Aug 12 2008
One of the search terms that brought a reader to the site in the past week was why plagiarism bothers authors. Given the size of the recent panel on plagiarism at RWA, it appears that it doesn’t bother some authors. Or is that the wrong assumption to draw? Needless to say, the panel was not well attended. The room seated about 200 and it appeared that there were 40-60 people there. I did see editors from a couple of different houses which was encouraging. I will admit that I never thought a panel that I sat on at RWA would fill a room of 200 but I did believe that Nora, who hasn’t spoken in room that wasn’t standing room only, would be greeted with a full crowd.
I know that Nora was disappointed and she voiced her disappointment from the podium. The room should have been full. The reason I say that is because I think that not everyone understands the difference between Plagiarism and Copyright. And I don’t know that everyone understands the reason why plagiarism isn’t such a good thing. After all, plagiarism is everywhere. Cindy McCain did it with recipes copying Rachel Ray. John McCain did it with his speech on Georgia, copying out of Wikipedia. Obama may have done it with one of his speeches (having borrowed a motif and pattern from friend Governor Duval). Reporters from the best broadsheets in the world do it. Bestselling novelists do it. Newbie novelists do it. Aspiring novelists as well.
For those that didn’t attend the panel, I thought I would sum it up and then at the end, I wonder if people wouldn’t be so kind as to let us know whether this is a panel (not necessarily with me but with Nora and others) that would be useful in the future, what information should be imparted in such panels/workshops and what RWA should do to instruct individuals on this issue. Maybe because we’ve only seen a couple of incidences of plagiarism, we think it isn’t pervasive, but I think that it is more pervasive than we know or like.
Before we started, SB Sarah introduced us. Nora had her prepared notes. I had my prepared notes and Dr. Barrie looked at me askance and whispered, “You have prepared notes.” And then we were off. Nora was up first. Essentially she had this to say. If you steal from her, she will hunt you down like a “rabid dog” and bring the “freaking wrath of god down on you” and she’ll do the same for any other author who suffered the same experience.
Some might deem Nora’s words harsh but it is likely because the story of her personal violation isn’t as commonly known as we think. Still today Nora gets questions from readers and booksellers about whether she was the one who did the plagiarizing or whether she was the one who was plagiarized. (Janet Daily copied from Nora).
All About Romance had good summary of the case including the horrible news coverage that Nora’s case was subjected to.
On Tuesday, July 29, the AP ran a story over the wire indicating that Janet Dailey had admitted to plagiarism. The two-paragraph story stated that Aspen Gold and Notorious contained “ideas and passages” from several of Roberts’ books. The story closed with this quote from purported Roberts’ fan, Janice Johnson: “It’s hard to steal ideas for those things. All the story lines are the same. Only the names are different.”
Those of us who read that initial story wondered why it was necessary to include that last sentence. By Wednesday morning, we were rolling our eyes up to heaven as we read AP’s expanded story by Jeff Wilson which led with, “There is a reason romance novels all seem to read alike.”
Then The Washington Post and Good Morning America got into the act. The headline of the Post’s story by David Streitfeld read: Stolen Kisses! Romance Writer Lifts Another’s Bodice of Work and the lead for the story was as follows: “Heaving bosoms and throbbing loins are all very well, but if you really want to make a romance writer breathe heavily, try pinching her prose.” And, on Thursday morning’s edition of ABC’s Good Morning America, love scenes were read aloud by the male anchors of the show.
Nora was also subjected to many people arguing that she shouldn’t have gone public with the copying (although it was a fan who had made the case publicly in the first place); that she, Nora, was being petty and vindictive. When the Cassie Edwards’ copying charges broke into the mainstream press, Nora was contacted by the Times and the AP for quotes. Nora gave her statement and it was upfront and forthright and fans at Amazon and other places began to call her classless for contacting the papers and trying to grab more of the limelight for herself. I think it is safe to say that if Nora never got another call from the Times or the AP about plagiarism, about romance, she would be just fine.
During my part of the panel, I covered essentially the same issues that we covered here at Dear Author. Essentially plagiarism and copyright are two distinct concepts. One is ethical (plagiarism) and another is legal (copyright infringement). As an aside, I was very nervous. For one thing, I was sitting next to Nora Roberts. For another thing, I was sitting next to Dr. Barrie who “completed his undergraduate studies in Rhetoric and Neurobiology and a Ph.D in Biophysics, both at the University of California, Berkeley.” (I don’t even begin to understand what that is but it has to do with brain waves). I started out my speech and then stopped and had to restart it because I was messing up. I felt far more comfortable in the question and answer period.
- Copyright Infringement would be if I took Nora’s book, Tribute, and made five copies and sold it outside the conference hotel. I’m not passing off the work as mine but I am selling unauthorized copies of it.
- Plagiarism would be if I took Pride and Prejudice, a book that is in the public domain and is not copyrighted any longer, and reprinted it with my name on it.
- When Copyright Infringement and Plagiarism overlap is when a person takes work that is copyrighted and tries to pass it off as her own. For example, one former editor at a NY publishing house, who also published a few romance books, shared with us that she had a proposal (first three chapters and query letter) submitted to her for proposal. The first chapter was a complete copy of one of the editor’s published books only made worse with additions. That is an example of copyright infringement (the author’s work was copyrighted) and plagiarism (coopting the work and placing your name on it)
The problem with plagiarism and copyright infringement is enforceability. It’s wicked expensive to bring a lawsuit. (One reason why shady publishers get away with so much, in my opinion). You can write a letter to someone telling them to stop copying you, but unless you bring a lawsuit that letter has no teeth.
As we can see by the continued success of both Janet Dailey and Cassie Edwards, the price of plagiarism is virtually nothing. Edwards did get dropped by Signet, but both Dorchester and Kensington continue to publish her unabated and without revision.
In order for plagiarism to stop within the writing community, the attitude of the writing community must change. I don’t mean for the online community, but the writing community. Authors must stand up for other authors. You cannot rely on Nora alone to shoulder the burden. I daresay, her shouldering it with just a few friends may have been part of the reason that her tone was strong. All of the writing community must make the environment hostile to plagiarism so that legal remedy isn’t the only recourse for a victimized author.
I wrote in my notes as Nora was speaking that genre fiction’s success relies upon individual expression. If that is not true, then we might as well replace authors with computer programs.
Speaking of computer programs, Dr. Barrie spoke about the TurnItIn program. Essentially it is a device used primarily by academicians to spot plagiarism amongst the student body. It is used worldwide in major institutions all over the world. Someday, there might be a TurnItIn for fiction writers, but the software isn’t there yet. Instead, we rely on readers and google. It would be nice, though, if we didn’t have to worry about the issue of plagiarism at all.