Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Copyright infringement and plagiarism at RWA

What if they gave a talk on theft of creative property at the RWA National Conference and nobody came?

Okay, I'm exaggerating, but Nora Roberts was one of the panelists, as well as Jane Litte from Dear Author and Sarah from Smart Bitches, so I went early, expecting the room to be overflowing. I figured given the topic, the recent Cassie Edwards plagiarism scandal, and the fact that Sarah and Jane were bound to be amusing, intelligent and forthright, it would be packed. Not so much. (Except for the amusing, intelligent and forthright parts.) The conference organizers booked one of the large meeting rooms and I'd say it was less than a quarter filled. Perhaps only 10% filled.

The more I think about this lack of attendance, the more appalling it is. Okay, there were other talks opposite it and everyone has trade-offs to make re which workshop to attend, but I think the fact it was so poorly attended speaks to one of the main issues I took away from the panel: unless the culture and attitude toward plagiarism changes in the publishing industry, people will continue to do it, because there are few, if any, consequences.

In the romance genre there have been two high profile instances of plagiarism, so you'd think there would've been more interest in the panel. First when Janet Daily plagiarized Nora Roberts' work and more recently when Cassie Edwards plagiarized her research sources. Read about it here.)

Janet's and Cassie's books are still on the shelves. The writers still have careers. Are still earning money. The general public doesn't have a clue what they did-- have no idea they are supporting writers who stole from other writers.

Stepping back for a sec, to clarify something, I want to use a short example that Jane (a very impressive woman, BTW) used to explain the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism, because I've heard people blurring the two, or using copyright laws to defend plagiarism, etc. (I've probably done it myself.)

Jane's example:
If I make a copy of a Nora Roberts book, (keeping her name on it, because she's famous, so why wouldn't I?), whether on paper or electronically, and give it away for free or sell it, I am violating her copyright. This is against the law. She could sue me. (But based on Nora's very passionate talk, I'd be dead, probably with a hammer in my head, before we ever got to court.)
On the other hand, Jane Austen's work is now in the public domain. There is no longer any copyright on her work. I can make as many copies of Pride & Prejudice as I want and distribute them to anyone without breaking any laws.* If, however, I put my name on it instead of Jane's, and try to pass it off as my own novel, or if I lift sections from it to put in another book, I am plagiarizing. But this isn't against the law, it's just WRONG. Plagiarism is a matter of ethics, while copyright infringement is a matter of law, so using: "it's in the public domain", or "it's fair use" to defend plagiarism doesn't work, because those points of law relate to copyright infringement. At least this is how I understood what Jane said. I plan to listen to the talk again when my conference CD's arrive. **

As with any matter of ethics, there's a gray area. For example, I've read books (can't think of the titles right now) that start with the first line of P&P or the first line of Tale of Two Cities or some slight variation of these famous lines. To some this is clever, a wink to the reader, to others it's plagiarism. (I'm on the clever side of that fence, BTW.) Another example: we often hear writers say, "Oh, as long as I list my research sources in my acknowledgments, it's okay if I've copied or loosely paraphrased my research sources. Again. Not okay. Not from where I sit, anyway, especially without permission. The way the non-fiction writer expressed the information is that writer's creative property. The facts and/or ideas aren't, just the way they were expressed.

Bottom line, this panel discussion bounced me right off the fence about this issue. Not that I ever thought that plagiarism was acceptable, (and I already had my legs hanging over one side, perhaps one foot on the ground), but I have to admit I was one of those people who thought in the Cassie situation it was more about laziness and bad writing, than about plagiarism. (Now I think it's all of the above.)

But I realize now how wrong headed my opinion was. I mean, if novelists don't respect the creative expression (words) of non-fiction writers, (research sources), then why should we expect anyone to respect our rights to our own creative expression? In other words -- our novels, our work, our art, our livelihoods. Imagine if a bunch of thriller writers were told by their editors to include more sex scenes in their books and being uncomfortable writing "that icky sex stuff" thriller writers started lifting love scenes from romance novels and substituting their own character names and/or slightly paraphrasing? After all, it's just from a romance novel and they're all alike, anyway, aren't they? (That's the plagiarizing thriller writer talking there, in case it wasn't clear. ;-) ) I think it's pretty obvious why that example is not okay, but that's exactly what Edwards did to the writers of her research sources.

