'No! Not ever!' cry famous writers in unison when asked if they have ever felt like using a piece of writing not their own. 'There's plenty of good writing out there, but I've never been tempted to lift anybody else's material,' says Janet Evanovich, who writes the popular Stephanie Plum adventure books. Fellow author David Nobbs, famous for his Reggie Perrin series, agrees. 'I don't think I've ever deliberately plagiarised anybody.' And Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of the best-selling novel The Deep End of the Ocean, echoes the sentiment. 'Never on purpose. The only time I wrote something that someone else wrote (it was -- 'Shut up,' He explained), I was horrified people didn't recognize a quote from Ring Lardner, Jr.'
'However,' continues Nobbs, 'I did once get accused of plagiarism by my fellow writer, one-time collaborator and best friend, the late Peter Tinniswood. In The Better World of Reginald Perrin, the third book in the original trilogy, I had Reggie setting up a commune in 'an ordinary suburban house in an ordinary suburban street.' In his second novel, Mog, Peter wrote about a lunatic asylum set in an ordinary suburban house in an ordinary suburban street. I think the words he used were quite similar too though I can't check as I have lost my copy of his book. This similarity was entirely unconscious on my part, but of course I may have remembered his words without realising that I did. He tried to bring an action against me but he got nowhere with it. No proof could be found that it was deliberate, because it wasn't. It was many years before we became friends again.'
Plagiarism is the act of taking someone's words or ideas and using them as if they belonged to you. From academic papers to music videos, no content is safe. Needless to say, the original creator is not given credit and often remains unaware his/her work has been plagiarised. Content is not the only thing that can be copied. Plots or story lines, settings and locales, premises, characterisations (or even names, think a war story with a soldier called Harry Potter), writing style, art -- everything that appears in the public eye is vulnerable and open to copyright violations. While some may argue that the intent behind the act counts, the fact remains that plagiarism, whether deliberate or accidental, does exploit the product of someone else's time, energy and creativity and is a crime punishable by law.
Plagiarism is a growing affliction in today's information-oriented globalised world, and if you are someone reasonably successful in your field, especially an author, chances are you may have even been at the receiving end of it. However, despite knowing plagiarism is legally and ethically wrong, the very people who commit the offence are creative artistes, just like the rest of us. So what provokes some to walk the wrong side of the line? And what stops the rest of us from going the same way? Have you ever experienced the itch to plagiarise?
Rebecca Tope, whose murder mystery books set in the Cotswolds are widely enjoyed, believes the question is complicated. 'Actual plagiarism is defined, I think, as wholesale copying word for word of a substantial section of a book, so in that sense, absolutely not. Nobody in their right senses would do it.' Award-winning author Sarah Waters shares this feeling. 'One of the most basic pleasures of writing is in figuring out what you want to say, and finding your own words with which to say it.'
Debby Holt, author of The Ex-Wife's Survival Guide, concurs. 'I've never been tempted to plagiarise, but the question isn't that easy to answer. I don't consciously try to plagiarise stories written by others and I don't understand people who do -- it takes all the fun out of creating my own worlds!'
One might as well attempt to answer why some people are dishonest and steal and cheat their way through life. Plagiarism happens for various reasons -- looming deadlines, overwhelming workloads, ineffective time management, lack of clarity about what is and isn't copyrighted, underdeveloped researching skills, an inability to find your own voice or just plain greed and weak will. However, this is one area in life where the principle of 'know thy enemy' doesn't necessarily help make your own position stronger. Whatever the reason, the one person who is guaranteed to be at the losing end is the author, the victim of plagiarism.
If your work has been plagiarised, a quick and easy way to deal with it is to feel flattered someone thought your work was worth re-using, and then forget about it.
Another way is to request that the plagiarised work be removed from the medium, and consider yourself fortunate if your request is actually complied with. This is simpler if the work appears in a non-permanent space like a website or blog. Sometimes, the company that hosts the online space can be approached for redressal. It becomes tougher when the work has appeared in a more lasting medium such as a print magazine. Then, if the matter is brought to the attention of the editor or publisher, and you can prove the charges of plagiarism, a correction and/or an apology may be printed in a subsequent issue. Unfortunately, this is of little comfort, especially if it's only a few words buried on page three where the publication lists its subscriber and advertiser statistics!
If all this fails, the only alternative available to the writer is a long, rocky and often expensive road to complicated legal recourse and headache. In majority of cases, though, plagiarism goes undetected. Increasingly there are several online tools that claim to be able to accurately check for originality of content and report on possible plagiaristic occurrences. Whether these work and deliver what they promise is not something any of us would like to put to test!
Even though plagiarism is not something we consciously opt for, most writers agree the environment does influence their writing to some extent. We've all experienced when something out of the ordinary will jump out at us and stick in our minds. It can be difficult to dislodge and may end up subtly shaping our own work in ways we may not even realise.
'I definitely have been influenced to an alarming degree by writers I read when I was a child,' says Mitchard, as does Waters. Holt adds, 'I go to a film and I find one of the characters very appealing and when I write the next day, the character in the film might influence the way I write one of my own characters. I read a book and enjoy the way the author notices tiny details of a room. I find myself looking out for the tiny details in my own work. What I am trying to say is everything we watch or read has some influence on us -- if only to make us try to produce better work of our own.'
The urge can, as most of us find out at some point or the other, be very difficult to resist. Tope admits, 'I may use other people's plots, in a general sort of way. The best example is Minette Walters' The Breaker, where I interpreted the plot as a single question -- did he or didn't he do it? That's the central question in my book A Death to Record. In both instances there really aren't any other credible suspects, and yet it's hard to believe the central figure was the killer, and the narrative drive is working out whether, how and why.
'I unashamedly use other writers' vocabulary sometimes, too. It's all too easy to keep on writing from the same limited stock of words -- everybody has their favourites, and one does get lazy. So I actively watch out for words that wouldn't normally feature in my prose. For example, I noticed the word 'travesty' in some book and made significant use of it in my own novel A Grave in the Cotswolds.'
Tope is positive she has never taken another writer's character. 'I can't see how that might work, because characters are somehow organic to one's own inner self. They emerge from setting and storyline, every one unique. The [writing] process is a rich one, a complex exchange and evolution of language. I try to keep up with modern usages. I regard reading as an essential part of the writer's job.'
This last sentiment has an unexpected contradiction in Evanovich. It also conveniently turns out to be her way to avoid the temptation to plagiarise. 'My schedule works very much in my favour -- I'm so busy writing seven days a week, I have little or no time to read other authors.'
Perhaps that is one way to steer away from enticement. Maybe someday someone will come up with a better solution to immunize ourselves from committing piracy. Until that happens, writers must beware and be strong. If you feel the tug of temptation, remember, this, too, shall pass.
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