A Quick-n-Dirty Primer on Plagiarism, Copyright and Fair Use, and Citations in a Fictional Work

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement, the issue of fair use, and what authors should and shouldn’t do when it comes to citing research in their works of fiction. A lot of bad information is being passed around, and a lot of conflation (TAKE A DRINK, BITCHES) between plagiarism and copyright infringement; there also seem to be mild panic outbreaks among some authors who appear to think we readers are going to stab at them with our Pitchforks of Plagiarism +5 if they don’t include detailed citations in their books.

As a petty pedant, the former drives me nuts; as a reader who is capable of utilizing common sense, the latter makes me shake my head with mild exasperation. And as you regulars already know, pedantry + exasperation = me blather long time. The first part of this article is going to be a detailed, largely fact-based discussion about definitions. The second is going to be what I, as a Reader of Moderately-Sized Brain, want to see from an author in terms of acceptable usage without acknowledgement, and acceptable usage with acknowledgement; that part is pretty much purely opinion-based.

Copyright Cake vs. Plagiarism Pie (and how to wield the Fair Use Fork)

As I’ve noted previously on this blog, copyright infringement and plagiarism are different beasts, though they occasionally interbreed and give birth to that Liger of the intellectual property universe: a copyright infringement case that actually involves plagiarism. Here are the key differences again, in more detail:

Copyright infringement is a matter of the law—and keep in mind that what I’m going to talk about is the American sub-species of this particular animal; other countries implement copyright law in different ways. Copyright law came about as a means for creators of an original work to exercise their rights—the right to create and distribute copies, the right to license it for other purposes or to other people, and the right to be credited as the creator of the work, among other things. It’s an attempt to strike a balance between allowing the creators of the work to benefit financially and to exert whatever control they wish on the fruits of their labor, and having the work enrich the culture as a whole by passing into the public domain.

Notice, by the way, that copyright law covers all sorts of work, and not merely works of fiction. An article in an academic journal is subject to copyright protection; so are textbooks, poems, songs, music videos, movies, etc.  However, not all intellectual property is protected by copyright law. Short phrases and procedures, for example, aren’t covered, and other things are covered by trademark protection (such as logos and slogans) or patent law (systems and processes, for example).

Copyright law gives you exclusive rights, but only for a limited time. As the law stands now, works created on or after January, 1978 are copyrighted for the duration of the author’s life plus 70 years; for works created “for hire” (i.e., licensed by entities and people other than the creator), copyright lasts for 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever is shorter. Copyright protection didn’t always last this long; they were extended to the current terms thanks to the Copyright Term Extension Act, known commonly as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act due to the fact that Disney, among a few other holders of lucrative copyrighted material, lobbied very heavily to have the terms extended in order to avoid some of their popular works pass into the public domain.

So in short, in order to use material that’s been copyrighted, you generally have to get permission from the copyright holder and comply with whatever terms they might have set, including, in many cases, paying some sort of fee.

But wait! That’s not all! Call now, and for the price of FREE, we’ll tell you about Fair Use!

In essence, Fair Use is an affirmative defense that allows for the legal use of copyrighted material that would normally be considered infringing without asking for permission or clearing the rights, under certain limited circumstances. In the United States, the specific law governing that is the Fair Use section of the Copyright Act of 1976. There are two parts of special interest to us in the statute. The first part covers certain circumstances under which Fair Use will usually prevail—it specifies that “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” The second part is a four-factor balancing test to determine if each specific case is covered by Fair Use:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

(By the way: some people seem to have gotten the impression that I’m some sort of Copyright Enforcment Harpy, which really isn’t the case at all. I think copyright law is a good thing, by and large, but I have lots of opinions on why I think the state of the law as it stands is quite severely broken, but this is not really the forum for it. I do highly recommend this comic by Duke University School of Law’s Center for Study of the Public Domain to get an overview of the issues and problems with current copyright law.)

So to summarize: copyright infringement = a legal cause of action. Plagiarism, because it also concerns unauthorized use of intellectual property, is related, but it is possible to infringe on copyright without committing plagiarism. The example I gave previously is one of the clearest I can think of: a filmmaker using a song in a movie without clearing the rights with the publisher but who fully acknowledges the writers and performers in the credits has committed copyright infringement, but hasn’t plagiarized.

