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Plagiarism Is a Community Issue

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“Plagiarism is the academic and literary equivalent of robbery, taking somebody else’s property. If you copy somebody’s test answers, take an essay from a magazine and pass it off as your own, lift a well-phrased sentence or two and include them without crediting the author or using quotation marks, or even pass off somebody’s good ideas as examples of your own genius, you are guilty of intellectual thievery. If you are caught you should expect punishment or contempt or both.” Quote from Robert M. Gorrell and Charlton Laid, Modern English Handbook, 6th edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976), p. 71.

WRITING WITH SOURCES: A Guide for Harvard Students, by Gordon Harvey, Expository Writing Program, Copyright 1995.

I can hear it now. But, Jane, that’s Harvard’s definition and we are just talking about romance books. Genre fiction, girl, don’t be so serious. To borrow someone else’s phrase, I am serious as a heart attack.

Of all the things that authors should care about, particularly published ones who make their living off of the written word, it is the theft of their words. If they care about the theft of their own words, then they should be even more diligent in preventing their own theft of other people’s work. Further, plagiarism is an act of fraud on the reading, buying public. When a reader buys a book buy Mary Sue Author, she assumes that Mary Sue Author wrote the words inside the book, unless told otherwise (i.e., through attribution or acknowledgment or both).

I have seen authors get up in arms about the sale of Advance Reader Copies. The weight of the law that I have read indicates that the sale of ARCs is not illegal nor does it appear to be an infringement of copyright. Yet authors are stirred up, arguing in some places that it takes wrongful advantage of the author’s work.

I have seen authors be up in arms against fan fiction writers because while the fan fiction work contains original work of the fan, it heavily borrows from the canon created by the author.

What could be worse, then, than copying someone else’s work and passing it off as your own and ultimately earning money from that act?

What would you think of me if I wrote a book and copied 16 passages from Nora Roberts’ Holding the Dream? Would you feel sorry for me or would you be at the front of the pitchfork line? How about if I started reposting one post a week from Smart Bitches archives but under my own heading and my own title? Would I deserve some gleeful mocking? Oh yeah.

Copyright v. Plagiarism

Intellectual theft is not always a copyright infringement. The US Copyright Act prevents unlawful copying but the Act permits copying without permission in cases of “fair use.” Paraphrasing work without attribution is probably not copyright infringement but it is likely plagiarism. Using four or five paragraphs in a 300 page book of someone else’s material is probably fair use but without attribution it is likely plagiarism. Some even accuse those of borrowing ideas without attribution as plagiarism. An idea is not copyrightable. Alternatively, copying a work and selling it is infringement. I.e., if I took the Smart Bitches work and sold it to someone in a package saying that Sarah and Candy wrote all of the contents that would be unlawful copying but because I wasn’t claiming it as my own, it isn’t infringement.

Every act of plagiarism is not a copyright infringement and every act of copyright infringement is not always plagiarism. However, the US Copyright Act is about the only US law that can be used to prosecute plagiarists.

If you do not register your work for a copyright, you cannot avail yourself of legal enforcement through the court system. “Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration is necessary for works of U.S. origin.” If you do not register within 3 months after the publication or prior to the infringement, you only get “actual damages and profits.” What does that mean? Let’s assume I started reposting all of the Smart Bitches posts on another site and charged ads for the site. The Smart Bitches would have to register their work before it could sue me and then all the posts that are older than three months would entitle the Smart Bitches to the ad money that I had taken in.

If they had registered their work all along, then they would be entitled to “treble” damages and attorneys’ fees.

Plagiarism an issue of ethics.

Plagiarism is mostly an issue of ethics. Ethics differ from community to community. Each profession, each group, has its own set of mores. For example, in the legal profession, wholesale copying is encouraged. We are not talk to be original thinkers in law school. When I write a brief for court, I look for an opinion that states my position and follow the pattern of thought and quote from it liberally. Of course, every legal and factual statement needs a citation but its not because judges care about plagiarism but because of the rules of precedence. (I.e., if the court ruled this way before, this is the way it should rule again).

In academia, plagiarism is often the subject of zero tolerance policies. At Northwestern University, if you include a quotation without attribution, you fail. At Harvard University, if you are found to have plagiarized, this is the policy:

If the majority of Board members believe, after considering the evidence and your own account of the events, that you misused sources, they will likely vote that you be required to withdraw from the College for at least two semesters.

Since a vote of requirement to withdraw is effective immediately, you lose all coursework you have done that semester (unless it’s virtually over), along with the money you have paid for it. You must leave Cambridge; any return to campus will violate the terms of your withdrawal. You must find a full-time job, stay in it for at least six months, and have your supervisor send a satisfactory report of your performance in order to be readmitted. – Finally, any letter of recommendation written for you on behalf of Harvard College-’including letters to graduate schools, law schools, and medical schools-’will report that you were required to withdraw for academic dishonest

Plagiarism should not be tolerated by the publishing community

In a profession that makes its money off the written word, the ethical standard should be of the highest form. It should exceed that of what is required by Universities of its students. After all, the student is paying to go to school so essentially the community that is harmed isn’t paying any money to the plagiarist unlike what happens in the writing profession.

