Plagiarism: It Still Sucks

Did you guys hear about this whole plagiarism scandal?

So apparently this (former) board member of an RWA chapter was selling self-published and micropress published stories that were actually written for Harlequin by authors like Liz Fielding and Julie Kenner. She changed the names and a few phrases here and there but otherwise the stories are the same.

When she was first called out on the matter, she claimed she’d saved the stories to her hard-drive, later opened them, and thought she’d written them and forgot. (Which, um, is why she decided to do a find/replace on all the character names? Riiiiiight.)

Later, after a couple of big blogs brought the hammer down, she issued a public, unqualified apology.

Holy crap, y’all.

This is not the first time I’ve read about self-published authors pulling this kind of stunt. (Sadly, it’s also not the first time I’ve heard of traditionally published authors doing so: Kaavya Viswanathan, Janet Daily, and Ian McEwan spring to mind.) But with the self-published authors, there are far fewer hoops to jump through. They don’t have editors and publishing houses to catch them before the stolen work is made available to the public. The only gatekeeper is the criminal himself. The e-tailers will, reportedly, take a book down for infringement complaints, but who knows how many stolen books might be floating around out there? And if they are, how would one even find them? Barring someone familiar with YOUR book stumbling across the thief’s version and remembering, it’s going to be tough.

I remember once, many years ago, someone (NOT the author) sending me a link to something described on the page as “Secret Society Girl/Twilight crossover fanfic.” Now, I make it a point to never, ever read fanfic. I do so for legal as well as personal reasons. I know a lot of people have a lot of strong feelings about the existence of fanfic. Despite having read and written fanfic about 15 years ago, I don’t have any strong feelings, since, you know, it’s been 15 years since I’ve done any of that. If you want to write fanfic about my stories, I’m not going to get in your way, but please do not send it to me, ask me to read it, or try to sell it.

(Note: Fan ART is a totally different scenario. Please send me links to your fan art. I love fan art.)

Anyway, I wrote back and was like “oh, I never read fanfic” and the person replied that what this purported “fanfic” actually was was plagiarism — the words from one of my books, with the character names changed to Bella and Edward and Alice and etc. And when I looked at the page I saw that it was so, and that the readers were complimenting this “author” on her snappy dialogue and her humor and her whatever else was stuff I’d written.

It pissed me off, not just as the author of the work being stolen, but as a former reader and writer of fanfic who felt totally tricked. I’d been promised SSG/Twilight X-over! Not SSG with the names changed. (Also, Amy? NOTHING LIKE BELLA. To start with, she has to be dragged kicking and screaming into a relationship with anyone, let alone a vampire who has admitted wanting to eat her.)

But more than being pissed off, it was unsettling. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s icky. There’s something deeply, primitively disturbing about having your words be attributed to someone else. Even if, as in that case, the person was in no way profiting off the theft.

This new plagiarist, an RWA member, should certainly have known better. Actually, they should all have known better, so that’s not an excuse, but it certainly adds to the shock factor. Also, for me, it’s the first time someone I know personally has been ripped off. (I know others who have been plagiarized, but the incidents happened before I knew them). Julie Kenner has been a friend for many years, and seeing her name pop up on the list of those who were stolen from added a whole new level to the incident. I feel icky on her behalf.

The amazing thing is, it’s almost always readers who first find and point out the similarities. It was a reader who told Liz Fielding that she was being ripped off by Kay Manning. It was readers who pointed out the similarities between Kaavya Viswanathan’s phrasing and Megan McCafferty (and many other novelists). Which means that words matter. We remember what we read.

(Actually, that was Viswanathan’s excuse at the time — that she had accidentally incorporated phrasing from her favorite books into her novel due to her photographic memory. I remember when the story first broke about Viswanathan’s thefts, I was a baby debut novelist, a few weeks away from my own first release, and I remember, in my naivete, actually wondering if something like that could really happen. Answer: no, it doesn’t. It doesn’t happen with the length and frequency and exactitude that became clear in the Viswanathan case.)