This is because plagiarism is concerned with inadequate acknowledgment and/or false attribution. Plagiarism is the act of using somebody else’s work and either failing to acknowledge the contribution of the original author and/or outright claiming that you’re the author of the work. The Wikipedia article characterizes the difference between copyright infringement vs. plagiarism this way:

Plagiarism is different from copyright infringement. While both terms may apply to a particular act, they emphasize different aspects of the transgression. Copyright infringement is a violation of the rights of the copyright holder, when material is used without the copyright holder’s consent. On the other hand, plagiarism is concerned with the unearned increment to the plagiarizing author’s reputation that is achieved through false claims of authorship.

Plagiarism can happen (and does all the time) without infringing on copyright; if you copy pages of material from a book that has passed into the public domain for a term paper and neglect to cite the work in any way, you’ve committed plagiarism but haven’t infringed on copyright. They sometimes do intersect—Kaavya Viswanathan’s case comes to mind, for example.

So all this talk about proper attribution of sources has some authors in a bit of a lather, and some have flung themselves onto the slippery slope with great angst and panache, and have slid down it at an alarming pace, hollering that we readers now expect them to provide detailed footnotes for every bit of research they’ve incorporated into their work or we’ll stab them for being dirty, dirty plagiarists.

I’ll confess right now that I haven’t read all the comment threads on this site that address the plagiarism issue, so I can’t actually say “There haven’t been any idiots who’ve advocated that sort of extreme standard, so calm down, ferchrissakes,” because for all I know, there may have been a few. I’m not, despite my love of comic hyperbole, a creature of extremes, and I’ll be one of the first to say that a work of fiction is different in character, purpose and tone than a research paper, and I certainly don’t expect the two to cite their sources the same way. Here are what, in my opinion, reasonable citation standards for a work of fiction:

1. If you use somebody else’s story structures (such as significant plot elements), a nod to the original author and/or work is nice, but not necessary. If I remember correctly, Lois McMaster Bujold acknowledged Georgette Heyer in A Civil Campaign, and Sharon Shinn explicitly said that Jenna Starborn was Jane Eyre in outer space. If the story is famous enough, you don’t even need to do shit; most people will get it on their own. Think of all the Romeo and Juliet knock-offs that exist without bothering to acknowledge Shakespeare.

2. If you’re using literary allusions or in-jokes in a rather limited context, no acknowledgment is necessary. This is especially true in the context of character development; if your character is, say, a geek who loves quoting episodes of The Simpsons, or a religious person who continually cites passages from the Bible, or a hipster nerd who peppers her conversation with references to Of Montreal lyrics, I don’t expect footnotes documenting every damn usage. Theresa Weir started every chapter in Cool Shade with snippets of lyrics from various songs without citing the song title or artist, for example, and I thought that was perfectly acceptable. If you want to make a note at the end or the beginning of the book about the allusions, have at it, but by and large, I’m perfectly fine with these going unacknowledged.

3. If you extensively utilize somebody’s research without actually using any of their words, again, a nod and a list of works would be awesome, but not strictly necessary. I’m not expecting footnotes, but a “I got most of my information from this book, and if you’re a nerd like me, here are some additional sources that I thought were fun and useful” makes me profoundly happy in the pants—even when I’m not wearing pants. (Or perhaps…especially when I’m not wearing pants?)

4. If you want to use large chunks of somebody else’s work word-for-word…well, really, my advice is: avoid this whenever possible. The tone shift will generally interrupt the flow of the story, and there’s honestly no way for you to cite this gracefully. If you still insist on doing this, however, then I want to see a citation—it doesn’t have to be as complete or extensive as what you’d find in an academic paper, but I’d want an author and a title at the very least. Please note that any whimperings about how “non-fiction works don’t count” and how they’re all just “boring old facts” make me, a former technical writer and a current law student, want to cut a bitch.

A lot of what I’m talking about is rather fuzzy, of course. The four-factor balancing test of the Copyright Act is rather fuzzy. My personal preferences for author acknowledgments are VERY fuzzy (what constitutes a “large” chunk? What sort of limited context am I taking about when it comes to allusions?). The fuzziness makes things difficult, but it also makes things interesting. What do you think is fair? Are your opinions different as a reader? As a writer? As an editor? I want to know, and I really want to hear from people who think differently from me about this issue, my hyperbolic “cut a bitch” statement up above notwithstanding.

