Identifying Plagiarism, Ethical Boundaries and Beyond

This is a really complex and controversial topic, despite the fact that it doesn’t necessarily have to be. I also do not purport myself to be the expert. These are my opinions based on experiences, and they are intended to start a dialogue rather than to be the final stance on anything as sensitive as intellectual property.

First off, let me start by saying that I work in an industry wherein every company makes you sign away intellectual property. If you’re lucky, they only make you sign away the property you actually create while on the clock, and not the ideas and so on and so forth that you produce from the comfort of your own home. This idea that a company can own the very thoughts in your head has been a given, legally, for some time in the technical industries. It makes a lot of copyright law etc very cloudy.

Let me give you a few grounding links. This is the U.S. Government’s take on copyright as a definition.

Ultimately, the key word here is “original work.” Unfortunately, logically this means that research (which involves compiling a bunch of other peoples’ work) isn’t really covered under this definition. However, there is a “Fair Use” clause that dictates that work used for teaching etc is protected against a copyright consideration.

Ultimately, this clause is what protects people who run panels at conventions, for instance, from being sued for referencing their favorite book and movie material when conducting a panel.

Now, enter the concept of plagiarism. This is a new idea in the last couple of centuries. Composers have been copying each others’ work for ages, and nobody complained back then. Now Wikipedia conveniently outlines that plagiarism is pretty unclear in a lot of cases, because the rules are different if a work is collaborative, different if the borrowing of ideas is used for teaching, etc.

I offer up an example from my own experience. It’s a sore subject for me, and one that almost caused me (in a fit of rage) to quit AC entirely.

Last year on a long road trip to go promote the convention, my board members and I were discussing ideas to get more promotion out there. We threw around a lot of thoughts, and one of my board said “We could do some top 10 lists or something.” I ran with that. “Yeah, we could do like a Top Ten Steampunk Travel Destinations, have one destination each day and then a final list go out on Twitter or something of all 10 together.” We agreed it was a cool idea and moved on to discussing slogans and themes for 2015.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I started blogging some Top 10s–Victorian destinations, Steampunk destinations, etc. I did a ton of research and wrote little mini-travel-blogs about it. I was reposting those on my own Facebook page (because I wrote them) but also cross-posting to the AC page because we needed more traffic.

This blew up in my face, because the board member who had suggested the Top Ten lists (just that, no topics for them) was angry that I was posting to my own blog and just building up my own traffic with his idea. The argument between us was that the Top Ten idea was not unique to him, and I did all the research and wrote all the material, so I deserved the credit. Also we didn’t *really* have an AC blog. That was my logic. He was pretty convinced I was using his idea for my own glory. In all but name, he accused me of plagiarism.

So I stopped writing those Top 10 blogs and the other ideas never got realized, because it was that or one of us was quitting. Despite being really really angry about the accusation and all the work I’d put into it, I chose to swallow my pride (and my opinion of what plagiarism is) and salvage what I could of our relationship.

Now, someone’s currently taking pot shots at me indirectly because they think my definition of plagiarism adjusts to suit profitability or something. Not exactly the best way to sway me to their opinion.

Here is my definition, and you can express your own thoughts.
Plagiarism is the unadapted use of another person’s unique creation without permission and without citation for personal gain, specifically claiming it as your own.

I took lots of writing and ethics, legal writing, etc classes in college. I am more than a little comfortable with the discussion of what is legitimately stealing and what is an admiration of understanding. For example, I like to rephrase other peoples’ research to be more understandable when writing research papers. I do cite my materials (because it’s a paper). If I quote somebody or tell a story that isn’t mine in a panel, I usually say “A friend of mine tells a story…” I may not use their name, because no one is retaining that information in a convention panel. If they ask I will tell them, unless it was a mean story about them. As far as I am concerned, a verbal citation in a panel is as good as a footnote, because we’re talking about science fiction conventions here, not science conventions.

Now, when you get down to things like collaborative work, it gets a little funny. For example, I wrote a LOT of RadioSteam episodes, so it’s generally acknowledged that I wrote them all. I think four or five total were guest authored across four seasons of 16 episodes each. However, at the end of each episode, we changed the end credits to credit the author–despite the fact that I heavily edited all of the guest written material. But that’s a downloadable podcast.

If you’re on a panel with someone, people usually assume the material you present is yours and the material they present is theirs. But if you work together to produce a slide show or whatever horrible method of presentation you have, and then you don’t show up to present, and they say “So and so was going to be here but isn’t, so here we go,” is that stealing your portion of the presentation? They acknowledged that you were supposed to be present. Maybe the entire audience doesn’t know who did what, but it isn’t a case of a paper being published with someone else’s name on it.