I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened in that case. The massive news coverage at the time speculated on “heavy editorial guidance” by the book packaging company who apparently had already approached one of the plagiarized authors about writing an Indian-American teen novel, and on exactly what part of the idea was the teen author’s own and which parts were thrust upon her (or ghostwritten for her) by the packager or the “Ivy League consultant” (withte h six figure price tag) her parents hired who dreamed up the novelist notion in the first place. However, Viswanathan always maintained she wrote (or “unconsciously copied”) every word herself.

Manning, in this case, claims she’d saved the stories in a folder on her hard drive and then later opened them and thought she’d written them.

FALSE.

I am having a difficult time imagining the circumstances under which stories would be saved in a format where they’d even look like something you’d written. Occasionally (as with stories posted online, as some of these were, as free reads at the publisher’s website) I might save them so as to read them offline later. But they’d be saved as PDFs or “html” files. Even if I C&P, they would retain their internet style formatting (i.e. extra lines between paragraphs instead of indented first lines).

But more than that, you don’t read stories written by other people and think they’re yours. You just do not.

I’m not saying that you remember every story you’ve written. I often come across old files or snippets in my shaggy “idea” folder and go, “Oh, man, I totally forgot about that story!” (There’s several chapters of one that’s been knocking around in there for almost a decade about a spelunker, which always seems especially appropriate to me whenever I come across it, since I feel a bit like a spelunker every time I venture into my old idea folder.)

But that’s the exact opposite experience from what Manning describes. What happens is, you come across that idea or that snippet or that abandoned story and you say, “I totally remember writing this.” I remember the hours I spent pushing New Zealand dollar coins into the slot in a basement internet cafe in Christchurch and typing everything into an Open Office file, since the computer in the cafe didn’t have Word. I remember how dark it was in that cafe, since everyone else was a gamer and apparently gamers like playing in pitch black rooms. The cave-like ambience helped. I remember it even though it happened in 2004.

I forget stuff all the time. Recently, I forgot what the unicorn hunter Melissende’s (and, by extension, her sister Ursula) last name was. I had to grab a copy of Rampant and look it up. (It’s Holtz.) Sometimes I’ll be rereading one of my books and come across a funny or poignant scene or turn of phrase I’ll have forgotten, and it’ll strike me all over again. But I’ll never completely forget the writing of an entire story. Barring some sort of brain injury, I don’t think it’s possible.

And you know what else isn’t possible? That someone wrote this magical forgotten story with a mysteriously British setting and terminology (“buggy” for “stroller” and similar) and then randomly decided, upon stumbling across it many years later, to move the action to Atlanta and Americanize all the words and spellings.

Which is why I’m glad Manning backtracked on her excuse and offered an unqualified apology. Because while Joshua Foer can speculate on Crypto-amnesia and Malcolm Gladwell can talk about how all chick lit novels suck anyway so there’s no such thing as plagiarism in them (seriously, back in 2006, EVERYONE was talking about Kaavya Viswanathan) until the cows come home (not an original phrase), there is absolutely no way famous writers — or, you know, ANYONE — is going to back the “I had it saved on my computer and thought it was mine” defense.

I just… can’t even…

Let’s talk about something fun. Did you know the guy who plays the Dean from Community just won an Oscar for his work on The Descendents screenplay? I guess he’s a better writer in real life than Jeff’s assessment of the Dean’s Starbucks scribblings would have you believe.

Though I can’t wait for him to get one for directing.


Posted in other writers, rants, writing industry, writing life

3 Responses to Plagiarism: It Still Sucks

  1. Ginny says:

    Am I the only one who can just imagine how Amy would even react to the whole Bella/Edward thing. Would not be pretty!

  2. Layne says:

    I think plagiarism is terrible. Writing takes so much time and effort and then someone like the writers you mentioned come around and try to reap the benefits. As for fanfiction, I love it. I started off writing fanfiction before I branched off into orignals (I hear that’s pretty common). The big thing for fics is to not make any profit from their stories and not to claim it all as their own. I’ve come across plagiarized fanfics and I think it’s almost as bad as stealing a published work. Almost because the ones that I have run into haven’t sold any for profit.

    And while I may not remember every little story I’ve done, if I’ve spent years working on something, I’m going to remember it. Maybe not all the details (hence the series bible I made), but enough to realize whether or not I’d written something.

  3. moonspinner says:

    So what then do you think of Cassandra Clare who started her career as a plagiarist?