When the Opal Mehta scandal shook out, it was discovered that there were about 40 passages that “contain identical language and/or common scene or dialogue structure.” Crown Publishing Group, Megan McCafferty’s publisher, demanded the removal of the Opal Mehta books from the shelves. Originally Little Brown planned to republish the book with the offending passages removed but eventually scrapped the whole deal and also refused to publish the second book in the book deal. Kaavya Viswanathan was paid $500,000.00 in an advance. Whether she returned it is unknown.

To not stand against plagiarism as an author is troubling. Does it mean that authors fear being in that same position? Is it because attribution suggests a weakness in their own authorship? One of the things I loved about Susan Johnson’s older works were the footnotes. I learned so much about small details of history from them. For example, from Forbidden by Susan Johnson:

Daisy’s formidable record of successes in the courtroom, Judge Nott had discourteously suggested Braddock-Black Ltd. would be better served by a “capable” lawyer.

Red-faced and frustrated he couldn’t legally eject her from his court, he’d insisted on presenting his views on women in an inflammatory, avowedly antifeminist, tirade.

“We cannot but think,” he’d expostulated, ignoring the intent of the state law as incidental to his personal attitude, “the common law wise in excluding women from the profession of law. The law of nature destines and qualifies the female sex for the bearing and nurture of the children of our race” (at which point, his disapproval of Daisy’s race was openly evident in his bitter, piercing gaze) “and for the custody of the homes of the world, and their maintenance in love and honor. And all lifelong calling of women-” His voice was beginning to thunder, his jowls quivering in sympathy. “- inconsistent with these social duties of their sex, as-is-the-profession-of-law-” A hint of purple tinged his cheeks, so rabid were his emotions. “- are departures from the order of nature, and when voluntary, treason against it! [FN3]

[FN3] This speech is excerpted from a longer opinion of a Judge Edward Ryan of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1875 in denying Lavinia Goodell admission to the state bar. Since law practice on the county level often didn’t require admission to a state or territorial bar, women lawyers were able to practice locally. But the admission of women to state bars became a state-by-state struggle. Belle Babb Mansfield has the distinction of being the first woman in the United States to be formally admitted to the bar. In June 1869, Iowa allowed her admittance. The following year the Iowa State Legislature ensured the admission of women to the profession by removing the restrictive gender language in its admissions statute. Over the next five decades, women were slowly allowed equal rights to practice as attorneys, Delaware having the dubious distinction of being the last state to admit women to its bar in 1923. Montana’s first woman lawyer, Ella Knowles Haskell, was admitted to the bar in 1889.

The ironic thing is that one of the detractions of the Cassie Edwards books is that they are faux Native American and if she had provided footnotes, she could say “look at my sources, bitches.” Attribution can be done. It need not be intrusive nor does it show that the writer is incompetent. I’ve thought Johnson’s footnoted books worlds better than her recent offerings which contain nary of footnote, endnote or attribution of any kind.

Avoiding Plagiarism is an easy task.

In 2002, the Weekly Standard broke the story of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s extensive borrowing from three works published prior to her own 1987 book, "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys." Changes were made to subsequent editions of Goodwin’s work including additional footnotes and an inclusion in the acknowledgments that Lynne McTaggart’s biography "Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times" was the "definitive biography of Kathleen Kennedy and which I used as a primary source for information on Kathleen Kennedy, both in my research and in my writing. Kearns characterized this as a mistake due to the fact that her notes, written in longhand, were not clear on whether the words were a "close paraphrase of the original work".

The Crimson reported on the Opal Mehta issue,

Based on the scope and character of the similarities, it is inconceivable that this was a display of youthful innocence or an unconscious or unintentional act," a representative for Random House said in a statement on Tuesday, April 25. In a letter obtained by The Crimson, a Random House lawyer put it more bluntly, writing to Little, Brown that "we are certain that some literal copying actually occurred here."

Cassie Edward’s Shadow Bear appears to have at least 16 passage of literal copying. Is it longhand notes the reason for the borrowed texts? Can 16 passages be an unconscious or unintentional act? She wasn’t 19 when the book was published like Viswanathan. She is a New York Times Bestselling author with 99 romances published, the majority of them about Native Americans.

Ironically, Kearns herself complained another author used her work without attribution:

“There’s nothing wrong with an author building on material from a previous book. That’s the way history is built, as long as you credit the source. . . . I just don’t understand why that wasn’t done.”

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

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