And what consequences have there been? From what I understand, while one of her publishers dropped her (as I understand it) the others have not and she's still on the shelves in the bookstores and people are buying her books and she's earning royalties. Really, other than what I'm sure was tons of stress and humiliation and embarrassment, she has suffered few consequences, compared to what an academic would have for the same offense. Same with Janet Daily. Still publishing away. Still hitting lists, I think. (According to her website, which I am so not linking to, she's still hitting lists.)

It really is time for RWA, and the publishing industry in general, (publishers, writers and booksellers), to get serious about plagiarism. As was said in the panel: in the academic world, there are dire consequences for plagiarism (expulsion for students, and loss of job/reputation for professors), but in the publishing industry, we act so afraid of the word plagiarism that we want to pretend it never happens.

When we started the Drunk Writer Talk blog, we decided we wanted to avoid controversial industry topics, but I decided to do this post anyway, because really... to me this should not be controversial, and I think (hope) if more authors were better informed about the issues, it would be a no-brainer. Sure, it's terrifying to think that something we've read might have crept into our brains and back out onto our own pages... but using a metaphor or a twist of phrase another author has used doesn't necessarily mean plagiarism. Especially if it isn't done repeatedly or systematically. But doing that many times in the same book, or copying sections and only slightly paraphrasing, like Kaavya Viswanathan did... Or like Cassie Edwards and Janet Daily did. That's plagiarism. At least Viswanathan had her book canceled, although it's not clear she had to pay her huge advance back... Does anyone know?

* I'm not sure, but I figure there are probably copyrights on the cover and book designs of newer additions of P&P... So maybe I'd have to retype the text and re-print any Jane Austen novels to avoid copyright issues. But there is no copyright on the actual writing and story.
** Also, it is possible to do both. If you plagiarize writing that is still under copyright protection, (i.e. if I copied Nora's books and put my name on it, like Janet Daily did, I'd be both violating her copyright AND plagiarizing.)


Suzanne said...

I think it's great that you have spoken out about this topic. I find it ironic and disturbing that in the two cases you sited (Cassie Edwards and Janet Dailey) these weren't newbie authors who were lifting passages from the pros in order to make up for their own short-comings...that would almost be understandable if no less reprehensible.

The fact that that established, successful authors like Cassie and Janet 'stole' the work of their peers is somehow worse than if a newbie had done it....1) because as established authors they know better, 2) because they understand how difficult it is to write original prose, and therefore how valuable it is, 3)it shows a lack of respect for the author they stole from and for the readers who have spent money and time to read their stolen work!

I agree with you that it's sad that the meeting wasn't better attended....especially with Nora there...I'd go just to hear her read a menu, much less talk on such an important topic.

Amy Ruttan said...

Actually I didn't know this class was being offered.

I honestly missed this one in the book, I probably would've gone if I had of known.

I'm glad it was taped because I bought the tapes and am interested.

People stealing other people's work is horrifying. I would never do it, I want to create my own original prose. I don't want to be remembered for earning money off of someone else's imagination.

Alli said...

Fabulous post, Maureen. As authors, we should be up in arms. IMHO, it is a form of cheating. And you're right. People get expelled, hauled over the coals, etc if they plagarise at school. What about businessmen? Would a company hire a contractor if they knew the proposal had been plagarised? I think not...
We do labour over every word and idea. It's not right someone should swoop in and take it from us. Perhaps legally it's OK to plagarise, but morally... well, if the offender can sleep well at night, that's their problem.
Until I read your post I hadn't given this topic much thought. But as I type this I am finding I am quite indignant about the matter. I am on your side of the fence, both feet firmly planted on the ground and saying "C'mon, Maureen, jump over. The water is fine!"

Maureen McGowan said...

Amy, I'll bet a lot of people didn't notice it because of the dry subject title.

Alli, don't worry, I'm well over the fence now, too. My fence sitting with one foot down was before I went to this informative panel.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I am so ashamed to admit I truly didn't understand this issue. That there is no recourse but to make a stink is horrifying. On that end -- I'm glad the Smart Bitches were there to create a forum for this. I hated how mean people were to Cassie Edwards -- it got very personal. But in the end, what's more personal than our writing? How dare she either be so negligent, or careless or ill-informed. It's nuts.

Thanks Maureen for bringing the outrage home.

Sinead M said...

I didn't understand enough either. I really didn't know that the writer has no real recourse.
And Nora Roberts is right, if we don't make a deal of this, then how can we get offended if someone steals our work.
Great post, Maureen.

Kari Lee Townsend said...

Great post Maureen. I wish I could have gone to the conference this year. Next year for sure. And I would have killed to be in a workshop with that panel, regardless of the topic;))

Very informative recap on your part. I think a lot of writers, myself included, don't understand all the aspects of copyright law or plagiarism. There's so much that goes into it, my philosophy is when in doubt, don't do it.