Comments are Closed

  1. FrancisT says:

    So I guess I’m a nerd / geek / whatever because I think that it is cool to have an afterword where you list the sources of things like the song lyrics quoted as well as any major sources of research. A great example is Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and sequels where she has a long chapter on the paleontology she uses as research.

    (Sidenote: whether you attribute them or not, failing to get permission from the copyright owner to quote song lyrics is a copyright infringement and can get you into big trouble. You can work around not getting permission and anyway usually permission is granted gratis because its good publicity but you need to ask and receive and save the response.)

  2. Candy says:

    Quoting portions of song lyrics without permission: are you sure they don’t fall under fair use? Seems to me they’d meet the balancing test. Are there any court cases that hold that they infringe on copyright? And if they were, Christ, think of the nightmare of enforcing this—all the Livejournal entries, Myspace profiles, lyrics websites, etc.

  3. Another important distinction that people lose sight of is that while you can hold a copyright on fictional people, places, etc.—so writing a story about Harry Potter or Hogwarts would constitute copyright infringement—you can’t hold a copyright on real people, places, etc.—so writing a story about Frederick the Great would not constitute copyright infringement, even if you got all your information from Robert Asprey’s biography (direct quotes without attribution are still out.)

    This is not because J.K. Rowling worked harder on creating Harry Potter than Robert Asprey did on researching Frederick the Great, but because it would be impossible to study history if you had to get permission from the copyright holder every time you wanted to write a paper on Elizabeth II.  For example.

    What this means is, you can’t hold a copyright on facts, even if you made them up yourself.  See also Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

  4. AgTigress says:

    I think that is a very useful summary.

    The complexity of copyright law is well beyond the capacity of most non-lawyers to grasp, especially the matters of international law, and of copyright issues relating to photographs and other images, but no author needs to have a full, technical personal knowledge of these things.  She need only have a general awareness, so that if there is an area that seems uncertain to her, she can ask her publisher to get it checked on.  I did this myself recently – ‘how many words of this poem do you think I might quote without incurring copyright fees?’  My publishers seem comfortable with a single descriptive phrase from the poem (appropriately acknowledged, of course), but I shall leave it to them, and cut it out completely if there is any doubt.

    On the plagiarism question, as in so many matters of morality, the easiest and most reliable test for anyone to apply is to put herself in the other person’s shoes.  I have a fairly strong sense of how many of my words, of what kind, and in what context, I should be willing to see quoted verbatim without acknowledgment.  If it is something you would not like to have done to you, then don’t do it to someone else.  That may sound vague, but it is a pretty reliable guide.

  5. Nora Roberts says:

    Thanks, Candy, for spelling it all out.

  6. Re: Song Lyrics

    IANAL but, fair use for song lyrics requires a much smaller snippet than, say, even a short story.  This is because the “fairness” of the use is based on how large the quote is in relation to the original work, and according to my editor, how prominent the use is in the quoting work.  So, when I quote a line from a NIN song in the middle of a chapter where a couple of characters, that’s fair use, wheras if I used the same material as a header for a chapter, it may not be.

    RE: Harry Potter
    The copyright Rowlings has isn’t on the characters or setting per se.  (AFAIK you can’t copyright individual fictional elements in isolation.)  The copyright she has is on “adaptations” of the original work, which would include movies, graphic novels, t-shirts, action figures, and written sequels.  The latter gets kind of blurry. . .

  7. Charlene says:

    Think of all the Romeo and Juliet knock-offs that exist without bothering to acknowledge Shakespeare.

    One of the reasons for that, though, is that Shakespeare didn’t originate the story of Romeo and Juliet – it was an Italian folk tale.

  8. Nora Roberts says:

    ~wheras if I used the same material as a header for a chapter, it may not be.~

    Exactly. I wanted to use a portion of The Beatles’ Magic Mystery Tour as the header for Part One of Honest Illusions. And boy-howdy they wanted a whole buncha money for those two lines.

    So I went back to good old Will and used a quote from The Tempest.