Now let’s get even better, to collaborative writer’s groups and critique groups and stuff. If we define every unique way of putting things as belonging to the author, we have a problem with writing groups. Let’s say I author a 20-page 2-chapter submission to a contest. And then I get four authors to read over it and give me their opinions. Each one likes or dislikes different things, so I take what I like from their suggestions and rewrite the piece. Now one of those authors is laying claim to the changes I made, and taking credit for those suggestions (although 3 other authors were involved). What kind of dicey mess is that? Is my work still mine? Do editors take ownership of the work once they’ve tweaked it? Is that other author actually violating 4 authors’ rights (including mine) by claiming credit for my changes?

This vortex of cloudy ethical mess can be a disaster, especially since the very accusation of plagiarism (true or false) can utterly ruin an author’s career. Even worse, false accusations not only make the accuser look like a petty person with a personal vendetta, they are rarely held to the same scrutiny as the (so-called) plagiarist.

And then there’s this whole credit problem. Because if we’re really strict about this, panels are going to get dreadfully boring.  

Solomon declared eons ago that there is nothing new under the sun. Unless you’re inventing your own language, I dare say your ideas may not be so unique as you think.

A friend of mine, Peter J. Wacks, wrote a book called Second Paradigm. As I understand it, it’s designed so that you can read any chapter in any order and eventually come to a conclusion. When he described it to me, I thought it sounded weirdly like the movie Memento, which also plays sequential details in the wrong order due to a memory disfunction of the main character. Strangely enough, I never thought to accuse Peter of stealing the movie’s idea or vice versa, because stuff like that happens. Part of the creative process is realizing that other creative minds will trigger brilliance in you that you would not otherwise be able to put into expression. That’s why writing and critique groups are so important.

But if we fear that sharing ideas will lead to accusations of plagiarism or claims of what we have legitimately worked on, how can we ever be bold enough to go forward in social groups of inventors, authors, and writers.

A different pair of friends recently have been estranged because of the accusation of plagiarism. I was presented with the evidence that one writer’s research was used without his permission in the other writer’s presentation during a panel. More accurately, the permission and research were offered freely in bullet-point form, until for whatever reason that I don’t claim to need to understand, the accuser revoked permission (and asked that his name be removed from the presentation) a few hours before that panel teaching was to occur. The accuser states that he read over 200 books to come to his conclusions and is unhappy that his research went uncredited. However, in his work as presented by him to me, I never saw a single case of citation of the novels he read and gained those ideas from. In other words, he was claiming someone else’s work as his own… By his own strict definition, in fact.

Please realize I am friends with both of these people, and they were in a collaborative writing group together before this happened.

Right now I feel like I am dealing with a pair of authors who feel that they are Tesla and Edison. Except that instead of inventing, they are both expressing an idea of what they believe is a success point in someone else’s work. It’s not a new thing they have invented. They are embroiled in a sociological war over whether round lightbulbs work better than square ones. But neither of them invented the lightbulb.

Is this the author version of the Superbowl?

Frozen: A Whole New World for Disney

So, I know this movie came out a little over a month ago. I should have posted my thoughts then, but since several people have asked me recently, I wanted to open the discussion now.

Many of my close followers know that I was particularly frustrated shortly before Frozen came out because of the crass comments by a Disney lead animator, basically suggesting women all look alike. That’s obviously true with Disney, since all you need to do is change the hair color and the freckles and you have basically every Disney lead female animated basically ever. I was also frustrated because I felt that they weren’t really advertising this movie, and probably because it was more about girls than normal.

But since I am a guilty enjoyer of Disney, I decided to go see it on the day after Thanksgiving anyway.

In case you don’t know, Disney’s Frozen is a liberal reimagining of the Snow Queen story. Basically everything from this point onward will be spoilers. Lots of bullet points and numbered lists here!

The MAJOR issues with this film are also prevalent in a lot of other Disney movies, but here we go:

1.  I have 4 sisters. You can’t take our hair, swap it around, and get a different sister. Women don’t all look alike, seriously. The sisters look exactly alike, but since the animator was whining about that we kinda assumed this would be the case:

2. Apparently girls can’t have an interesting story without being estranged from their parents or orphaned entirely. Both parents die shortly in the film, leaving the sisters emotionally stranded and without any adult supervision really.

3. There are NO MINORITY CHARACTERS in this film. AT ALL. Unless we assume the trolls are minority characters, because they are made out of rock so their skin is grey. And they have a shaman. Jamie did point out to me that it’s likely set in Sweden or something and it IS set in 19thish century wherever, so I suppose it might make a little sense for basically everyone to be white and blue-eyed… But really, Disney? The snowman is your token black guy?
*Note that we know the reason this happens is because their market share in Japan is huge, and Japan historically prefers pale characters.

