Plagiarism is my worst nightmare

The recent revelations of beyond-reasonable-explanation similarities between two novels reminded me of the earlier brouhaha about Bear Bryant's Funeral Train..discussed here previously.

In both cases, a flinty eyed reader caught the similarities between two books and sounded the alarm. Much kerfluffle ensued, all of which you can read about (endlessly) in other places.

Here's what my colleagues and I are saying: thank dog it wasn't me.

We all read things, fall in love, sign them, pitch them and sell them.
Unless we'd actually read the stolen work we'd never know if a project had (as they used to say about certain kinds of scofflaws) "taken liberties" with the concept of original work.

There's some question about the role of the book packager who handled this book deal, but all I can say is again, thank dog it isn't me.


-ril said...

I wonder how many writers worry about "accidental" plagiarism? Sometimes when I'm reading a book, I'll come across a line or phrase or idea that is already in one of my in progress or disdainfully discarded works. That always makes me skip a beat. And if I read something I really like, is there a chance that in the future I'll re-channel that writer into my own work? Sometimes I think I've had a great, original idea, and then realise I actually read it somewhere. When there's only a certain number of words to play with, maybe it's inevitable that this monkey will accidentally reproduce some of Shakespeare's words?

Funnily enough, I was talking with some of my literary friends the other night about this and we agreed that We all read things, fall in love and buy them.
Unless we'd actually read the stolen work we'd never know if a book had (as they used to say about certain kinds of scofflaws) "taken liberties" with the concept of original work.


rabs said...

As a writer of non-fiction, plagarism is also my nightmare. One must be so, so very careful with notes taken from primary and secondary sources to ensure that you don't accidentally paraphrase the original too closely.

And, of course, in the small world of academia -- many times the people who you're citing will be *reading* your work -- they'll recognize their own words.

But don't get me started on plagarism at the university (mainly from students).

Elektra said...

I do this all the time with music--I'll spend hours writing twenty bars or so, and then finally play it to a friend, only to have them say, "hey, aren't those the same chords as such-and-such?" Or "that sounds just like something we played last year."

skylark said...

I'm really, really glad it happened to the William Morris agency and not one of you approachable agents. WM won't even look at queries from writers who have spent years honing their craft, and who can actually write a whole novel (gasp!) including plot, charaterisation and dialogue, without hand-holding from a packager.

The way this woman's career was stage-managed, the amount of the advance given for a book that wasn't even finished yet and which she couldn't finish on her own, is a slap in the faces of all genuine writers. May this be a lesson to all concerned.

anonymous said...

In the case of Miss Viswanathan it appears there are not only questions about the book packager's involvement but also the agent's. From a NYT story yesterday:

“The summer after graduating from high school, she [Miss Viswanathan]wrote four chapters and a synopsis of what became Opal, and sent them in an e-mailed message to Alloy. After some minor editing, Alloy said it would get back to her. In October of her freshman year at Harvard, she received a call from Ms. [Jennifer Rudolph] Walsh, also an agent at William Morris, who told her she was going to start shopping the manuscript around."

It sounds like Viswanathan may not even have written the book.

kitty said...

Some of my friends want to know how the writer garnered a 6-figure contract? Could it be that her work that exceptional?

Epilogue said...

I have worried about "accidental" plagiarism, yes. With a line, a specific thought, or image.

However, when you read the similar passages regarding the book(s) in question, it reminds you of what kids in school do when they're trying to "not plagiarize." I guess that's what happens when you give a high school kid a 6-figure book contract.

Moe said...

Everywhere I go lately I hear "Ideas are not original". I wonder if this is working up to the next defence?

I think, especially lately, more writers fear accidental plagiarism (if there's such a thing). I wonder if this has anything to do with some writers refuse to read while they are working on a WIP?

One more thing to worry about.

lady t said...

I've been following this story all week and the newest development in the case is that Little,Brown has announced a recall of Opal Metha. They're pulling it from production and asking retailers to send back unsold copies,which seems to please Crown(RH). Crown is no longer talking lawsuit here.

I guess this is sort of a happy ending but what a mess. I never bought Kaavya'a line about "unconciously" borrowing McCafferty's words. Yes,you can write something in a similar style of an author you know by heart but I looked at the list of comparisons and they are way too close for comfort. On the other hand,I'm not ready to light the torches and hand out pitchforks to the mob just yet. All this talk about Alloy and such leads me to think this could've been prevented much sooner.

