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Monday, January 28, 2008

In case you weren't sure what plagiarism isn't.

The whole Cassie Edwards flap continues to ripple outward, leaving blog posts and long comment threads in its wake. One of the things it has unearthed is a widespread misunderstanding of what plagiarism actually is, leading to some rather eloquent posts on the subtle difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism.

But there is another widespread confusion that also needs to be addressed. It seems that for every person who believes "she did noting wrong", or "she was just lifting non-fictional facts", or "it's romance so it don't really matter. . ." there's someone else who's just as willing to dive overboard and say "hey that (description of a) book looks like (a description of) some other book," and point screaming "PLAGIARIST" like Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Such people don't get the fact that, in fiction at least, there's no ethical problem with taking ideas/plots from prior work and adapting them to your own.

In fact, there'd be a bit of a problem if there was such a restraint as is pointed out rather amusingly on the Smart Bitches' blog:



There seems to be some confusion regarding the status of ideas in copyright law. You can’t copyright a plot or an idea. You can only copyright the specific expression of that plot or idea as recorded in some sort of tangible form. Think about the nightmare of attempting to nail down and legislate a plot or idea for a story. How specific would you have to be before you could declare something unique enough to copyright?


“An angst-ridden story about a vampire falling in love with a human.” Dude, if you can copyright that and collect a small fee every time somebody published that story, you could have your own giant pool of gold coins to swim in, Scrooge McDuck-stylee. (Side note: doesn’t that sound like a painful idea to you? Because it always has to me.)


Or, as Justine Larbalestier pointed out in a follow-up on her blog:


I am so sick of people thinking that retelling a story is plagiarism. If that were so then we would have, at most, ten novels. All books about vampires, zombies, middle-aged English professors are not the same (well, okay, some of them are). It’s not about the story you tell so much as HOW YOU TELL IT. Why is that so difficult to understand?


Georgette Heyer did not plagiarise Jane Austen. David Eddings didn’t plagiarise J. R. R. Tolkien. Walter Mosley didn’t plagiarise Raymond Chandler. I did not plagiarise C. S. Lewis.


The next person who says to me, “Oh my God! Did you see that Certain Writer’s next book is set in a future world where you have to have your skin removed and replaced with carbon when you turn sixteen? That is just like Scott’s Uglies books! He should sue!” That person will get smacked. HARD.


For some reason, a lot of people are tied up with this misunderstanding, to the point that I've seen multiple someones opine that Author A should sue Author B because of some similarity in plot mechanics. ("OMG they both feature red-haired were-weasels in a New-England high school!!!1!) In their view the similarity (usually between two Amazon-style plot synopses) is a BAD THING.

To this I say, "No, it isn't, you twit."

Fiction endlessly recycles plots, characters, tropes and the other structural elements of a story. Fiction is in a constant dialog with itself, and many stories are written in reaction to prior work. My own Emperors of the Twilight is a response of Heinlein's Friday, Dragons of the Cuyahoga was directly inspired by the "Future Boston" portrayed in In the Cube by David Alexander Smith, Raven has Edgar Allan Poe smeared all over it, the situation in Broken Crescent bears a (in this case accidental) significant resemblance to the plot set up in Wizard's Bane by Rick Cook, and a large part of Wolfbreed #1 owes its genesis to an anime series I'm rather fond of.

Those of you who've not gotten the point are going to start getting all Sutherland on me, somehow thinking my history of literary borrowing makes me a hypocrite for jumping all over poor Ms. Edwards. Let me clarify something for you. In fiction. . .

PLAGIARISM IS THE COPYING OF SOMEONE ELSE'S TEXT. T-E-X-T. NOT PLOT, NOT IDEA, NOT SOME CHARACTER'S ÜBER-COOL SUPERPOWER. TEXT! AS IN, THE PLAGIARIST OPENS THE SOURCE AND COPIES THE WORDS THERE! GET IT?

Thanks.

5 comments:

RaveBomb said...

IF that wasn't enough to think about, there is the entire "fair use" quagmire.

RaveBomb said...

From a personal standpoint, I'm working with my wife on a small writing project for our own amusement. One of the main characters is a gene-gineered human-bear hybrid originally built for military use.
(Now where have we heard that one before?)

The process for creating our setting and background ideas was to take a lot of the ideas and material that is out there (Moreau, Folklore, Role playing sourcebooks, etc. etc.) throw everything into a big pot and stir.

In the end we came up with an interesting pair of characters and the outline of a future Earth that's unique enough to be "ours".

However, without the ability to mix match and tweak from the pool existing material all I'd be able to write about is some guy with a silly nickname who is busy avoiding work, and I'm pretty sure that nobody wants to read that. :)

S Andrew Swann said...


IF that wasn't enough to think about, there is the entire "fair use" quagmire.


Well "fair use" is an issue of copyright, not of plagiarism. It the bar that allows some use of prior art w/o requesting permission.

What really muddies the water is the large gray zone of stuff that isn't legally fair use, but isn't profitable enough to litigate. i.e. almost all fanfiction. It may be that the de facto standard is it's ok until you try to sell it. But that's not a legal standard, and if someone gets all RIAA on your slash fic, the law's on their side.

Sprocketeer said...

Robert Heinlein, of course, freely admitted to "filing the serial numbers off of story ideas" and using them in his own stories.

In one of his essays, Harlan Ellison recounted how he took the myth of Prometheus and created a short story that recounted the myth in a new way, read this story at a lecture, and received understanding and praise from the audience. Except, of course for one person, whom Ellison described as a "stone Science Fiction fan" who practically accused Ellison of plagiarizing the original legend, much to the chagrined amusement of the rest of the audience, who did indeed understand that retelling the same basic story in new words is NOT plagiarism.

But here's the funny thing...years later, Mr. Ellison appeared to have forgotten this time-honored tradition of borrowing story ideas when he successfully sued the creators of the film "The Terminator" for using story elements similar to Ellison's own short story (and Outer Limits teleplay), "Soldier." That struck me as a double standard.

S Andrew Swann said...

IANAL, but, The test for copyright infringement in movies is broader for two reasons, I think. First, studios have much deeper pockets and it's more profitable to sue for marginal infringements. Second, the "rights" involved are for "adaptation" which inherently alters the original work, meaning the test for similarity is going to be much looser.