Today is anti-plagiarism day on Jane Smith’s How Publishing Really Works. Inspired by a case of plagiarism she had witnessed unfold, there’s now a whole raft of articles accessible from her blog post here, discussing various aspects of it. Jane herself has talked in the past about the particular case that inspired today, a what seems to be a case of writers’ group plagiarism where the guilty party won prizes off the pilfered work and didn’t seem to understand what he did wrong, to a case she talks about today where a best selling novelist lifted entire chunks of prose from another author’s books. I particularly liked Nicola Morgan’s blog post, where she talks about how being accused of plagiarism is one of her worst fears and about how easy it is to do. Jane’s post also talks about how easy it is to do (further down her post), with a discussion on unconscious plagiarism, or cryptomnesia, but I agree with both Jane and Nicola, that you have to be really conscious about making sure that you don’t do it and take proactive steps to avoid it.
The concept of plagiarism scares the hell out of me, not so much that someone will plagarise me, I, after all, am an unpublished writer and I don’t attend writing groups. I should say here that the principal reason why I don’t attend writing groups is that there isn’t one within easy reach of me anyway (which is strange in a literary town, thinking of it) and I harbour doubts about the usefulness of having my writing critiqued by other unpublished writers anyway, but I’ll admit the prospect of plagiarism would worry me a tinsy bit to. My work in progress is my baby and although I know I’ll have to let my baby go one day, I want it to go to the qualified ‘carers’ of the publishing industry, the agents and the slush pile readers. But, I’m getting side tracked, what really scares the hell out of me as far as plagiarism is concerned is me unintentionally committing it, through either coming up with an idea that just happens to be already out there (and I like the post Jane found in Neil Gaiman’s blog (scroll down a bit) on this matter, where he talks about his opinion on whether JK Rowling ‘stole’ his idea of owls delivering messages amongst other things) or using an idea that I have read or seen and forgotten that I’ve read or seen it or in the case of non-fiction writing, through sloppy note taking or taking short cuts I shouldn’t have, committing plagiarism there. The latter, as in the non-fiction writing, I’ll admit I have done, some of the first posts on this blog, just over two years ago, were written in the aftermath of me being caught, see here and here particularly. I was incredibly peed off with myself for doing it, I’m still peed off with myself for doing it, as I wrote in those two blog posts I’ve linked to, I had entered a non-fiction writing contest which was designed in such a way that the only people with a chance of winning were those that had written the most volume of articles over a set period of time and when a contest is judged more by volume rather than quality, I should have seen that good writing practice was not going to be involved here and me, two years later, can see that, me two years ago, I was naive. I thought, as long as I didn’t directly copy and paste (which I didn’t, although I could see quite a few writers in the contest were, as they’d still left in the ‘see picture here’ comments, on articles that had no pictures). No my crime was paraphrasing and paraphrasing badly. I’ve learnt my lesson since I hope, since that time I haven’t written any more non-fiction anyway, a combination of still not quite trusting myself and issues with time, I see myself as a fiction writer and the non-fiction websites were a distraction away from my goal of working on my fiction work, plus, linking with my fear of not quite trusting myself, a lot of the non-fiction opportunities I’ve seen since, principally providing copy for websites, you have to produce the copy so quickly, I just wouldn’t have the time personally to produce work that I knew, 100% in my heart, was paraphrasing free. I also have the side issue of the fact that when I do write non-fiction it tends to be science based, as that’s my background and I have issues with things like, for example, describing the structure of the DNA molecule in a succinct, easy to read, to the point manner, there are only so many ways of describing the components of the DNA molecule, you can’t just go and invent a new component just to make your work original, so in summary, non-fiction, a whole mine field I am staying way out of. I still do have some non-fiction work out there on the net, posted for a different website, one which placed a greater emphasis on original work instead of volume, that I wrote about the same time as the paraphrasing incident and I still worry about them and look at them and think “is that work really truly mine?” and to be honest if I could take them down, I would, just to get the whole non-fiction thing out of my hair. I look at them and I think, “I think that’s mine,” but I just don’t know anymore about that whole (to me) blurry line of non-fiction science writing.
As for fiction though, I am a hell of a lot more clearer, I can’t even imagine why anyone for a start would deliberately plagiarise, to me, that’s just not in the spirit of writing, why would anyone, as in the case Jane talks about in her blog post, whilst writing her novel, go “I know, I’m just going to insert a great big chunk of someone elses work here”, why do that? When I write fiction, as I’m sure it is with most other fiction writers, it is my world I’m creating, I don’t want to go and borrow anyone elses world. As for lifting whole story concepts, as in the case of Jane’s writing group example, that’s just mean and indicates a complete lack of original ideas from the plagiarist. So I see there a great big fat line which would be very difficult not to see and equally difficult to morally and professionally cross. You’re a writer, ergo you should have pride in your writing not someone else’s. But I think there’s also a thinner, more blurrer line, one which is easier to cross, as I wrote about my fears at the beginning of this post, having an idea completely independently from someone else at the same time or including an idea that you’ve read or seen about and have absorbed into your subconscious and forgotten its origins. Going back to Neil Gaiman’s post about the owls as an example, I think he’s right, the concept of owl’s delivering messages, probably not particularly new and he’s right about his relaxed attitude to it, another writer, who knows, could be a bit more uptight. I think the writers only defence against this particularly murky and blurring thin line is to do what they recommend all beginner writers to do anyway, know your market, read the competition, make sure your ‘baby’ isn’t too similar to someone else’s ‘toddler’ that’s been lurking around on the shelves for a few years. And of course all that reading is good for a writer anyway but then you’re flooding your brain with all those words, all those ideas and what if something pops into your head a year or two later and you can’t quite figure out if it’s your idea or you’ve seen it before somewhere . . .
So that’s my person take on plagiarism in writing, but I am also interested (read concerned) about plagiarism in another aspect of my life which has similar issues that writing has with plagiarism, that of producing and selling original crafted designs. I should explain to those just visiting my blog, that as well as try and write, I also enjoy my crafting and plan to open an Etsy shop this summer and the thought of opening my shop has very much concentrated my mind on what constitutes an original design, after surely a scarf is a scarf or a tote bag is a tote bag, but it’s nowhere near as clear cut as that, base a product you’re selling on a design from a book and you’re breaking, what copyright? You’re breaking something anyway. But I find the blurry line is how far away from that original bag you made from a book does your bag have to be before it’s different? Luckily for me I’m absolutely rubbish at following other people’s designs, so I’m not too worried about that. With me, it’s just like the issue with writing, you absorb yourself in all the wonderful design work out there and it comes to a point where you think of an idea and you think, once again, is that really my idea or someone else’s, have I seen that somewhere before and forgotten? Of course there’s still that great big thick line to, deliberately copying someone’s design, I’ve even heard of someone recently copying word for word, i.e. copy and paste, someone’s shop’s terms and conditions.
So, over 1500 words of ramble, which I’ll now try and sum up. Personally I don’t think plagiarism is black and white but nor do I think it’s excusable. I think you have to work very hard not to fall into some of the more greyer areas of plagiarism, you need to do your research to constantly check the validity of your ideas, and you need to try your hardest not to be naive or lazy or rushed to fall into the more obvious areas of plagiarism.