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Copyright infringement -- RANT

There’s another copyright/plagiarism scandal being discussed on the internet, and as happened last time, I’m surprised by some of the reactions.

I’m so naïve. I would have guessed that creative writers have zero-tolerance toward this sort of thing in its most blatant form. And I thought readers would too. Apparently, I was wrong.

I’m talking here about true copyright infringement or plagiarism, not innocent accidents, and not the copying of “ideas” or basic plots.

I’m talking about intentionally lifting entire passages from someone else’s work, and then giving the impression that you created that particular wording yourself.

For a couple of the earlier incidents, I understood why some authors were so forgiving of the alleged infringer(s). The authors felt vulnerable. They were worried about accidentally duplicating something they had read – some phrases, or maybe even a little more, that stuck in their heads. They were mortified to think that they might read something wonderful, internalize it, then use it in their own work, believing in good faith that they had created that particular phrasing, then wham! They’re hit with a lawsuit.

I have sympathy for accidents too.

That’s not what we’re discussing here.

In the case of copyright infringement, I’m specifically talking about behavior that a Judge would find to be such. I don’t practice copyright law, so I don’t know all the subtleties, but at some point, if someone intentionally lifts whole passages from someone else’s copyright-protected work, passes those words off as their own, and uses them for gain without permission, and the use doesn’t fit within one of the exceptions (like parody or fair use, e.g. a reviewer), then they’ve violated the copyright.

In the case of plagiarism, I’m talking about knowingly passing off someone else’s words as your own for pecuniary or scholarly gain, or for widespread acclaim. It’s not always against the law, but it should always be regarded as wrong. Students shouldn’t do it. Scholars shouldn’t do it. Authors shouldn’t do it. It should be regarded as immoral, although in the case of a young child, obviously, it’s like all moral issues – a learning experience. Hopefully, they are taught ahead of time not to lie/cheat/steal, but if not, then parents and teachers can step in when they see it and can explain that plagiarism is lying/ cheating/ stealing. Doing it to get a good grade doesn’t really hurt anyone but the plagiarist and the students against whom he/she is competing. Still, let’s nip that in the bud, okay?

Adults know that it’s wrong. They will never do it intentionally unless they are (1) completely immoral and believe they can get away with it, (2) lazy and have weak moral fiber and believe they will get away with it, or (3) so arrogant that they believe the rules shouldn’t apply to them, perhaps because of their immense stature or talent, or because of the lowly stature of person from whom they are copying. (Don’t tell me it wasn’t very many passages. If you did it intentionally for pecuniary or scholarly gain, and it was more than a phrase, I don’t really care how many words you borrowed. If those passages are unique as far as you know, don’t pass them off as yours for pecuniary or scholarly gain. Acknowledge them, and if the copyright is still in existence, get permission!)

I don’t know whether or not the current scandal constitutes copyright infringement, legally speaking. I don’t have all the facts about it. I probably never will.

What shocks me is that some people are saying: even if it is “technically” copyright infringement, so what?


Intentional copying of someone else’s creative expression without (1) getting permission and (2) acknowledging the act? And then creating the impression that you wrote those words yourself? That’s wrong. Nothing can excuse it. You’re busy? You’re stressed? You’re so amazingly talented that the victim should be flattered? You think it wasn’t very much copying, relative to the size of the entire work? You have some other charming excuse?

No excuse.

Copyright law is there for multiple reasons. Sure it protects the author – allowing him/her to garner the rewards of what they’ve written, and perhaps to know that their children might reap those rewards. But the main purpose of copyright law is to protect society by encouraging creative writers to persevere, even in the face of poverty (compared to what they could make at another profession). To write without fear of being blatantly ripped off. It is society that reaps the ultimate benefit when creative writers are encouraged to tell stories to entertain and inspire.

The rules against plagiarism have some additional purposes: to protect those who compete against the plagiarist by not allowing him/her to have an unfair advantage (e.g. a higher grade) and, to protect the reader (from being duped, and perhaps from handing out accolades, money, or good grades based on the plagiarized text).

Of course, if you’re willing to be duped, then plagiarism is okay, I guess, once the copyright has expired. It’s your call.

But I’m still shocked by it. And concerned about the future. Because these rules evolved for a reason over a very, very long expanse of time. And until we understand them, we might not want to discard them so lightly. They don’t just protect the original writer. They protect all writers, all readers, and all persons.




( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 4th, 2006 03:19 pm (UTC)
Kate -- I'm out of the loop on this one. WHAT copyright scandal are you talking about?

Dec. 4th, 2006 04:55 pm (UTC)
Hi Karm. It's basically a situation where a male literary author of significant stature may have used some short passages -- word-for-word or the equivalent -- from the memoir of a wartime-nurse-turned-romance-author. The man put an acknowledgment in his book and also publicly stated that he used the romance author's work for research. The author recently passed away, and her agent -- God love her -- has pointed out that the similarities are striking. Depending on which accounts you read, it's difficult to figure out if most of the hubbub is about the "possible" verbatim lifting, or the fact that a character in the novel is based on the romance author's actual experiences.