  9. I’ll agree with Francis T.  I’m an old school geek, give me acknowledgments in the back of the book. I’d love to know where you got your information so I can read more on it if I’m interested. 

    I’ve been lurking on this entire incident…and some of the craziness that has come out of the woodwork, wow.  Thank you for clarifying copyright and plagiarism. I think Jane and I had discussed it on one of your comments sections months ago.  This cleared it up. 

    Just a side note on song lyrics…

    From Music Publishing: The Read Road to Music Business Success

    “Permission to reprint lyrics are most often granted individually on a _per use, nonexclusive basis_”  Under the section BOOKS it states: “Book publishers often seek reprint licenses to use lyrics in…novels, short story collections, etc.  Fees can range from $50 to several thousand dollars, depending upon the number of works included in the book…”  It goes on to explain, in detail, when larger fees are warranted. (such as lyrics futhuring a novel’s plot, the book title is derived from the song’s title, etc.) 

    Here’s the info…

    Tha Goods

    Now back to lurkdom.

  10. Very nice, Candy. 

    Are you going to be required to write a senior thesis in law school? I’d love to see it. It would be an interesting conflation (Dang!  I love that word too!) of legalese and Smart Bitch style.

  11. Elena Greene says:

    First, apologies if anything in this comment doesn’t make sense—I’m dealing with feverish kids and sleep deprivation here!

    Anyway, great post.  Educating everyone on these issues is one of the best things that can come out of the recent kerfuffle.

    there also seem to be mild panic outbreaks among some authors who appear to think we readers are going to stab at them with our Pitchforks of Plagiarism +5 if they don’t include detailed citations in their books

    Well, I don’t know if I’m one of the ones you think may be panicking, but I did blog about this issue last Wednesday at the Risky Regencies.  I never thought the SBs themselves were saying this should become standard but a few commenters here and elsewhere have come close to saying “if Susan Johnson does it, why can’t everyone?”  Not that I’m really paranoid about that but it did make me think they were missing the point.

    As I understand it, Susan Johnson uses footnotes to add or clarify historical background, not to attribute passages copied from elsewhere.  I think it’s a stylistic thing she’s made work for her but not something that would work for most authors.

    Anyway, I’m just curious as to how readers would really like to see resources credited.  I was happy to learn that there are more History Geeks out there like me who adore a good Author’s Note.

  12. As a side note…digital usage of song lyrics goes through a whole different ball of wax.  Gracenote ties up online digital usage of song lyrics (webpages, etc.) Ebooks are a gray area if they never get to print.  Rest assured, if you’re interested in “keeping the peace,” it would be best to get one or the other.

  13. Nora Roberts says:

    I’ve never done an Author’s Note or Acknowledgement page.

    I can’t recall every relying heavily on one source. I generally use bunches—and wouldn’t know where I got what from what.

    I’m starting a quartet of books centering on the wedding business. Already I have PILES on my desk. Books on wedding cakes, flowers, photography, planning—reams from the internet on same. On bridal dresses, wedding themes, styles, trends. Magazine articles. As my son’s getting married this summer, I had a meeting with my future dil and the florist. I’m talking to her. I’m talking to my dh who does photography as a VERY serious hobby. I’m listening to my dil’s wants, wishes, ideas, questions—and will likely use some of those.

    So I’m not going to write an Acknowledge page addressing all this.

    I do like, and always read, Author’s Notes and Acknowledgements though.

  14. Carrie Lofty says:

    so writing a story about Frederick the Great would not constitute copyright infringement

    Ah, but then you can skate near other tricky legal gray areas like libel and defamation. (I don’t do the technical bits. Talk to Jane.)

    If I were to write a story about Frederick the Great that said he molested little children using a lead pipe and grease, his descendents could legal bitchslap me and my publisher. I’m basing a current villain on a very nasty but enigmatic dude who lived in the 13th century. No one can say with certainty whether he did some of the things I’m writing that he did, but he was connected to the Spanish royal family—and royal families are particularly UNkeen on bad press, even 700 years later. I’ve changed names and certain details so I can make him as nasty as he wanna be. But you can bet I’ll be writing an afterward about the changes I made, either to be included in the print edition or as a segment on my website. With source citations.

  15. Jules Jones says:

    Excellent post, Candy, thank you.

