over the property owner from whom the goods were stolen.  Then there’s adverse possession.  And the legal issues around “finders” are fascinating and complex, as well.

  38. Robin says:

    I don’t believe plagiarism can be ‘proved’ by public accusation. But I believe the public has opinions on the issue, as well as every other issue under the sun, and rarely hesitates to express it. This site is proof of that, certainly.

    Oh, I absolutely agree with that.  Thinking back, though, to an earlier comment about how McEwan should, for example, be held to a “higher standard” than someone like Viswanathan, I guess I wonder whether a similar argument could be made relative to writers discussing the alleged plagiarism of other writers.  It’s probably not an argument I’d be very fond of, since I don’t think the issue in either case is one of “standards” or something comparable.  All I object to is the idea that to be intolerant of true plagiarism one must systematically rebuke and publicly scorn all *alleged* plagiarists. 

    And, very seriously, I wonder—if we could put all writing in some big computer somewhere—how many writers, published and not, would be found entirely free of inspiration or influence that might not suffer at least a *claim* of plagiarism from someone else.

  39. Anonymosity says:

    When I hear about stuff like this I become livid. Under a different online handle I used to post a lot of original artwork on the Internet. As time went on, the most appalling thing happened.

    People began taking my work, putting their name on it, and claiming it as their own.

    I felt violated. The phrase “mind rape” isn’t far off at all. I can’t imagine how long it takes Nora Roberts to write her books, or the effort she puts in to it.

    I would often work for over 6 hours on a single piece of art, and having that stolen by some asshat on the Internet was devastating and infuriating. I can’t even begin to comprehend what it must be like for Nora Roberts, an accomplished, published author, to have her work publicly ripped off, and then be mocked by the press to boot!

    You get in trouble for stealing someone’s wallet. You can get kicked out of college for plagiarizing a term paper. But that horrible woman was allowed to stay on with her publisher after what she did?


  40. Julie Leto says:

    I wonder, sometimes, if it’s more frustrating for an author to see really well-written fan fic or horribly written fan fic. 

    Let me answer with my opinion—the bad fan fic was worse.  The chickie who stole my story couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag.  AND add to that the fact that this was Jax/Brenda fan fic and I never liked that pairing!  (I’m a GH fan myself.)  But I think what honestly infuriated me most was having my words altered into a story that simply made no sense, was overly dramatic, wasn’t true to either the characters I’d written or the ones she was ripping off from ABC…it was just a mess all around.

    Had it been good, I might have taken a few minutes to be flattered before I got angry.  But it wasn’t, so I didn’t.

    Since that incident, several friends were ripped off by the same soap opera fan fic crowd.  I think they assume romance novels and soaps go hand in hand…but I wonder how prevelent this is since it’s happened so many times.

    Another problem I’ve seen happen twice is people stealing the online stories from eHarlequin.  One was rewritten with new character names and new ethnicities and sold to an epublisher.  An eagle-eyed reviewer caught the thievery and reported it to the original author, who not only had Harlequin do their legal bit, but also filed charges against the offending author within RWA.  The whole matter was very hush-hush, but RWA took the situation very seriously and acted accordingly.

    Thank God.

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