What’s in a word?

6 Mar

Originally posted at Karen Scott’s blog

A bit about plagiarism from someone who is not a lawyer, doesn’t want to be a lawyer, and doesn’t play a lawyer in the internet.

I’m sure that a lot of people who travel the romance blogosphere routinely got tired pretty quickly of the many discussions on plagiarism, copyright infringement, intellectual honesty, and other related topics sparked by the CE dêbacle (or the SavageGate, which I believe Seressia Glass coined).

However, the Obama speech incident reignited discussion on this at a couple of places I visit, and once again I was impressed by the varied and well, weird ways people can look at things.

• There have been statements that all writers ‘plagiarize’ from academic texts when they research say, the Middle Ages. “After all, it’s not as if the writer could have been there, right?” (Though one wonders what the hell is a writer’s imagination for, in that case. But perhaps that’s just me.)

• There have been statements that word-by-word copying from non-fiction sources is ‘poorly integrated research’ (You don’t want to know the words that left my mouth upon reading this.)

• There have been statements that Nora Roberts, or Mary Balogh, plagiarize from their own, earlier work, because they have certain recognizable tropes or themes or characters in several of their novels. (One wonders what the hell a writer’s voice is, then. But again, perhaps that’s just me.)

• There have been statements that there are all sorts of gray areas between ‘using research by changing a comma or two’ (paraphrasing from an earlier discussion, but I swear that is the condensed version) and ‘actual plagiarism.’ (All I can say to this is… WHAT THE F…?)

• There have been statements that, hey, this is the information age! Sharing is what it’s about! It’s all good! (One wonders whether creativity has any place in a society where everyone can claim everyone else’s original work as their own without it being wrong.)

• There have been statements—by authors who are otherwise very much invested in protecting their own copyrights (Diana Gabaldon for example)—that using out-of-copyright works without attribution is fine. (Yet another WHAT THE F…? from the peanut gallery)

Then, in a more recent, and completely unrelated discussion over at the SmartBitches, Laura Kinsale posted these comments:

I’m curious. What’s the difference between Cassie Edwards writing about ferrets and fan fiction published for profit?

So that’s what I’m asking. Why is that so different from Cassie Edwards? Why is taking a paragraph about a ferret, or even a page of dialogue, so worthy of scorn and ridicule, but fan fiction is supposed to be a nice compliment to the author of the original work?

Leaving aside the bit about fanfiction, and whether it’s legal, illegal, original, derivative, or what have you (a topic worthy of its own article), but simply judging from all that I listed above, I can only conclude that a lot of folks don’t know what plagiarism actually is.

So here it is, in the immortal words of… well, I’m sure plenty of people have said it before me, so you can check your favorite dictionary for a better worded version, but here is mine:

Plagiarism, distilled to the most basic terms, is the intent to pass off someone else’s words as your own, original, new creation. Whether or not there is a concurrent illegal action (such as copyright infringement), ethically this is fraud. It is lying. It is saying, “look how smart/creative/artistic I am” while using someone else’s work, and getting credit and/or money for doing this.

So perhaps I am simple minded, but I don’t see how there can be a gray area there.

Now, let’s see what plagiarism isn’t.

It is not plagiarism to take a well known theme and adapt it to a different time, setting, mores—how many times has Romeo and Juliet been adapted?

It is not plagiarism to write a parody of a previous work. Indeed, the parody would simply not exist without the original work! It is not plagiarism to imagine (and write) an alternative ending or take on a well known myth, fairy tale, or story—how many different ways has Cinderella been developed? Beauty and the Beast? Snow White? It is not plagiarism to use a widely known line from an out of copyright source while crediting the author (“The play’s the thing,” Shakespeare).

And lastly, in the matter of fanfiction vis a vis plagiarism, allow me to give you the words of Ms Nora Roberts:

Fan fiction doesn’t copy the author’s story and call it their own, but uses it or the characters, as a springboard for another story.

In none of the above is the writer of the secondary, derivative work, trying to impress upon his readers that the original characters are his, that the original story is his, that these are his immortal words. He is openly acknowledging that he is basing his take on previous works.

Are there times where a writer uses a reference I don’t recognize? Undoubtedly! No reader can read and retain every single word produced before, so it’s likely that something that is meant as an obvious reference will be identified by some readers and completely missed by others. But I expect the writer to make every effort to make it clear—one way or another—when she’s referencing someone else’s work within hers.

Use italics.

Use quotation marks.

Use the ubiquitous, “in the words of…” or, “as so-and-so said…”

Heck, add a short note in the foreword or afterword with a nod to the original source.

It really doesn’t matter how a writer gives credit, only that she does.

Just don’t grab a piece of someone else’s brain child and try to pass it off as your own.

And for the fun of it, here are some cool author links on this that I’ve been collecting:

Seressia Glass:
Fair Use in Fiction

Shiloh Walker:
Truth and Consequence
A writer’s take on plagiarism
Why it matters
Where research and plagiarism differ
Why it matters, part two

Sela Carsen:
Plagiarism and punishment
Sela Carsen shares her thoughts
Just to be clear about something

Meljean Brook:
Dear Anne Stuart: I promise not to steal your red shoes
For Micky, Ferrets and other Ethical considerations

You can find more and really cool information at Dear Author here and here for starters, and the SmartBitches here and here.

4 Responses to “What’s in a word?”


  1. Pondering copyright: an unpopular position « Her Hands, My Hands - 03/02/2012

    […] at the time of the Cassie Edwards plagiarism scandal–handle azteclady–and later on, here and […]

  2. Plagiarism, again « Her Hands, My Hands - 29/05/2012

    […] posted about it here in March (including a number of links to previous […]

  3. I speak about plagiarism, yet again (and the peanut gallery groans) « Her Hands, My Hands - 30/05/2012

    […] those who just got here (hello, new peeps!) I have blathered on about plagiarism before, here and here (and those two links are chock-full of links, it’s a treasure trove of links, I tell […]

  4. No, really, plagiarism doesn’t ‘just happen’ | Her Hands, My Hands - 08/03/2016

    […] other people’s intellectual content. Also, I’m ‘only’ a blogger *snort* and I’ve known what plagiarism is well before colleges and high schools started using turnitin to catch for […]

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