Kimberley Troutte said...

Hi Maureen,
sorry I missed you at the conference.
I am very glad you blogged about this. Plagarism is WRONG and I think it should be illegal too with dire consequences. It's STEALING for gosh sakes. Since when is lying (James Frey) and cheating (others you mentioned) okay? And how many people are going to buy their books just to see what all the hoopla is about?

Jumping up and down on your side of the fence.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Great post Maureen. When the whole thing broke with Cassie Edwards I remember being surprised by the confusion about it. She lifted more than just ritual procedures and such. She lifted descriptions, of a prairies, pastures, animals,etc.

But each time I go into B&N -I see her books out there on the shelf. I keep waiting for someone to reach for one so I can say stop! That woman is a plagerist.

She should be banned from publishing period. So should Janet Daily. You did it, you knew you were doing it. You should get "fired" as a writer.


Maureen McGowan said...



Lise said...

An excellent blog, Maureen, very informative and I share your outrage. In fact just seeing the most recent ads run and reviews given to Cassie Edwards' latest in RT upset me. There has never been any resolution to the claims which - if she was vindicated she deserves, and if not, the public deserves.

I'd like to clarify however, the distinction between plagiarism and copyright infringement. You can, indeed infringe someone's copyright AND be plagiarizing them at the same time. If the book or work is NOT in the public domain you will have committed the legal crime of copyright infringement and the ethical misdeed of plagiarism.

And yes, it would be the new packaging of the book (art, etc.) that is copyrighted by the publisher, but the text is still public domain.

And the subject is very complex but the standard of plagiarism is a subjective one as to how much has to be copied, and how exact it has to be, AND how likely it is that an expression could be a coincidence (i.e., how unique the expression is).

I agree that it is sad that more people are not concerned, for their own protection as well as to ensure they are not inadvertently committing one of these two offenses. And given the vast amount of confusion as to what can be protected by copyright (ideas cannot, most titles cannot) I'd think more people would have flocked to learn! Good for you for helping to spread the word.

Maureen McGowan said...

Yes, Lise, I agree.

In my example, if I copied Nora's work and put my name on it I'd be both infringing on her copyright and plagiarizing (and would most certainly be dead.)

If you're still unsure whether Cassie Edwards did anything wrong... take a look at the research gathered by the Smart Bitches. The link is in the post. I read about 4 of the 98 pages of examples and it was enough to convince me. Any 10 year old kid knows better than to do what she did.

pam said...


I'm not that surprised that it wasn't a well attended workshop. This is just my opinion and I could be way off, but the reason I didn't attend and maybe why others didn't is because for me it's a black and white issue with very little if any gray just don't do it. So, the way I pick workshops to attend is if its something I'm hoping to learn more about...and I kind of felt like I had a good handle on to be honest, it's not a feel-good topic, and I look for workshops that will inspire me and teach me.

Just my two doubt I would have learned at this workshop, but there were others that were more enticing.

:) Pam

M. said...

great, insightful post, maureen.

jane briefly mentioned mucho disappointment about turnout on her site. and talking about lack of consequences, poor attendance wouldn't seem to encourage the pwers that be at rwa to schedule such an event again, would it?

tacking on an 'does anybody know?' question to yours: did the rwa board ever make a statement about it's findings in the cassie edwards situation? because at the time, a received a member email to the effect that a board member had been ambushed (my word) with a question about the matter but it wasn't fair to take her immediate response as representative, sinceit would require time look into the situation properly. fair enough, thought i- but now many months have passed with no comments forthcoming....

Anonymous said...

Actually, I don't find it surprising at all that this was not very well attended. I'm sure what went through most people's minds was: I don't plagiarize, so why do I need to go to this session?

I could pretty much guess what would happen. Definition of what plagiarism is with examples. When you only have a limited number of sessions to attend, this would not be one high on my list at all.

I don't think it says anything about the importance of plagiarism. It's just not a topic that, on first glance, would be more than a rehash of what people already think they know.

Maureen McGowan said...

Anonymous and Pam,

Yes, I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't have gone because they already understood the issues, but if I remember the description of the workshop correctly, it was more about what should the industry be doing about plagiarism, not "this is plagiarism, don't do it." And I thought more people would be interested in that, since it's about people stealing our work...

That said, I hope no one reading this post took it as a scolding for not attending. There were plenty of other great workshops in that time slot, too... Just saying I was surprised by the low number.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...