    Putting a lab coat on over my chiffon frock (I believe a chiffon frock is what all romance authors wear, yes?), I’ll say that my personal view of someone using my non-fiction publications matches what Candy’s said.

    Want to use it as background material that informs your own words, good-o—a bibliographic note at the end would be nice, but it’s not vital.

    Want to copy my vibrant scientific prose word for word—I will be Displeased if there is no citation, and it’s quite possible that whoever paid me to write it will be Displeased also. And besides, you really don’t want to copy-n-paste it into a romance novel as dialogue, even one with a scientist hero. I don’t speak like that, even if I write like that when I’m doing the passive voice past tense thingie.

    Spaminator: money27—how very appropriate.

  16. Sara says:

    Interesting points, Carrie Lofty. However, I don’t think you have to be worried about libel, because you cannot libel the dead.

    Wonderful summary, Smart Bitches!

  17. Sarabeth says:

    I always enjoy reading the Author’s Notes and Acknoledgements. Being a wanna-be romance writer, I like to see where an author got her inspiration or major amount of information. Although, I can see in Nora’s case above, how would it be possible to list everything? I certainly don’t expect it.

  18. Lisa says:

    Carrie Lofty:  As someone else pointed out, you can’t slander/libel the dead. There might be an exception to this if you caused financial harm to the deceased person’s heirs in some way, for instance by stating something nefarious about a dead author which caused the sales of their in-print works to tank.  An actual lawyer would know better than I do about that.

    Still, it’s not a bad idea to think carefully about what you do with historical personalities.  I’m finishing an MS in which certain characters are based on real-life people (who lived and died in the seventeenth century).  One is a minor villain in this story, and though he is long dead, I’ve changed his name and certain key details.  Because I’ve assigned nasty fictional events to this person I decided to do this because this person has living descendants (some of whom actually still live around here). I don’t have to do this, they can’t sue me but on balance, there’s no reason to use a real name if it might bother someone still walking this earth.

  19. Carrie Lofty says:

    Lisa & Sara: Good to know I can’t be sued—I’ve since looked it up and read that you can only be sued if a living person actually knew the deceased—but it just felt wrong to ascribe villainous traits to a person who once lived. I wouldn’t think anything of portraying someone well, but in this instance I know I’m fictionalizing to this individual’s detriment. Hence the name change. And because this is an historical romance, I’ll be sorting out the fact-from-fiction in an afterward. I wouldn’t want people to come away from it without access to the facts.

  20. I think the summary is a great starting point for those who don’t understand it, not enough to make anyone groan, writer or reader, but very enlightening.

    When I use points from a book, it’s just been more natural for me to write it in my words, so it sounds like the character.

    Acknowledgements are nice. I like seeing where an author may have gotten their information, but it’s not necessary for me. I do think it’s neat to see the attributions given lines or quotes, like at the start of chapters.

  21. Angelina says:

    When dealing with the deceased, I believe it would be deemed defamation rather than libel(memories trying to resurface). Most states do not allow defamation suits on behalf of the deceased by the estate.

    However with today’s increasingly litiginous society and judges legislating from the bench – hell, anything’s possible with the right judge & jury. Always best to CYA.

  22. Very well written, Candy. I am endlessly excited by your use of metaphor.

    And of phrases like “cut a bitch.” I am going to practice.

  23. Jane O says:

    Plagiarism is theft. It is stealing someone else’s words or ideas and passing them off as your own. Back when I was in school (about the same time Cassie Edwards was), any sort of intellectual dishonesty like plagiarism or cheating was one of the worst crimes you could commit – far worse than something like bank robbery.
    If things have changed, it’s not a change for the better.

  24. Maya says:

    OK, here’s a grey area for you – one of my character’s is a history grad student, and in one chapter she marks first-year student papers. I’m planning to include a half-dozen or so examples of that student writing, involving how historical facts can be misunderstood, with very funny results.  This idea came from a book with hundreds of real-life examples of hilarious student misinterpretation gems, collected by real-life profs at many universities.

    Even though I’m changing words around and won’t be quoting word for word, I’m going to acknowledge this book as source for the idea.

