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?


One thought on “Identifying Plagiarism, Ethical Boundaries and Beyond

  1. Is crying plagiarism is the next fad among those who like to play victim?

    Top Ten lists have been around since biblical times, probably earlier. Is the person who called your use plagiarism because this ancient format was their method of choice also going to sue for appropriating lists? How about David Letterman? The same could be said for non-linear storytelling.

    Plagiarism is stealing someones ‘unique’ work. So many people use well known formats, tropes, character and plot development systems, and a host of other common elements when crafting a creative work. They can’t cry plagiarism because these well known ideas aren’t their own.

    Could you imagine someone saying “You can’t use Joeseph Campbell’s Hero Cycle because I did in my last book.” They would be laughed out of the room.

    So should the people who think they have intellectual property just by using some common element. If that is the best they can do, then don’t be afraid to alienate them. Obviously their truly original contributions won’t add up to much.

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