Using Historical Facts Without Crossing the Line into Plagiarism

Jennifer Blake, Roberta Gellis, and Bertrice Small led a session that, unlike many of the fan-friendly sessions, was silent, with notetaking, serious faces, and a great deal of attention. Their session, in a word, was outstanding. My notes are below, which don’t really follow a well-transitioned structure (or any structure for that matter) but let me tell you – these ladies rocked this session like damn and whoa.

Roberta Gellis provided a point by point explanation of copyright law in the US. A few facts to chew over:

Until 1978 individual states determined their own copyright law, and since then copyright has been under federal jurisdiction.
Ideas cannot be copyright – only the way you express the idea.
Copyright provides the right to do and to authorize others to do the following: Reproduce copies, prepare derivative works – e.g. you can authorize Fanfic if you choose – distribute copies by sale, etc.

Roberta Gellis then led a discussion about how to use research material: “I’ve never copied anything from any research book of mine because they’re so deadly dull!”


Small talked about using historical figures in her fictions, such as Elizabeth I, and using verbatim texts of their speeches in her fiction. She mentioned that in her writing, she asterisks her manuscript and references the original work – though the asterisk doesn’t always make it into the final book.

Copyrights do have to be renewed if they were issued before 1978, when copyright law changed to follow the life of the author plus 70 years, and both Blake and Gellis have had to renew copyright protection of their early novels.

Small told the group that she was the victim of plagiarism when an author used portions of her novel and the novels of several other writers. A reader highlighted the portions that were copied from Small’s work and sent it to her. She forwarded the book to her attorney, who contacted the counsel for the publisher of the plagiarized work, and her “attorney took care of it:”

“I bought my mother a nice new small car.”

The other writer also had to write a letter of apology, an apology which included the line, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and Small said, “I wanted to call her up and scream. My attorney said, ‘Just leave her alone. Go buy your mother the car and let it alone.’”

Then the three authors did a brilliant demonstration. Each author took a piece of historical research, a paragraph about a peel/pele tower, and worked that research into a brief demonstration piece of fiction. Gellis’ demonstration depicted two individuals surveying the security of the Pele tower, weaving the facts into the dialogue – “You have to use the research in such a way that it’s heightened by human emotion and interaction,” she said.

The demonstration of their talent was not only educational but reminded me how much I love me some historical romance, and I’m impressed that three major players in the foundation of historical romance would take the time to write a sample to demonstrate to the conference attendees. It’s like a multi-platinum recording singer cutting a demo for educational purposes. Even in a paragraph of content, their skills were uber, uber leet.

Blake read hers, and Small immediately said, “I want more!” (Me, too, I thought.)

“You should observe the research through the eyes of the character, and make the details personal to the character, allowing that character to become invested in their scene,” added Blake. “Start with where the light is.”  Blake’s comments weren’t just research, but some of the best and most simple and clear writing instruction I’ve heard since the conference began.

Small: “These are three totally different, and unique examples based on the same piece of research.”

Blake: “When Roberta sent this paragraph, I thought, this particular era is not mine.”
Small: “You did a hell of a job. You ought to write historicals.”
Blake: “So, I got Roberta’s piece and did my own research, because I knew so little about Pele towers, and once I had an understanding of the thing itself, I could begin to imagine my scene.”

Then came Q&A.

Q: What is the copyright on web material? What is considered plagiarism from web material?

Gellis: “If you are not selling the material, you are taking information from it. Facts are never copyrighted. Only the expression is copyright.”

Blake: “It doesn’t make a difference if it’s the encyclopedia or a personal page. You can take the facts but not the literal words used.”

When you use the internet, do you –

Gellis and Small: “I don’t use the internet.”


Regarding Primary Sources, do you suggest citing the source of letters you use? The newspaper articles?

Gellis: If your publisher will let you use a superscript, you can do that, or endnotes, if you want. If it’s quoted material, you can also write an Author’s Note, where in you say “The quotes on pages x,y, an z are from….”

“But out of courtesy you should always seek to acknowledge your sources.”

Gellis: “I make it very easy. I write about people who have been dead for 800 years.”

Blake: “Read your sources, then take the book and put it waaaay over there, and then use your own words while you are nowhere near the words you used for research.”

Gellis: “It is a good idea not to have the biography right in front of you.”

What if you remember phrases but don’t remember where they’re from?

Gellis: “Oh! Don’t remind me. You spend many frustrating hours trying to find it. There are some words and phrases that are just irresistible and I’ve spent many hours crossing out those delicious words. They weren’t mine.”

In essence, Gellis, Blake, and Small’s advice and instruction fell under two overlapping concepts: copyright, which is a legal concern, and courtesy, which is an ethical concern – and all three authors were firm that it is the writer’s responsibility to document and acknowledge to the greatest extent possible. Using their own writing as an example made for an awesome and eloquent instruction that spoke volumes.

