Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Clarifying Plagiarism

Today is shaping up to be delightfully dreary, so I should get a lot of good reading and writing done. Yes, I'm the oddball who is strangely energized and productive on cool, cloudy days.

There's been a lot of attention to plagiarism in the writing world lately, and while I don't want to get into the specific allegations in the latest case, some of the comments I've seen lead me to believe that it wouldn't hurt to talk about the topic in general because there seems to be some confusion about the whole issue.

Mind you, I am not a lawyer and have not been to law school. I did take a semester of media law and ethics, but most of this is based on practical application and observation of a number of these cases.

In general, plagiarism is stealing someone else's words -- taking their words and representing them as something you wrote. Plagiarism is a violation of copyright, but it's not the exact same thing as copyright violation. With plagiarism, you aren't giving the original author credit, while you can give credit and still violate copyright, and it is possible to plagiarize something that's in the public domain so that it's not a copyright violation.

Some things to keep in mind about fiction:
1) There's no reason or excuse to lift material from a fictional work to use in another fictional work, unless you're specifically quoting from that work -- such as, say, your character is reading or quoting from a book. Doing that may require permissions, and each publisher may have a protocol on how that's acknowledged (you may see something like "excerpt from Book X on page X used by permission"). The bad thing is if you in any way imply that you wrote the stuff you didn't write. You definitely don't want to use passages from another novel in your narrative. This is bad, bad, bad and can lead to lawsuits and ended careers.

2) However, there is such a thing as coincidence. There may be multiple authors who unknowingly use the exact same words to describe something, whether because it's just so obvious or because there's something in the air. I once went through a month-long phase in which every single book I read mentioned someone having her toenails painted the color of the inside of a seashell. Either there was something in the air, or pale pink was the big color in nail polish when those books were written. We've also all seen common phrases or descriptions, like describing the heroine's underwear as "a scrap of lace," or referring to "a bright slash of lipstick." When I was describing one of the characters of the new Terminator TV series in my blog this week, I called her "The Rivernator," because of a character that actress played previously. It came to me while watching, and then I later saw that term popping up in other blogs and message boards. I don't think people are copying me. It was just an obvious way to describe her that a number of people came up with independently.

A couple of phrases in common can be chalked up to coincidence, but people will get suspicious if there are dozens throughout a book. This doesn't mean it's okay to borrow a really good description as long as you only take a couple of words and only do it once in a book. It just means that you shouldn't freak out if you run across something that uses the same wording you've used.

3) You don't need to footnote a novel. I can't think of a single novel I've read that used footnotes to attribute the sources of facts. When footnotes are used in this way, it's usually with the pretense that the book itself is meant to be a history, and the footnoted references only exist within the world of the book (and this is usually done in a humorous or satirical way). While doing research on a book, you will gather facts, and you can use those facts (but not the words expressing them) at will. You will learn that your setting was primarily settled by Germans, that a historical event happened at a certain time of day, or that a particular Native American tribe practiced certain crafts, and you can incorporate those facts into your novel. If you've made extensive use of certain sources, especially if the author's unique opinions or approach to the subject were critical to the development of your work, it's a good idea to mention these sources on your acknowledgments page. Not only is that courtesy to these authors, but it's handy for readers who might want to learn more about the reality behind your story. Remember, though, that you're still just using the information, not the words.

4) Not only is plagiarizing reference sources morally wrong and grounds for legal action, it's also bad writing. If you're taking several sentences of reference material and copying them into your novel, that's an info dump, and it's boring. It's far better to incorporate the necessary information as it relates to the story. Using that example from above about a town settled by Germans, you wouldn't want a paragraph about the German settlers who came in such and such a year and brought with them foods from their homeland, such as sausages and bread. Instead, you could convey that same data by giving many of your characters German last names, having them grill sausages at neighborhood cookouts or visit the bakery to get German pastries -- if those things are important for your story.

Plagiarizing also breaks your narrative voice. Incorporating something written by someone else into your novel means that this part is not going to fit, unless your narrator talks like a reference book. It's practically impossible for a passage from a reference source to describe the things your viewpoint character would notice, in the way he would notice them, and in the language he'd use to describe them.

To make it all a little clearer, I'm going to give an example. My source here is real, but the examples are hypothetical. Since many of my books are set in New York and I don't live there, I use guidebooks as references when I need information on a location -- things like where a restaurant might be. Here's a passage from one of my guidebooks, The Let's Go City Guide 2003 for New York City. In a sidebar on page 146, John Trinidad says: "For curry-in-a-hurry, stumble along 6th St., between First and Second Ave. and into Little India. All of the block's restaurants are fairly similar -- the neighborhood myth is that they all share a secret underground kitchen."

If I were to use this information in a book, I might have a character say when a group is making dinner plans, "Let's go down to 6th. I'm craving curry." I don't need to footnote, credit or acknowledge where I got the basic fact that there are Indian restaurants on 6th Street.

As the scene continues, when a character asks which Indian restaurant on the block they should go to, another might say, "Oh, they're pretty much all the same. I think they even have the same kitchen." That doesn't use this author's words, but I'm not sure how unique his joke about the shared kitchen really is. He does credit it to neighborhood myth, so it's probably okay, but I'd check a few other sources to make sure that really is a neighborhood myth rather than just taking that from this one guide book. You're treading on dangerous ground, though, if this is phrased as, "Oh, they're pretty much all the same. In fact, I think they share a secret underground kitchen." The idea of a "secret underground kitchen" isn't so wildly unique as to raise red flags, and it's entirely possible that you might have come up with that description for the concept on your own, but it's a bad idea to use it if you know that's how it was described in your reference.

I probably wouldn't list this book as a valuable resource on my acknowledgments page unless I'd used it as my primary source for finding things my characters might do and relied heavily on the way they describe places for helping me set the scene (again, without using their words). It would take more than just using the fact that there were Indian restaurants around 6th and First.

You've got plagiarism if the passage in the book goes something like: "We wanted curry-in-a-hurry, so we stumbled along 6th St. to between First and Second Ave. and into Little India. All the block's restaurants were fairly similar -- the neighborhood myth was that they all shared a secret underground kitchen."

This is the kind of thing that came up in the more recent plagiarism scandal. It wasn't the lack of crediting or footnoting of the sources that was the problem -- and footnoting or crediting wouldn't have made it okay -- but rather the fact that wording directly out of the sources was incorporated into the narrative of the book. There is an expectation in a novel that the author was the person stringing words together and that those words didn't come from anywhere else.

So, clear as mud?

On an entirely different topic, for the jazz geeks out there, on this day in 1938, Benny Goodman and his orchestra played their historic Carnegie Hall concert. On my "music for old people" radio station that my clock radio alarm is set to, they played the live recording of "Sing, Sing, Sing." It's an extended version with lots of longer freestyle solos, and holy cow! I don't think I'd heard it before. Goodman got sounds out of that clarinet that I didn't think were possible. I now must have the CD of this concert. (And I love the fact that the most scorching music on the radio this morning, up and down the dial, was likely that one recording on the "music for old people" station.)

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