Don’t shade your eyes

Back in 2006, Paul Collins wrote an article in Slate asking “Will Google Book Search uncover long-buried literary crimes?” Now that we have large corpuses of texts searchable online, he argued, it will become much easier to find words lifted from other writers than it once was. (Collins reported on a few such cases found in early GBS searches.) The Net may make it easier for people to misappropriate other authors’ words, but it also makes such misappropriation easier to detect.

Indeed, it’s starting to finger some well-known contemporary authors. Last week, some bloggers used GBS to finger a prolific, and still publishing, romance author who was repeatedly plagiarizing the works of others. (The linked story is the first report of the news last Monday; its sidebar currently point to numerous followups, including more examples uncovered by the same blog and its readers.) Cassie Edwards may be one of the first well-known current authors to be caught out via online-library Googling, but she’s not likely to be the last. Here are some things mentioned in the ensuing discussions that may be worth remembering the next time this sort of thing comes to light:

Plagiarism is not the same as copyright infringement and is therefore not justifiable with a “fair use” excuse. Plagiarism and infringment both involve improper copying, but otherwise they have important differences. Copyright infringement is copying without proper authorization (either from the copyright holder, or from copyright law), and is a legal offense. Plagiarism is copying without proper attribution, and is an ethical offense. While they sometimes go together, it’s perfectly possible to plagiarize without violating copyright (such as by plagiarizing public domain sources), and violate copyright without plagiarizing (such as by putting the Harry Potter books on your web site, with J. K. Rowling’s name left on them.)

Standards of proper attribution may vary by genre, but they exist for all genres. Formal scholarly writing standards are especially strict about attribution, with detailed citations generally required for words or even ideas taken from someone else. Popular fiction, music, preaching, and the like, may not usually include footnotes, and reuse may be more common in those genres (especially for things like standard chord progressions), but generally speaking, if you “quote” extensively from someone else, you’re expected to credit them. This can be in your acknowledgements, your liner notes, or wherever, but if it’s more than just a brief or obvious allusion (like the title of this post, taken from a Tom Lehrer song about plagiarism) you need to credit it.

Plagiarism may be forgivable, but not excused or justified, at least for anyone who expects professional respect. Being caught early on may ironically be a blessing; had Edwards been caught out by her editor or a reader on one of the first of her 100+ books, perhaps she could have apologized, changed her ways, and gone on to earn lasting plaudits on her original writing in the books that followed. For that matter, had Edwards’ plagiarism been limited just to nonfiction “infodumps”, and kept out of her story narratives, as it appeared in the first examples to be uncovered, it might have been easier to let go of. Unfortunately, it turns out she also lifted descriptive passages from fiction, which cuts closer to her main line of work as a storyteller.

On the other hand, I find it easier to forgive someone like Martin Luther King, who was (posthumously) found to have plagiarized in many of his academic writings, including his doctoral dissertation. Since Rev. King is best known and honored as a great civil rights leader, it’s easier to forgive this flaw that it would be if he were mainly remembered as an academic or an author. But it’s still sad, as it is when one uncovers the flaws of any of our American heroes (as you will for any of them, if you look closely enough). And now I can’t hear someone call him “Doctor Martin Luther King” without mentally interpolating an asterisk after the title.

More than ever, now that people’s words are increasingly available for searching and scanning in perpetuity, it’s important to take responsibility for what goes out under your name, whether you’re a storyteller, a scholar, or a politician. If you own up to your mistakes and sins early on, and do what you can to fix them, there may be good hope of redemption. Wait, and the damage can worsen both for those you’ve wronged and for yourself. I’ll try to remember that in my own writing, and I hope my readers will help hold me to it.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania.
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One Response to Don’t shade your eyes

  1. Pingback: Public Domain Day 2013: or, There and Back Again « Everybody's Libraries

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