© 2006 Lynne Pierce
As this month's issue of Just About Write is being prepared, Dan Brown sits in a British courtroom waiting to hear if he took too much inspiration from a book titled Holy Blood, Holy Grail when he wrote The Da Vinci Code. His case was supposed to be a sure winner for him and his publisher until he admitted a few days ago that he did take chapters from other books and "rewrote" them to use in his work. But "only" two chapters, he insists, so he feels it should have no bearing on the case. Based on how this decision goes, a multi-million dollar movie starring Tom Hanks might never be seen. A decision is expected by April 11.
Just a few months ago James Frey was forced to admit that A Million Little Pieces is not what he represented it to be. Not only is it not an autobiographical account, but he "borrowed" incidents from other people and reported them as his own. In the fallout from this situation, talk show host Oprah Winfrey found her own integrity being questioned because she had chosen the book for her readers' club.
And now the world of lesbian fiction has been rocked by allegations of plagiarism. One of its authors has been accused of lifting entire sections of her books and short stories from best selling authors.
What Is Going On?
When relating to tangible objects, most people have no difficulty understanding where ownership begins and ends. Your neighbor knows he can't drive your car away simply because it's sitting in your driveway. Apply this statement to intangible items however, such as ideas, story plots or characters, and that level of understanding begins to disappear. People who would never steal your car think nothing of taking your ideas and presenting them as their own and then insisting that no harm has been done to anyone.
Are people more dishonest today? Probably not. Are tools being developed that are better at catching them at it? Probably so, although they aren't foolproof and that's what the plagiarizers are counting on. If they can fool us long enough, they might get away with it. Unfortunately, as can be seen in these recent high profile cases, the impact of plagiarism usually extends beyond the initial act of taking someone else's work.
What Is Plagiarism?
The answer to what plagiarism is would seem to be simple. If you use another person's words, ideas or thoughts, whether through paraphrasing or directly copying them and you don't give that person credit for what you've used, then you've plagiarized. If the answer is so simple though, why does a search on the Internet produce thousands of sites dedicated to defining plagiarism, explaining what it is, how to avoid it and, at numerous college and university websites, explaining what will happen to a person caught doing this? And this is not just a problem about students who are eager to earn a grade. Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, both distinguished historians, have been caught in recent years "borrowing" more than they should have. Professors have been dismissed from their positions for claiming work that isn't theirs. Diplomas that have already been issued have been revoked, and government officials have found themselves disgraced over the same issue.
The city of Miami, Florida, lost thirty-four teachers because one of them copied a certificate issued by a university for completing a course and then sold it to the rest of them. These teachers surely knew they had never taken the course for recertification, but they thought nothing of submitting "evidence" that they had. And how many of them have stood in front of their classes and lectured their students about not copying other people's work?
The direct copying of material doesn't seem to be the problem area. Even plagiarizers know they have crossed the line when they lift material directly from somewhere else. Most of them are hoping that no one is paying attention, so they won't be caught. Why do they do it? There are as many answers as there are plagiarists.
Some people are just lazy. Accept it, researching and creating from your own head is difficult work. How much easier it is just to lift the material from someone else. You would have discovered the same material yourself, but you saved yourself a lot of time.
Don't laugh. Anyone who has been teaching high school students and dealing with their parents for very long can tell you that this is one of their favorite arguments. One of my personal favorite stories occurred a couple of years ago when many of the top-ranked juniors at my high school failed their English research papers. They said they had heard the information they needed in a lecture in my US History class, therefore it was now common knowledge and didn't need to be attributed to anyone. It would be easy to dismiss this as childish indiscretion except that many of their parents agreed with their thinking and were irate that the school was punishing their children for their behavior. One would hope that maturity and experience would correct this misperception, but there's no guarantee of that.