    Here’s the dilemma: even though I normally would err on the side of citing author, title, year published, etc. too much, in this case, it really brings out the contrary in me at the thought of writing to the publisher/person who compiled all those quotes to get permission because I CANNOT BELIEVE HE HIMSELF GOT PERMISSION FROM THOSEDOZENS OF STUDENTS TO NOT ONLY QUOTE THEIR WORK BUT MAKE MONEY FROM IT.

    You see my dilemma?  Simply mention the book in an acknowledgement, or actually seek written permission?

    What say you, o wise ones?

  25. Yeah, I definitely have different desires for fiction versus non-fiction when it comes to citation etc etc.  When it comes to fiction, provided the author is not lifting/quoting chunks for research material verbatim, I don’t particularly want any sort of foot/end note.  (Although some footnotes can sure be entertaining a le Pratchet)

    Ms. Roberts if I may respond to your last comment directly (and I promise not to be too much of a fan girl), you do what I consider to be one of the best methods of using research for your fiction.  It’s clear that research informs some of your works because your characters are well versed in the facts and techniques of their jobs but it is never a pedantic, out of character “oh look at all this research I did and will now quote back to you” moment. 

    In other words, if an author starts writing about a professional lyric soprano, I’m not looking for attribution to books on technique each time she does runs.  When the facts and background of a profession, lifestyle, hobby, language, mode of dress inform a work of fiction but are synthasized by the author, I don’t need citation although I might enjoy that author’s afterward so I can geek out on the sources myself.  As has been noted, facts cannot be copyrighted.

    And it’s certainly not plagiarism to learn all about some subject from different sources and then let that knowledge bleed into character and plot development.  As we all know, chapter and verse by now, teh ebil copying of whole phrases, sentences and paragraphs word for word is when the nasty plagiarism bunnies attack.  (And when ferrets weep.)

  26. JaneyD says:

    I had some short stories to edit, and several had song lyrics under the titles.

    I first noticed this habit with writers of fan fiction. Copyright issues are largely ignored in fan fiction, and I informed the (still wet behind the ears) writers that the rules were different in the pro writing world.

    Soon as I mentioned they’d have to get written permission from the lyric copyright holders—and probably pay a chunk of change that would be more than their check for the story—they all deleted the whole issue.

    One of my friends put together a promotional book video to a song by a favorite group. She had the group’s written and enthusiastic permission to use it, but the recording company Suits threw a hissy fit and said no.

    Sometimes you CAN get permission from the copyright owner, but please be on the lookout for uber-anal Suits with their hands out for cash.

    Just to be clear on this, it IS the writer’s job to get those permissions, not mine.

  27. Lijakaca says:

    For fiction, I like Author’s Notes, it’s enough to share what the author found really useful or interesting when she/he was researching, and if I don’t really care I can skip it.  It also provides space to separate facts from the made-up bits – especially in historical novels or novels where a major event ‘sounds’ like it was real (a court case, political events, etc.). I want to know how much is real and how much isn’t.

  28. azteclady says:

    jocelynnesimone said a lot of what I wanted to say, but I’ll elaborate on something (a shock, I know).

    A lot of what appears in a work of fiction—particularly contemporary works—can be quite easily gleaned by the reader just by looking around, watching the idjit box, browsing the intrawebs. On those things, I frankly think it would be overkill to have an afterword saying, (using Ms Roberts’s example), “I used this book and that website to learn about current wedding planning/dresses/invitations/whatever.”

    However, like Lijakaca says, I love it when reading something that can not be so easily learned—history particularly—and finding a short note by the author directing to either his/her resources, or further reading for those who are so inclined. And I enjoy immensely author websites with links to online resources and/or books they have used/enjoyed while doing specific research for their own books.

  29. azteclady says:

    “something that can not be” *head desk*



    That should say something like, “something more difficult to learn” or similar.

    *back to hiding under my “can you tell I’m not a writer?” rock*

  30. R. says:

    Thanks for the summary, Candy—

    Though I plan to include bibliographies of my reference sources [‘cause that’s the kind of nerd I am], a rule I’ve always used for my own writing is simply this:
    Never let the research show.

    Kinda like stage magicians never letting the audience see how the ‘magic’ works—once exposed, the carefully crafted tricks *pop* and evaporate like soap bubbles, leaving the audience feeling cheated:  “Well, if I can see how it works, how can it possibly be magic?”

