Studying Literature at university may not make me an expert (yet
or maybe ever, who knows?) on all things academia, but one thing I can be certain of is my extensive knowledge about plagiarism. Although, in all fairness, this knowledge came about more from my experiences as a tutor than as a student myself.
I like telling my current batch of first-year English tutlings about one of the first ever Linguistics essays I marked early in 2018. The whole thing – THE WHOLE ENTIRE ESSAY – consisted of copy-pasted material from a Wikipedia article. (An article, I must add, that had absolutely nothing to do with the very easy assignment topic.) It took me a few lines to pick up on the fact that this was definitely not the student’s own work, and a couple of seconds to paste a phrase into Google and find the original source. Actually, the thing that took me the most time was drawing a big fat zero and scrawling that ominous “SEE ME ASAP” across the front page.
Point being, my new tutlings are terrified, but at least they’ll never copy-paste other people’s work into their essays. What was a lot more difficult to explain was that plagiarism in its other forms is just as serious. Paraphrasing, while not as easy to spot, still counts as stealing if you don’t acknowledge the original author. No exceptions.
So when I came across this article from The Guardian, I was this close to harassing those poor little tutlings via email (over their mid-semester break, even, because I am a monster) with a case of “real-life plagiarism” with “real-life” consequences. But reading it got me thinking about how “intellectual theft” works outside of “intellectual” genres – and why we don’t talk more about the plagiarism of fictional property. Considering the sh*t-storm in self-publishing right now, it’s probably time to change that – drastically.
WHAT IS PLAGIARISM?
Plagiarism involves an act of theft – intentional or not – of another person’s intellectual property. In academia, we generally take this to mean passing off someone else’s ideas as your own, and this extends from using the exact words of another author without crediting them, to the “innocent” use of their idea unaccompanied by a citation.
CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, THIS ALSO APPLIES TO FICTION.
Funnily enough, lots of readers and writers remain oblivious to the fact that the concept of plagiarism does indeed extend to fictional works. “Intellectual property” doesn’t only refer to ideas that are strictly, well, intellectual – if somebody else came up with it, be it a character or a storyline or a fantasy land, they own that idea. Why do you think nobody’s dared to write a book about a young girl called Harriet Kettler who discovers she’s a witch and gets swept off to study magic at Swinepimples? Because J.K. Rowling would sue the sh*t out of them, that’s why.
(And also, probably, definitely, because it would be very, very bad.)
However, obviously the same criteria for avoiding plagiarism in academia can’t be applied to fiction. Let’s say you want to write a novel set in Hogwarts, with an entirely new cast of characters that you dreamed up yourself. You can’t exactly cite J.K. Rowling every time you reference her creation (again, bad), and she would probably still sue you. So what seems to be the general consensus about using someone else’s ideas without plagiarising them?
Well, there isn’t one. Some authors like Jane from Dear Author argue that a simple Author’s Note acknowledging a source of inspiration is perfectly adequate. Others insist that using another novel as the basis for your own is fine, as long as you don’t profit off of it (think “fanfiction” for this one). There seems to be an understanding that “inspiration” doesn’t equal “plagiarism”, but the line between the two is often blurred.
Kimberley Jackson’s article “Four Myths About Plagiarism in Fiction Writing” is a great place to start reading if you want to define that line for yourself. Committing yourself to originality as a writer is damn difficult, especially when it feels like every cool idea has been written about before. But that doesn’t mean that it’s okay – or legal – to steal someone else’s work for profit.
AND THAT’S WHY THE GUARDIAN‘S ARTICLE DISTURBED ME SO DEEPLY.
It’s no secret that the publishing industry is a brutal, ugly place for new authors (and even for not-so-new ones). Self-publishing, especially on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing programme, gives hundreds of thousands of writers the opportunity to send their books out into the world relatively hassle-free. That a system designed to benefit creatives writing outside of traditional publishing is being misused by a bunch of – excuse my French – money-grabbing fuckwits, is as horrendous as it is ironic. These people will go so far as to lift entire scenes, word-for-word, from other authors’ novels for the sole purpose of making money.
This goes beyond finding inspiration in a favourite character or setting. It goes beyond writing fanfiction out of sheer love for the world an author’s created. Hell, it even goes beyond shamelessly basing a book on someone else’s work and then changing just enough about it to make it past those copyright laws (yeah, I’m looking at you, E.L. James). It’s just… lazy. Insultingly, disgustingly lazy. It’s not even a clever way to make money. There’s no talent, no innovation, no thinking involved – and because of that, it fundamentally undermines everything that writing’s supposed to be.
IS THERE A BIGGER ISSUE HERE?
For me, this isn’t just a case of people stealing and being generally awful. It points towards a problem in the system: just the fact that there’s a hole where these “writers” can worm their way into making thousands of dollars in an industry that supposedly values creativity and authenticity is bizarre. Besides the plagiarists themselves, who do we blame here?
I think this is a long-awaited opportunity to open up a discussion about where the publishing industry is failing its authors. As wonderful as self-publishing is, how does it speak to the limitations of publishing companies? And how do we solve the problem of plagiarism on a platform that, almost by its very definition, doesn’t put its authors through a rigorous proof-reading and editing process where plagiarism would be caught before publication?
I don’t have the answers. God, I don’t even have all the questions. But I think the more we talk about the issue, the closer we’ll get to finding some sort of solution. One that doesn’t involve people profiting off plagiarism and only maybe getting caught.