What else could cause this behavior? A deadline is approaching and the story just isn't working. Maybe borrowing a few ideas from someone else will jump-start the process. Based on one original work, a publisher has given an author a contract for more books; then the author discovers that there was only one book in the well. With a contract hanging over her head, maybe she can disguise someone else's work enough to pass it off as her own. If she changes the names, genders, locations, etc., does that then make the story hers?
Some people enjoy fame, and how they achieve it isn't very important to them. Being part of an acknowledged group is more important than how they got there. These people all have an agenda, and they're willing to take a huge risk to achieve it. These are the people who know they're stealing when they use someone else's material, and they know they'll be lucky if they get away with it. But what about the incidental plagiarist? How does that person get himself into trouble?
Blurring of Lines
Americans live in a society that, at times, seems determined to confuse issues and blur lines. On one hand, this society places great emphasis on the value of the written word and the ownership of creative thought. American courts are known to hand down very stiff penalties and fines for those who take another person's ideas without permission. However, this is the same society that praises creativity that is "inspired" by someone else's work and allows a great deal of latitude before the line is crossed into plagiarism.
Leonard Bernstein takes Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, sets it in the streets of New York in the 1950s, writes music for it and is proclaimed to be a creative genius. The old television program Moonlighting won awards for one of its best shows when it used The Taming of the Shrew as its model, but rewrote some of the lines to suit the characters. "Weird" Al Yankovic has made a career for over a decade of taking other people's songs, rewriting them with his own words and selling them to a public that applauds his ability to parody other work. With legitimate examples like this to go by, it shouldn't surprise anyone that some people become confused about what they can and can't use freely.
Fan Fiction Roots?
Lesbian literature has its own example of blurring the lines. Many recent writers had their first successes writing fan fiction for one of the many sites dedicated to the Xena: Warrior Princess television program and its characters. They acquired their confidence and practiced their skills by writing stories about the two main characters, using story lines and scenes that had been made familiar to them by the show. Likewise, other writers came out of the fan fiction inspired by Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine from the Star Trek franchise or from the smaller group inspired by the Scully character from The X-Files. These writers made no pretense of the fact that they were using characters and scenarios created and copyrighted by other people, and they built a large fan base that encouraged this writing as a way to keep alive beloved characters even though they were using someone else's work as the basis for doing that.
Then some of these writers began to expand their stories to include similar characters in new situations. The natural progression from this was that some of these writers were contracted by publishing companies to issue their stories as books, many of them based on the original model of the tall, brunette hero/warrior and her shorter, blonde spunky sidekick or some other borrowed character. Somewhere they moved across the line from being derivative to original, but where was the line?
This question has been occupying the discussion boards of lesbian fiction lovers for some time, and there's no consensus as to where exactly the line is. There's no disagreement about direct copying of words or passages, but things become unclear after that. If you watch a television program or read a story and write the characters into your own story, have you been inspired or are you infringing on someone else's copyright? And what about the person who reads these stories and realizes where the inspiration has come from? Is that person then wrong to believe that she can lift ideas from other sources and claim them as her own?
If I decide to write a story about a courageous heroine who masquerades as a lady at the English court while she lives another secret life as the rescuer of French noblemen during the French Revolution, have I been inspired or am I plagiarizing from The Scarlet Pimpernel? If I decide to write a book about the first woman president of the United States and her lesbian lover living in the White House, have I gotten too close to the plot of Madam President, have I been inspired by the program Commander-in-Chief, or do I say there are only so many plots in literature and I just happen to be using one that other people have also used? And, if my work is considered plagiarism, what about all the Xena and Gabrielle look- and act-alikes who are parading through lesbian literature right now? This is the type of confusion that copyright lawyers make their careers from.
The true tragedy of plagiarism isn't what happens to the guilty author however. In egregious cases, these people know what they've done and anticipate being punished if they're caught. The tragedy comes in the collateral damage that occurs from these incidents. What about the publishers who have released the book, the distributors who are counting on sales of the book for profits, and other authors whose work might be involved with that of the guilty writer? How are they supposed to salvage anything from these incidents that have victimized them as surely as the author whose work was plagiarized?