  31. Candy says:

    Thanks for the education regarding song lyrics, bitches. This is definitely one of the instances in which I think copyright law can/should be modified—a book doesn’t have an actual performance of the song, it doesn’t harm the market value of the work, and while quoting two lines from a 30-line song is a much more significant proportion than, say, a 380-page book, I honestly fail to see the big deal if the lines are chapter headings; enforcing (sometimes exorbitant) fees in these sorts of circumstances have the sort of chilling effect on creativity and cultural discourse that I DON’T want to see as a result of copyright law. (There might be an argument for some sort of rights tussle if you write a story closely based on a song’s lyrics, though.)  But perhaps this is due to the fact that I’m not a songwriter? Hmmm! Very gray ethical area here, even if the legal issues are a bit more clear-cut.

    And Charlene: true, Shakespeare cribbed his story from something else, but who remembers that? If I write a tragic story about young star-crossed lovers who fall in love despite their feuding families, nobody’s going to say “Oh, look, she based it on Romeus and Juliet as translated by Arthur Brooke!”

    Darlene: I will be writing two theses for law school. I highly doubt my profs will let me use “suck it, bitches” in any portion of my work, which is too bad.

  32. SonomaLass says:

    Great post, Candy, and some nice insightful responses.

    As a college teacher, I deal with “the big P” (that’s plagiarism, fellow bitches, not the other one) from my students a lot. Sometimes people really do want to make themselves look better by claiming the work or ideas of others, as Wikipedia notes.  More often with my students, it is a combination of laziness and ignorance that leads to plagiarism—can’t be bothered to put ideas into their own words, use only one source for their research, don’t know how to do graceful notation, et cetera.

    While I’d agree the rules for fiction are different, as a reader I am still concerned with fairness.  As someone noted above, it’s the golden rule in operation—if it would bother YOU to see your work so used, then don’t do it. Mostly I prefer to see attribution for direct quotes, especially as headers.  Sometimes a quote intrigues me, or seems familiar, but I can’t identify the course, and I head off to Google to find it.  I’d rather just have it there on the page.  Whereas if the quote is used by a character, the context of the fictional situation should, I think, determine whether or how it is attributed.  (Although if it isn’t, I still appreciate a line in an author’s note to the effect of “the poem quoted by Larry in chapter 7 is by so-and-so and can be found here.”)

    On research, it seems to me that Nora is right about the kind of research she does.  (Eeek!  I called Nora Roberts by her first name!!!)  If you read a lot about a subject, and don’t take any unique or specific ideas from any one source, attribution seems unnecessary.  BUT if you are researching an obscure subject, in which there are few resources, or if one particular source really influenced your thinking, I think that deserves an acknowledgment.  I feel strongly about this especially when the influential source is in a minority opinion about a topic.  People who take unique stands deserve credit, and readers who want to follow up or learn more appreciate the help.

    Of course I’m a geeky academic.  I love reading what influenced an author, particularly for a book that has taken a lot of research.  My fave example here (and many other places) would be Guy Gavriel Kay.

    Oh, and LMAO @ “Pitchforks of Plagiarism +5.”  Where can I get one?????

  33. A true story about songs and copyright.

    The late George Alec Effinger
    asked permission to use two lines from Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” as the epigraph for “When Gravity Fails,” which derived its title from the song.  It was given, free.

    George’s second book about Marid Audran was “A Fire in the Sun,” titled from Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”.  This time, Dylan or his Suits wanted $1,500.  That was about the size of George’s advance, so he had to drop the epigraph.  Titles not being subject to copyright, he kept the title.

  34. Kassiana says:

    Copyright can be very tricky, because the original artist is not the only one you need to seek permission from, often. I think NPR’s On The Media did a segment once with a documentary filmmaker who had to pay a hugely ridiculous amount of money ($5000?) for a thirty-second ringtone in her movie. She’d gotten permission from the original artist who created the tune, the recording company (maybe under a blanket license from ASCAP or BMI, I forget), but had not gotten permission from the PHONE company to use the ringtone.

    As my law professors loved to say, copyright gives you a bundle of rights. You can give away some, to your publisher/distributor, and still have some rights left.