It's the former claim that bothers me, if true. I'm not so sure that copyright and/or plagiarism come into play when someone loosely bases a fictional character on a real person, living or dead, although there are other legal issues that are obviously raised in those circumstances.

Meanwhile, I don't know what a court would say. It sounds like it will never come to that, since the author eventually found out about it and didn't take legal action. That's her call, and so it's more or less "case closed" on that front unless her heirs are of a different mind (I don't know how the statute of limitations or waiver work on these things).

What surprised me was how many people were willing to give him a TOTAL pass, even IF he did something wrong/illegal. The reasons for excusing him included: because they loved his book, because it was such a great work of literature, because it wasn't much copying, because he gave an acknowledgment in the book, and/or because copyright laws are bad and should be changed. (And of course, the elephant in the room: she was just a woman, just a romance author, etc)

I haven't read the acknowledgment, but I'm guessing it didn't say, "Ms. Andrews wrote this so brilliantly, I couldn't possibly say it better, so I simply used whole passages verbatim. I didn't contact her or ask permission, but let me take this opportunity to say that I'm grateful." If it did say that, then it wasn't plagiarism, so that's good news. The copyright issue is another matter.

It kills me that he didn't ask permission. That way, if it really didn't bother her, or if it "flattered" her (as some people have suggested) she would have said yes. Or maybe "yes, but please word your acknowledgment thusly and pay me one-half percent royalty" (my personal favorite!) Or maybe she would have said "no." But without her permission, if he violated her copyright, I don't see how an acknowledgment cures it. It's her work.

Also, if he had contacted her, perhaps that could have had tea and talked for a few hours. She could have recounted experiences, and he could have absorbed that research, its nuances, its emotions and backdrop, then gone back home and written a dynamite description of his own. That's the ideal process, right?

I still don't know how to make hyperlinks that aren't a mile long, but if you go to the Smart Bitches site, they've done a great job of laying out the situation and linking to some news accounts and other blogs that contain tons of info.

Dec. 4th, 2006 05:05 pm (UTC)
Re: scandal
I would / will boycott forever anyone who violates copyright law and anyone who knowingly enters a gray area where they probably knew they'd get away with something close to copyright infringement. There are too many talented, hard-working, passionate people out there not getting published just b/c the competition is so fierce for me to reward someone who isn't applying their butt to the chair and doing their own work. I just don't want to associate with someone whose morals and ethics are free-form and since I can choose not to, I will.

Of course, since I'm not in the industry, I possibly have and/or will unknowingly supported such losers.

Dec. 4th, 2006 05:33 pm (UTC)
Re: scandal
That's how I feel too, Penni. Thanks for weighing in.

Are you as surprised as I am that there are so many people who shrug off such behavior?

Dec. 5th, 2006 05:44 pm (UTC)
Re: scandal
Yes and no. I have a young family member who is honest til it comes to the computer. For example, had my kids' pics taken and could view them online. So, this person and I are looking and he's going, "Oh, I can make it a wallpaper or screensaver for you." And I'm going, "No, you can't -- those pics belong to the studio." "But I can do it." "I don't care, if I want them I'll pay for them. It not RIGHT (not to mention illegal) to use those pics without paying for them. They're online so you can buy more than what I bo't already, if you want." And he's not the only person I know who doesn't seem to get it once it's as remote as the computer. I never got why people were downloading songs illegally (back when it was a big problem and in the news). I thought, "why can't they just set up a way to pay for it? It's the convenience that I want." (Assuming I ever get around to actually downloading something).

But even those examples take less time than what you've talked about above. I mean, that's a person who presumably has a profession and a reputation and they're putting both on the line and thinking that you and I are crazy for saying, "It's WRONG and it might be illegal!"

Dec. 5th, 2006 06:22 pm (UTC)
Re: scandal
I agree about the music. That was a depressing debate back then, with so many people focusing on the fact that the music industry was making zillions, rather than on the ethical issue.

It's quite a challenge for authors, too. Technology allows us to write and publish faster and easier (word processing alone was a phenomenon). And it allows us to reach more readers than we could have dreamed possible. But man, it comes at a price. For example, I have a couple of manuscripts that I love just the way they are, but I'd have to re-write them to conform to certain conventions if I ever wanted to see them published traditionally. I'd love to just put them on my website so that my readers could enjoy them for free, but unless I learned how to encrypt them, etc, I would also know that someone could easily steal the work and pass it off as their own. That's bad enough, but to think that they wouldn't even believe they were doing anything wrong? Sheesh. If someone's going to rip me off, I'd at least like to know that their insides are being nibbled away by guilt!

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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