Ms. Librarian said...

I'm wondering just how far one can go without it being plagiarism.

Specifically, I've read a book that I know was based on another book published several years before by a well-known author.

This second book has the same plot line, down to miniscule details, of the previous book, but the actual text and names are never copied. It's not a pastiche or parody either. It's like someone took the first novel, outlined it in great detail (paragraph by paragraph) and then wrote the book again. Does this make it plagiarism?

Kalen Hughes said...

You can not copyright an IDEA.

And thank Dog for that, since there are only so many plots out there (I've seen arguments ranging from 7 to 36).

But the way you write that plot, the actual words used, can be copyrighted.

I could post a basic plot idea here and if 100 of us wrote a story based on it, they would all be original and none of us would be guilty of plagiarism (unless, during our weekly critiques, one of us began lifting bits from some one else).

And that’s where Viswanathan got into trouble. Either she, or her “packager” (who may well have written the book from the way things are looking) clearly lifted language directly from the McCafferty books. If they had only stolen the plot, the book would have been derivative, but not actionable.

Viswanathan is either guilty of outright plagiarism (if she did in fact “write” the book), or of gross stupidity coupled with almost unbelievable naiveté (if it turns out her “packager” wrote it and she agreed they could attach her name and story to it; no one gives you $500K for nothing baby).

Cheryl Mills said...

Ms. Librarian,
I came across a website about a year ago that *guaranteed* anyone could write a bestseller. The guy (Gosh, I wish I could remember who he was so we could shred him, hehe) said all a writer has to do is hit the bargain bin and look for an old novel that has "NYT Bestseller" emblazoned across the front. You lift the plot, change the characters, perhaps the setting and voila! Instant bestseller, no thought necessary.

Even as green as I was, I knew that sounded like a horrible way to write a book.

Miss Snark, can you enlighten us on this book-packager business?

David Baker said...

The notion of plagiarism is so foreign to me as to be almost incomprehensible. And I'm not talking about the sort of appropriation T.S. Eliot implied when he said, "Good poets steal." That serendipity--the semi-conscious misappropriation (accidental allusion) that '-ril' mentions above--is part of any serious writing. Each of us is a stew of the books we've read, the places we've been, and, as in my case, the various women we've married.

As much as I rail against MFA programs (despite teaching at one), I at least don't need to worry about plagiarism...my writers all want peel off pieces of themselves and grind them into chunks of singular prose that they can call their own. All writers that strive to be serious...good or not...tend to self-obsesses. But I've also taught intro. courses, where the writing is just a means to an end, namely getting a grade. Stealing is rampant. I even caught one student, a bright girl, copying from on of my own books in a naive effort to capture my sympathy. She was confused when I called her on it. Her first failed course, ever. Her ACT score had been 34, a fact she’d shared with defiance while jutting her chin at me and flicking her hair out of her eyes. This, I assume, is a similar case to our Harvard thief. The hubris of the over-accomplished.

But how is an agent to know whether a writer's words are her own? Miss Snark, perhaps I'm wrong, but can I assume that a writer with an MFA credential makes agents more sure that the submitted material is plagiarism-free?

Feemus said...

Ms. Librarian raises a great point about parody or pastiche. There has been a lot of talk about "intention" in this case--did Viswanathan *intend* to reproduce McCafferty's lines. The presumption being that the case is ethically much different if she didn't mean to plagiarize.

Fair enough--but what about an author who engages in plagiarism as part of his project? Burroughs cut-ups, Kathy Acker's blatant plagiarisms, hip hop artists' samples. None of these pretend to be "original," but neither do they give attribution.

How are these different?

archer said...

It's all very dangerous. All English classical music is basically "Greensleeves," just as all Rock & Roll is basically "Louie Louie." Very few have the chutzpah of Johannes Brahms, however:

CRITIC: That tune is nothing but Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." You have stolen it.

BRAHMS: Any idiot can see that.

BitchySmurf said...

I have the same reaction, Miss Snark. I work in the legal department of a publisher (but I'm not an editor, don't query me, nitwits!). There books we do legal reads on are a very small percentage of the books we publish and even if we did do a legal read of a plagiarized book, there's no guarantee that the legal reader would pick up on it. You'd have to have read both to know. It's not like there's ANYONE in the world who has read every book that's ever been published.

When you pick an author your sort of just have the cross your fingers and hope they're trustworthy.