4. The music is weirdly Broadway-esque and consists of a lot of songs about the characters doing whatever it is they are doing. They have interesting music but the lyrics are generally unimaginative and subpar compared to the rest of Disney’s musicals. The song “Let it Go” is the only real exception, though the lyrics are a bit weird there too.

5. All the grownups are all-knowing, and the characters always know what’s happening next. Except Anna and Elsa, who are naive and stupid compared to everyone else, apparently.

6. Not surprisingly, the story revolves around the idea of True Love, Disney’s trademark.


My nitpicky and frustrated additions to this list include:
7. The fact that Anna (the redhead) apparently falls in love instantly with the first male she meets outside of the castle. And then they share a really awkward song about sandwiches. This song was probably the main thing that shut down the members of my friends list that hated this film.

8. Both of the female main characters are emotionally stunted and clueless (but this could be attributed to being locked in a castle since early childhood).

9. The second Elsa decides to just be her Ice Queen self, she stops walking like a girl and starts sashaying her hips like a sexy woman–creepy, Disney! This one was really jarring.

10. Why are there so many orphans? The lesson that kids can’t have any adults in their life or they will grow up emotionally stunted seems pretty blaring. Even Kristoff was apparently an orphan, except for his Troll family and his dog-Reindeer? By the way, Disney, Reindeer aren’t that big. I think you meant to make Sven a moose.

11. My least favorite part: Anna feels her “True Love” must save her from certain death and rushes off to get him to kiss her. Because she needs a male to save her, right?

12. GIANT PLOT HOLES like why did Anna need to have her mind cleared of knowing her sister had ice powers?

13. Most frustrating possibly, the fact that all the adults keep telling Elsa that she’s not allowed to have emotions. Any emotions. No feeling, no contact. Otherwise she’ll hurt other people. Is this Disney’s way of highlighting children’s emotional abuse?

14. Anna is obsessed with the idea of falling in love. But most teenagers are obsessed with relationships on some level (male or female) because this is when hormones+society expect us to start being sex crazed. Disney just left the sex out. This did make the first part of the movie REALLY uncomfortable though.

15. I can’t get over how much I feel like the trolls were thrown in to give us a minority character.

16. I have mixed feelings about the Trolls’ song because it seems like it borderlines on encouraging dysfunctional relationships. The song says “we’re not saying he can be fixed, but maybe you can work it out together.” What??

Now let’s talk about what Frozen did right, because there are some things I really appreciated about the movie.

1. First of all, despite being completely isolated and experiencing the boy-crazy-puberty at 16, Anna is actually a very powerful character in terms of her impact. She takes charge of the castle in a time of crisis, refuses to let any adults (even the one she thinks she loves) tell her that she can’t help her sister, and sets out to climb a mountain by herself. She does a poor job of it, but she IS a sixteen year old girl who was raised in a castle. She doesn’t exactly have mountain climbing experience.

2. Elsa refuses to let Anna marry the guy she met ten seconds ago. Because you don’t really love a guy you just met, little sister.

3. Kristoff and Sven keep getting into trouble. Chased by wolves, chased by a giant snow beast. Anna lights the wolves on fire and cuts the rope to save them from the snow golem. She’s quick on her feet and never looks back after making a decision.

4. Anna never knew (thanks to the Trolls) that her sister had ice powers. But when her sister goes a little overboard and freezes everything, Anna chases after her despite having been unable to see her until five seconds before that. Because she can’t let her sister be alone.

5. Elsa is faced with lots of armed bad guys and doesn’t falter. Despite the fact that she’s being hunted by a ton of adult males, she refuses to let them take her down.

6. Disney actually pulled a fast one, because (EXTRA SPOILER) the guy Hans that Anna thought she was in love with is actually the Bad Guy! He’s been plotting to steal the throne and he leaves her to die! I was gleefully pleased by this because “HEY GIRLS, ATTRACTIVE MEN YOU MEET WHO PROFESS THEIR LOVE MIGHT NOT HAVE GOOD INTENTIONS!”

7. The absolute low point of the movie is when Anna feels like everyone has abandoned her and she’s going to die because she was betrayed. The cheerful snowman tells her to buck up and she realizes Kristoff is trying to save her. In normal Disney movies she’d let him come to her, but in this case she drags herself half-Frozen (ah hah) into the snow and tries to find him, despite the snow storm. In other words, she gets off her ass, throws aside her depression and overcomes.

8. And THEN she sees Hans about to kill her sister, the one who pierced her through the heart with ice, and steps in to intervene–losing her chance to get a True Love Kiss from Kristoff and become a Real Girl again.

9. The reason I find 8 so interesting is because Disney broke their own traditional norm of True Love. They let two girls exhibit True Love to overcome “The Curse.” This is awkwardly incesty, but a step toward understanding that the heterosexual norm is not the only valid form of love. When they hugged (and did this weird nose thing that made it look like a preemptive kiss) Jamie got this look on her face, and I was like “Shutup-they’re-sisters-you-creep.” Naturally the whole theater heard me, yikes.  