    **Note: I’m not a lawyer, never have been, graduated from law school in 1998 so if the laws have changed significantly since then, don’t hold me responsible.**

  35. Bonnie C says:

    Candy – as always, brilliant. I also have doubts as to your profs’ approval of “suck it, bitches”. LOL!

    I snorted Coca Cola out my nose when I read the line ” Pitchforks of Plagiarism +5” and it made me think fondly of the often wished for “+12 Bag of Holding” when xmas shopping.

    Onto the seriousness of this issue. Laws aside I believe that this issue hits hard on a moral level and that is a huge part of bringing the crazies out of the woodwork. I would absolutely hate to see my ACTUAL words – fictional or non – used in a way that makes money for SOMEONE ELSE without some kind of props to my mad genius (of course made genius – why else would they be stealing my goods?). On the reverse side, I wouldn’t want to knowingly do the same to someone else. As someone said above (and much more eloquently) – do unto others…

    As a reader I always like the acknowledgements section: “Thanks to Steve at the LAPD for letting me ride along to my very first Eastside riot” or “Thank you Susie for sitting with me over endless cuppas to give me a better handle on the mating habits of the blue footed boobie bird”. It gives me warm fuzzies to know that an author went that extra mile to get her setting *right*. Also as a reader I love when passages at the heads of chapters cite the source (lyrical, poetical, or otherwise) because if it grabs me in a particular way then I have a reference from which to hunt that source.

    In Nora’s example above (first name basis is scary, but we’re all friends here, right??) I don’t think the same necessarily holds true. There are events in life that we all have been involved in to one extent or another (babies, graduations, weddings, divorces, funerals all right up there at the top) that it would be useless to cite specific sources because where to start and stop? That is up to the individual author and their own honor system.

    In the end, personally and professionally, I believe that to use verbatim source material without acknowledgement is wrong. It doesn’t matter who did it or why, it’s just wrong. If it’s done, it needs to be owned up to – “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I will make every effort to not repeat that mistake.” That covers a lot of ground in my world.

  36. Silver James says:

    Dang, ya’ll. Talk about a down and dirty education. I see some major revisions to the MS I’m currently working on as one of my characters sings along with the radio and I quote a certain classic rock song, with mention of the group. *whine*

    I suppose I’ll have to become the investigator my character is to track down the contact information just to see if I can, perchance, get permission.

    As to acknowlegements, I admit I’m nerdy enough, too, to want to follow up sometimes on less mundane research so I like having more info at the end of the book. As Nora cited above, normal info doesn’t need to be cited as far as I’m concerned.

    Thanks for the interesting and on-going discussion, bitches…and Andrew and Nora, too. (Hey, where I come from, everybody’s on a first name basis.)

  37. Soni says:

    Re: song lyrics, I have what I think is truly a stumper, here…

    As I can see (and knew, prior), you can’t just quote song lyrics willy-nilly without securing rights from everyone and his Uncle Willy.

    However, I’m editing some stories for a client who is a tv news camera guy, and he quotes lyrics in one piece about covering the Clay Aiken phenomenon during American Idol. So far, so bad, but…

    He’s quoting lyrics he directly heard the Clayster singing in person, so the quotes aren’t just lyrics, they’re overheard speech, which seems like it should be fair game to quote, since my writer client didn’t just snag them off of the liner notes, but rather is actually describing the scene and quoting what he heard first hand.

    Gah. I have no idea how this plays out. Any lawyers here want to give me the skinny on whether quoting something you heard sung as part of a first-hand description of a happening is fair or foul play?

    I mean, obviously, said writer can legitimately quote anything said star *said* during the press conference, so why wouldn’t he be able to quote what was then sung (to a thoroughly gobsmacked and unwarned Rotunda full of middle-schoolers on field trips, no less) during that same event?

  38. Bev Stephans says:

    I just finished reading Nora Roberts’ “High Noon”.  I enjoyed the book and liked the way she layered the story.  My question is, why is there no ‘permission to use’ or Copyright acknowledgement?  Just wondering.

  39. Candy says:

    Soni: am not a lawyer, therefore my advice bla bla bla holy mother of god is it ever not actual legal advice etc etc etc, but your situation sounds like a decent candidate for fair use—it’s commentary/news reporting, it’s about a public interest figure, you’re quoting only a snippet, you’re probably not affecting the market.

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