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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.




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!


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