Some of my friends want to know how the writer garnered a 6-figure contract? Could it be that her work that exceptional?
Well, a) she's with William Morrow which is one of the most high profile agencies in... like the world. When Miss Snark mentioned how some bigger agencies have different colored envelopes awhile ago? Well, they're blue. And also she was with Alloy which has had HUGE success with "Gossip Girls" and several other YA books lately. They were clearly hoping for another big series, I think. And I imagine that Alloy got most of that six figure money. I would venture to guess the contract was also for more than one book.

Personally I think Miss Howeveryouspellhername is a big fat idiot. A, she plagiarized. Then she went and admitted TO THE WORLD that she read the books. Which is the single dumbest thing you can do when faced with a plagiarism suit as far as I'm concerned.

Carmen said...

We all worry about sounding like our favorite authors, but I hope none of us here has to worry about having over 40 different passages sounding "similar."

I suppose it's possible to do that, but highly improbable. Don't worry so much.

Anonymous said...

I don't quite understand the "unintentional" plagaraism - not for the amount copied - entire paragraphs and many of them.

What about the movie deal?

wannabee said...

Hmmm, that's interesting,admitting reading the 'book' didn't hurt Dan Brown any!

Oh sorry forgot - it was his wife who read the book.

truthteller said...

For a 17-year old to think that she could just sashay in and effectively plagiarize another author's work shows a lack of appreciation for the years, decades even, that it takes to hone a fiction-writer's craft.

jaywalke said...

I think searchable ease of the internet may have something to do with this erosion of the concept of intellectual property. The profs with whom I am acquainted spend inordinate amounts of time battling plagiarism, and the students all claim not to understand the fuss.
My favorite is the one who copied from the _assigned textbook_! When asked if she truly wrote her own paper, she replied, "Well, I wrote it down."


For Feemus....please don't quote me (ha!), but from what I remember ages ago in journalism ethics, etc., when you deliberately use another's work to incorporate into your own, with the purpose of creating a NEW work with a different statement and intent (esp. when it's obvious) ...i.e. parody or when rappers incorporate other artists' work....then it is not considered stealing or plagiarism and thus needs no atribution. Here's something interesting: in music, without the intent of moulding someone else's work into your own vision, the max consecutive notes that can be reproduced without possibility of being prosecuted for "stealing", used to be 8 notes. I wonder how many consecutive notes were in "I Want a New Drug" by Huey Lewis and "Ghostbusters" by Billy Dee Williams? Hmmm.


For Feemus....don't quote me (ha!) but I recall from journalism ethics classes, ages ago, that if an artist incorporates another's work with the purpose of creating a NEW work with a different statement and intent, i.e. parody or hip-hop, then the new work stands alone and does not require attribution, and there is no cause to shout "stealing! plagiarism!". I think there's an aspect of Freedom of Speech in these cases...stifling creativity, when the intent is to make a new statement...not copy or repeat what's already been done with the intent of taking credit. Here's someting interesting: for music, I think the max number of consecutive notes that can be "copied" (intentional or not - excluding hip-hop type usage), is 8 notes. 8! Unless of course you wear iron underwear and are impervious to prosecution.

BuffySquirrel said...

The thought of inadvertently reproducing prose I've read and then consciously forgotten gives me nightmares. Sometimes I remove a line of prose because I'm convinced I've taken it from somewhere, even if I can't remember or discover where.

I've already made changes to one of my novels because I was made aware of some discomforting similarities with a once-favourite book that I hadn't reread for twenty years...

laurow said...

