I was a little disconcerted Friday morning to walk into my classroom carrying my take-home exam in my hand, as prepared as I could be to take the ACS final that morning, and find the room abuzz with activity. Most, but not all, of the other students were huddled up comparing notes, not on the final, but the take-home exam. Now, the instructions on the front sheet of that exam were explicit. We were not to discuss the exam with anyone other than the professor, nor to use the internet as a resource while taking it. I complied. I was dismayed to see how many of my younger classmates were blatantly disregarding the ‘no discussion’ rule, and I have no reason to doubt they had also been using the internet liberally during their efforts.
What does this have to do with writing? Well, it’s anecdotal to the culture that seems to have forgotten what plagiarism is, and why cheating is wrong. While we talk about how you can’t steal ideas (like the guy I saw ranting about how Guardians of the Galaxy had totally ripped him off. Seriously? Sigh…) and how to ‘file off the serial numbers’ to rework fanfiction into a more commercial form, we are talking about ideas. Not word-for-word, with maybe the names changed. That is never ok, and it’s cheating, just as much as my classmates that morning.
D. Jason Fleming shares the story of a recent plagiarism case over on his blog. “Because, see, Remix Culture isn’t plagiarism culture. Go to Creative Commons and look for the most open license you can find. What you’ll find is the Attribution license, which lets you do any damn thing you want with the work in question, including make money off of it without paying a thing to the creator — but you must give the creator credit for creating it.” Sure, there are no new ideas, but lifting word-for-word is stealing, he continues: “That’s the point of saying “everything is a remix”. Not that you can steal from everyone with impunity, but that you take those influences and notions and ideas, and work them out in your own way into something else.”
I first saw the other story about plagiarism this week on Passive Voice, followed by a spate of other people sharing it. Rachel Nunes writes: “My life was torn apart this weekend when it came to light that an anonymous author on the Internet, who is known only by a logo and a fake name, had plagiarized my novel, A Bid for Love (formerly entitled Love to the Highest Bidder), which is the first of a trilogy.
It has been verified by four separate readers that Sam Taylor Mullens did, indeed, add steamy scenes to The Auction Deal, her revised version of my Christian novel, and claimed it as her own. Her subsequent emails to different people and contradicting statements online while trying to cover her tracks has shown a definite intent to do fraud. This path she has followed is far more outlandish than any novel I’ve ever read.”
This one has the added twist of not only being a theft of her work, but by the addition of the ‘steamy scenes’ a violation of the author who chose not to write those things due to her own beliefs. I have no problem with such scenes, writing or reading, but to hear about an author whose work was violated like that offends me deeply.
The literary world is hardly new to plagiarism scandals. There’s a handy list of some here. The one that disturbs me most deeply is Alex Haley’s Roots, which is still defended because people want it to be true, despite revelations that he plagiarized from more than one source to write it. When such a high profile case could get by on a wink and a nod, is it any wonder that wholesale theft of works is now cropping up? It can’t be tolerated, and it shouldn’t.
It’s something to keep an eye out for. Like pirate sites, when you find someone’s work flying under a false flag, it needs to be reported. If we are to regain our ethical values, we have to say enough, and shine a light on the wrongdoers. There’s no excuse for it. They aren’t trying to get a good grade, they are stealing someone’s hard work and claiming it as their own. If you suspect plagiarism, even if you don’t, or can’t, confront the person directly, let the owner of the work know about it. We do this with pirate sites (offering books for free downloads when they are not free books) all the time. Reworking an idea is great. Lifting passages, or a whole work, is not. Want to double check someone’s work? Try this, or another checker site. I don’t know that it will work on fiction, but teachers need to be using it. Students these days seem to have taken Alex Haley’s example to heart.