10. In the end, Elsa realizes that her emotions aren’t what is causing her to freeze everything. She really just needs to overcome her own fear in order to control her powers. Overcoming fear is a powerful message.

11. Elsa doesn’t end up in a relationship! The trailers made Jamie and me think that we were setting up for both girls to have a boyfriend in the end, but Elsa gets to be herself and Queen without interference.

12. It’s about time a recent Disney movie (not Pixar) failed to end in a wedding.

13. The characters were almost all of “adult” age. This is mostly a sign of the times and acceptability, however.

14. Neither Anna nor Elsa exhibit ANY “womanly” characteristics of housekeeping etc. No cleaning, no cooking, no sewing, no painting. Anna is a bookworm with a wild imagination, and somewhat like I imagine Belle would have been if she’d been written with more modern sensibilities.

15. I expected the snowman (Olaf) to be really irritating, and he turned out to just be a cute insightful sidekick.

16. At the very end Anna punches the Bad Guy in the face. Just clocks him one. BAM! She’s got a good right hook.

Ultimately, Brave and Mulan are the only other Disney movies so far that have proven to have strong female characters that take their destiny this much into their own hands. But Brave wasn’t about True Love, it was about family bonds. Mulan had all kinds of other stuff to overcome, and her story was also ultimately about responsibility.  Frozen has the potential to tell girls that it’s OK for them to be themselves and be brilliant and talented, regardless of their circumstances. It doesn’t do the best job of it, but considering Disney’s track record, it’s off to a better start.

The Resolution, Revisited

I know you’d probably rather see a post about resolutions on New Years Day, when it really matters. But the truth is, it’s a good time to check in. How are you holding out? Have you done something today that you resolved yesterday to do?

Many families have some kind of good luck charm they use to carry their wishes into the next calendar year. For some (like my extended family) it’s the belief that a hamhock cooked in black eyed peas brings good luck. For others it might be the jotting down of hopes, dreams, and ideas that boil down to good intentions for the new year. Others still believe that a kiss at midnight is the key to happiness for the next year.

Whatever you believe, even the most pessimistic of us likely resolve to do something important for the next year.

Some of the best resolutions I’ve heard have been to read more books, to write more, to love more, to live unfettered by doubt and stress.

Most commonly people tend to make resolutions to do very big things, such as working out every single day or losing a lot of weight. These are so common that gyms raise their prices during Jan/Feb in anticipation of all the new signups. If you want a 24-hour-fitness gym membership, get it in July, not January.

Most people break down and revert to old habits before the end of January, and that’s based on the anatomy of habits in general. It takes 3 weeks to really establish a good habit, and longer if it’s replacing a bad habit. More importantly, going from zero activity to an hour working out every day is too difficult for your body to keep up with. Change is difficult, so you have to take baby steps.

The most important advice I can give anyone is to make it easy for their habit change. For example, if you’re not a morning person, don’t choose to work out at 6am every morning. If you work 12 hour shifts, try not to work out right after you get off work. If you’ve never worked out before, start by taking walks or following through a Yoga DVD for a month before upgrading to the expensive gym membership that will make you feel miserable and guilty for not using it.

A friend of mine recently said that she feels resolutions are like birthday wishes–if you tell everyone, it won’t happen. That might be true, but you certainly need an accountability partner.

From my business excursions and training I’ve come to understand some important concepts about resolutions and goal setting. One of them is the idea that your life and goals are like a big jet. It takes a lot of fuel to get off the ground at the beginning of the month, but not so much fuel to keep it in flight. If you let the plane land, though, you have to keep working to get the energy going to start back up again. It’s easier to keep moving forward.

My suggestion, then, is that every day you decide not to go to bed each night before you have done something that has advanced your goals. If your plan is to become a published author, write at least a paragraph or edit something before bed. If you want to read more books, read ten pages before bed every night. If you want to work out and lose weight, start doing a few situps or stretches right before bed, and raise the number gradually every night. If you want to run a marathon, walk around your block today. Tomorrow, walk it twice. Keep increasing the number of trips around the block, day by day.

Next, I advise that you write your goals down in present positive, and read them daily. Write them down as though they exist for you today. “I am fit, friendly and sociable. I am successful at work and I have been promoted this year.” Train your subconscious to go out and get what you want. Never write goals that are negative or that involve other people doing things. The only person you can change is yourself.

A mentor of mine tells the joke that three birds are sitting on a fence. One decides to fly off the fence. How many are left?

The answer is three.

Ultimately, a resolution is just a wish until the flame of action is applied to it. Once you make a decision and put action behind the decision, you can accomplish great things.