Wht's the difference between plagerism and legitimate uses of another person's words?
When an artist's technique is pastiche, there is no attempt to defraud the reader. The borrowing is the point. I am supposed to notice it. If I don't know the pieces are from elsewhere, I am not appreciating the actual creative work of the artist in assembling the peices.
Similarly, if I began a story about fishing with my dad with a random allusion, "Call me Ishmael, or rather don't" no one is expected to think that the first three words are my own. Again, if you did think that you'd have missed the boat.
A good parody is parasitic on the original -- you miss half the humor if you don't know what it is taking off from, and a good parodist always points you toward their target. Weird Al's Like A Surgeon is pretty funny on its own, but becomes hilariious juxtaposed with its target, Madonna's Like A Virgin.
Writ small or large, this kind of verbal interplay with another text is standard proceedure in literature. You are supposed to notice the borrowing, in order to appreciate how skillfully it is done.
KV, however, attempted to hide her source. To cover her tracks she did the modest bits of reworking so familiar to any teacher faced with a plagerized paper: changed the names, altered a detail or two, but the bones of the thing are still there. She is not riffing on something so well-known that -- like Ishmael above -- her readers would be expected to know it. She was not creating a work expected to be a patterning of borrowings. She was not, as some defenders have suggested, tapping into some vast teen overmind that just coughs this stuff up out of the unconsious. No, instead KV took another writer's work.
You know, the stuff Ms McCafferty sat there and pulled out of her own head, word by word. Then rewrote, and polished. And used all the tricks she'd learnt in years of paying dues as a magazine editor to learn her craft.
And McCafferty does this so well that some people looking at the stuff can actually think; "Oh, this is just how teenage girls think. KV didn't really steal this because it's just there. Ya know, KV's a teenager, she's just writing what she is." No, go look at fanfic.net if you want to see what the great teen unconscious mostly produces.
And she didn't "internalize" the phrases from a couple of readings of the books either. I suspect everyone on this board has a handful of books they have read often enough that they could reel off paragraphs at a time. How many of you think you could do it, over and over again, from the same book, into your own writing without knowing it?
She had been told her writing was too "dark." She needed to lighten it up, so she sat there with the two books and ripped off someone else's writing, What she stole, repeatedly, were the little, witty bits. Lightness. The kind of thing that makes up a writer's "voice." Because she was busy. Because she needed to be a big noise, now. Because she wouldn't be a 19 year-old phenomenon if she took the time to learn how to write.
She's not a writer, she just wanted to play one for Dreamworks.

kitty said...

I've been following this story all week and the newest development in the case is that Little,Brown has announced a recall of Opal Metha. They're pulling it from production and asking retailers to send back unsold copies ...

And the rest would be collector's copies, maybe?

Ken Boy said...


An agent at William Morris asked me for my full MS last year, just from a query. I am certainly a nobody. I have zero credentials and zero credits. They are not unapproachable.

Too bad my novel wasn't better written. It has, however, improved. I hope.

Mark said...

They've pulled the book. How Mehta got her ya-ya's out, or whatever it is.

Richard Lewis said...

Then she went and admitted TO THE WORLD that she read the books. Which is the single dumbest thing you can do when faced with a plagiarism suit as far as I'm concerned.

Or the most honest upright thing. Maybe she isn't a young wicked privileged snoot. Just a teenager who made a bad choice, as teenagers are wont to do.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Bill E. Goat: Here! Read this. It’s my latest. It’s really good!

Me (Reading): “During dinner my uncle was rather gay for a goat. He made some of those peculiar jokes that belong exclusively to old and wise goats. As soon as desert was over, he called me into his barn. We each took a place on opposite sides of the water trough.

"'William,' he said in a soft bleating voice, 'I’ve always believed you ingenious …'"

Bill, this isn’t bad, but you’ve misspelled 'dessert.' Umm, this sounds familiar.

Bill E.: Shush. No one reads Jules Vern anymore. They’ll never know.

Me: They won’t?

Bill E.: Naaaaaaahhh. They’ll think I’m a very literate goat who has a great grasp of period dialogue.

Me: Oh? Perhaps. But this isn’t honest, Bill.

Bill E.: Nonsense! It’s not exactly word for word. It’s just sort of a paraphrase. I’ve just absorbed it. Kinda by osmosis.

Me: Osmosis? That’s a new word for you. You’re still trying to impress that cute French Alpine, aren’t you Bill?

Bill E: You wound me! Actually, I’ve met someone new. The neighbor just got a Nubian doe. She’s really cute. Not too bright, but cute.

Me: Ah! That explains everything.

RichM said...

This kind of thing is why I am oh so glad not to be teaching college any more.

skylark said...

OK, Ken Boy, I take it back; I'd heard other authors complaining about William Morris, but no personal experience. Nevertheless, I do think the agent here bears much of the reponsibility; this marketing of trendy authors, regarless of their ability to write well, is an anathema to me.

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

True incident from several years ago: An Australian teacher posted to a mystery listserve mentioning the plot of a mystery short story and asking if it rang bells for anyone. I recognized it as one in an anthology that I had edited and obliged with title, author, and where the short story had appeared.

A student had submitted the story as her own. The actual author, who has a very lively sense of humor, wrote the teacher and asked what grade he had received. ;-)

Bless the sharp teachers out there who can always smell a rat.