Mad props to RT for adding this session to the schedule, and to Gellis, Blake, and Small for the session content. Even though this is a topic I personally am familiar with, I learned something – and felt privileged to have been in the room to hear the sample writing of some major-player authors. And I still couldn’t tell you what a Pele tower is, but if Blake writes a book about one, I am there.


Romantic Times

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  1. Natalie says:

    It was a fantastic session.  I assume you were the woman on the floor with the cute little computer?

  2. SonomaLass says:

    I’m really glad to hear about anyone in the industry addressing these concerns.  It’s wonderful of these authors to share their talent and insight.  Your blog entries really show the range of this convention, from the tacky to the very classy.  Love it!

  3. R. says:

    “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,”

    Irony, irony, irony.

    Flattery is not a good thing.

  4. Treva Harte says:

    And since I rarely have a fan girl moment over anyone, may I say that I loved and adored Roberta Gellis when she first came on the scene (I’m really that old, dang it, although I was fairly young at the time) and I love and adore her now.  And the other ladies were pretty damn fine, too.

  5. egoscribo says:

    I’m startled by Roberta Gellis’s reported assertion that United States national-level copyright dates to 1978. Uh no.

    Copyright was part of the first 1787 Constitution; when the Constitution was adopted, the various States’ individual copyright laws were superseded. Copyright laws were subsequently amended and modified in the United States, but not by individual States.

    The 1976 Act is relevant to you if you want to claim that something published between 1978 and 1989 is in the public domain: it stipulated that works published from 1978 be registered and bear a copyright notice to have copyright protection.

    In 1989 the United States (at long last) signed the Berne Convention, which is an international copyright agreement other nations had been parties to since 1887. It supersedes previous copyright laws, including the Act of 1976 (this may be the reason for confusion). The most important thing you need to know about the Berne Convention is that it gives creators of specified types of works copyright protection without them having to file anything, register anywhere, or deposit a copy in some office.

    There is so much misinformation in all fandoms about copyright. I wish people who want to make an issue over it would sit down and read actual factual publications (like those available from the Copyright Office)!

  6. DianeH says:

    And on the P topic, Cassie E. and Signet are going their separate ways…. according to a news article by HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer.

  7. DianeH says:

    Oh, yeah, and the article mentions SMTBs!

  8. AT RWA in July, La Nora will be speaking to the issues of plagiarism and copyright infringement, sitting on a panel with Dr. John Barrie, from iThenticate.

    There’s also an article in the current issue of Romance Writers Report – a Q&A;with Rebecca Tushnet, a law professor at Georgetown who lectures on intellectual property law.

    Education is the answer.

    Diane, we need a link – my curiosity is killing me!

  9. Denni says:

    Sounds wonderful…and to those who consider writing romance a cute hobby…very professional.

    Not to date myself, but Roberta Gellis is one of the reasons I love romantic fiction.

    DIANE H…A linky please?

    Sarah…were you the woman with the cute little computer?

    My security word “toward61”…no, no, it’s a looooong way off, really.

  10. MelanieM says:

    I tracked the link down after seeing Diane’s note above.

    Signet and Cassie Edwards part ways

  11. Tina C. says:

    I found the article using Google.  Here it is.

  12. Tina C. says:

    Oops—sorry, looks like MelanieM had the same idea that I did at nearly the same time.  Sorry for the repeat.

  13. DS says:

    Good for Signet.  I’m glad one publisher has done the right thing about this issue.  Now I wonder who will pick her up?

  14. Robin says:

    The most important thing you need to know about the Berne Convention is that it gives creators of specified types of works copyright protection without them having to file anything, register anywhere, or deposit a copy in some office.

    However, you still have to register your copyright if you want to sue for infringement.

    It sounds like these three authors should do a video; I’d think that just the demonstration on how to handle research material would be worth it’s weight in publishing contracts.

    Or RT could, with their permission, create a written transcript of the session and make it publicly available . . . assuming it wouldn’t be plagiarized, of course. 😉

  15. Denni says:

    Robin…video is a great idea.  Does RT tape those sessions?  Sounds like a great resource for authors…or my high school students.

  16. Sherb says:

    “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,”

    This is actually an insult.  Per Webster’s Unabridged, flattery is defined as, “excessive, untrue, or insincere praise; blandishment.”  Sincere or not, no wonder Ms. Small wanted to scream at the other author.

  17. SB Sarah says:

    Sarah…were you the woman with the cute little computer?

    Yup, I was the woman up front on the floor with the teeny tiny computer. The battery was nearly dead and I had to plug in to take notes.

  18. talpianna says:

    Just wanted to let you know that I did quite well in the First Annual “Write Like Cassie Edwards” contest over on the Evil Editor blog.  Me and my writing partner Wikipedia, that is…

  19. Oh, yeah, and the article mentions SMTBs!

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