And the reading fan factors into this also, especially in the lesbian community. Lesbians tend to embrace their writers as the voices of the community. They put into print what many have experienced and felt, but cannot or hesitate to communicate. They create a sense of togetherness that allows lesbians to feel that they belong to an identified community with common goals and truths. To find that one of those voices has stolen her words from someone else amounts to a betrayal of an essential trust in the group and its identity.
One of the difficulties in this situation appears to be whether or not publishers can protect themselves from these activities. Authors are required by publishers to sign a document stating that the work is their own, but if the author has already stolen someone else's work, nothing will keep her from signing the document also. And the signed document might not provide the protection the publisher assumed it would. Small publishing houses frequently don't have deep pockets, and being victimized by a plagiarist not only can endanger the publication of other works, but also can endanger a publishing house's existence. The actions of one selfish, unprincipled writer could result in an entire community losing a creative source.
Injury to Innocent Authors
And what about the authors who are affected by this? Anthologies are good places for writers to showcase their work. When an anthology is withdrawn from publication, the works of many authors disappear. For some of the authors it was their first time in print. Now their work is gone. The financial burden basically falls on the publishers, but what is an author to do when her work, through no fault of her own, disappears from the public? And if a publishing house collapses, what happens to the authors who were counting on that company to release future books? Some of the authors involved in the anthologies had featured them on their websites, which now have to be changed and the books removed. More importantly, many authors put such effort into their work that it becomes a living part of them, an extension of themselves. To have it cut off from public view carries a pain that only an author can appreciate.
Ultimately, what can be done to guard a community against a plagiarizer? Nothing really. Documents can be signed pledging that the work is original, but what is honesty to someone who has already decided to lie? Publishers can try using any of the numerous programs being created that will help to find stolen work, but none of these is perfect and cannot be seen as a safeguard. Companies can try employing readers and editors who have experience outside of a limited genre so that they will recognize stories that have been "borrowed" from other sources, but no one has ever read every book and story, much less remembered them.
Essentially, the only protection is to create a community ethic of high standards where plagiarism will not be tolerated—the works of those who try to bend the rules to suit themselves will be rejected. Then we must hope that the members use their common good sense and live within the boundaries of the legal definitions.
To Sum Up
Karin Kallmaker, one of the most widely read lesbian authors, recently published Just Like That, which is a rewriting of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, giving it a modern setting with lesbian characters in the major roles. Kallmaker was very careful to give credit for her inspiration to Austen in the front of the book and then to create characters who were her own. With her permission, her observations about the issue of plagiarism can serve as a good guideline for future writers: "Plagiarism has a precise legal definition…There are many nuances. But I think we can agree, copying someone else's work word for word is an example of plagiarism. Writing something derived from the formulas and mainstays of a genre, or from ideas that came to you from reading something else, isn't outright plagiarism if it's your own words on the page. If you do it badly, without originality, your work is uninspired and dull and likely to be dismissed as such. If you do it with zest and originality, people might say, 'Hey, that's like Madam President in some ways—a really good read, too!'...As has been mentioned, your own knowledge that what you are writing is your own work is crucial.
"Regardless of intent or understanding of copyright law, plagiarists know that the words they're copying are not their own. It's like I tell my kids. So you see that baseball mitt on the bench and nobody seems to be claiming it as theirs. So what? Who it belongs to is meaningless—YOU know it's not YOURS."
Lynne Pierce is a life-long resident of Virginia who has spent the last thirty-two years trying to convince high school students that history is relevant to their lives and leading them through the process of learning to think for themselves about issues. Her main hobby since the age of five has been reading and she has spent the last ten years consuming every work of lesbian fiction that she can get her hands on. Lynne's reviews can be read in Just About Write, on the Canadian Lesbian Fiction Addicts site and Amazon.com. You can reach Lynne at Sage320@aol.com.
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