Plagiarism and the Industry of Fiction

I felt compelled to write this post regardless of readership due to the amount of current events that have cropped up concerning the issue of plagiarism and fiction. In particular, romance novels. The kind of stuff I write.

                I know the sting of being accused, even in an off-hand way of plagiarizing. On a popular review site, a reader said my book, Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off, was basically ripping off the movie “What Happens In Vegas”. It was pretty upsetting since my book was out well over a year before that movie was even advertised. I realized the person either didn’t read my book, didn’t get past the first chapter of my book, or didn’t watch the movie. I did after that comment because if anyone was being copied, it was me and I wanted to know. Fortunately, the good people of Hollywood had not ripped me off.

                I know the burn of discovering someone has plagiarized, though I encounter that in my life where I go by the name attached to my social security number. I teach at a college and since my students are all old enough to purchase what I write, I use the pseudonym Cara North to keep my worlds somewhat separate. Yes, they do find me, but they seek me out. I don’t push what I write on them. Anyways, when students turn in papers to me they all go through a system called TurnitIn. The program highlights the percentage of the paper that is word for word found elsewhere.

                Now I know that as a contemporary erotic romance author I tend to throw cock around pretty liberally in my books (Not in the BDSM way, in the use it a lot way). I know that there are only so many ways to describe putting a dick in an orifice. Yes, I am sure that if someone ran my book through the plagiarism checker of romance novels (should it exist-hint hint multibillion dollar Amazon) the phrase, “Put his dick in her mouth” or “Put his cock in her ass” will pop up the same as in a bunch of other books.

                I get that. As a professor, I don’t sweat the small stuff. There is only so many ways a student can phrase certain things and yes, someone has likely said it before. I had one student freak out because he discovered his sentence was used on a public blog somewhere two days before he submitted the paper. Yes, they can also see the report if they choose to. I told him I wasn’t concerned and no one else would be either. I look for a high percentage rate. I look for complete paragraphs or passages copied from other papers, websites, etc.  If more than 20% pops up, I know I need to look at this student’s paper closer and possibly have a talk with them to make sure they understand.

                As fiction writers, there is no excuse for it. We are all essentially telling the same story. “Boy meets girl, or boy meets boy, or girl meets boy, or girl meets wolf pack, whatever gender/species/amount of partners you are into in to, said person loses said partner(s), and then gets said partner(s) back. The loss isn’t always a physical one, sometimes it is emotional uncertainty. Any at rate, it is the oldest story and we all draw from it. What makes our books different is our own unique blend of weaving this tale. We draw from the familiar and the unfamiliar.

                I once had a conversation with a beloved author who said she had one of those “oh crap” moments of is this mine or is this someone else’s? She didn’t copy it from that author, but once she re-read her book she remembered a similar scenario in something she had read. She said she spent a good amount of time tracking down that original book to ensure she had not repeated the scene by *gasp* accident! She hadn’t. When she found it the only element that was the same was the scenario regarding the heroine cutting her hair. I am sure some of you who write might be doing the *gasp* right now because you may have written a scene that has a scenario involving someone cutting their hair and someone else reacting to it. Sheesh, that never happens in life, right? We all know there is a time to worry, and a time to realize that some things are going to happen in multiple books just like it happens in multiple real lives.

                If we aren’t talking about these minor issues that make us authors sweat, but go virtually unnoticed by everyone else in the universe, what are we talking about?   Are we talking about the precedent set by fan fiction authors who have been picked up and published by major publishers? How does that work exactly? I don’t know. Is there a percentage of a book that needs to be original? I don’t read fan fiction. I have not read the 50 Shades series because I think it is a dangerous precedent for publishers. I would like more explanation on the reasoning behind it. After all, if anyone remembers the Meg Cabot issue (I kept the article for my classroom purposes; here is a link to it on Wikipedia) that was big news and published in newspapers around the world. Now, what? Are fan fiction books different? I don’t understand.

                Then there are the copy and paste plagiarists. That’s right, copy and paste. These authors don’t have the time or decency to go through and change more than a name. This has been the issue as of late. Within the past month I have read three different bouts of crazy stemming from copy and paste authors. I’m not going to link them, you can Google it, or log in to Twitter or Facebook and read. These are the one we tend to be most concerned with because not all of the plagiarism is happening to “big name” authors with “big name” publishers who can afford “big” lawyers.

                Not that anyone seems to need them. Social Justice is apparently working to get these people to remove the books, and sometimes remove entire websites. Social justice is not always right. There is recently a review posted on Amazon accusing an author of plagiarizing. There is a plagiarism case with concern to the book. However, the author getting the blame was the one being plagiarized. This becomes the problem. Who did what first in the eyes of the reader? I go back to my own example. I am sure that girl saw the movie and then picked up my book. She never looked at the copyright date. Certainly, she didn’t know about the two years prior to that when it was being work-shopped in my critique group or in line at a publishing house prior to release.

                Readers don’t care about copyright dates. I know I didn’t prior to becoming an author. I know I had a student tell me that The Vampire Diaries ripped of Twilight. I asked her to bring both copies of the book to class the next meeting. I showed her the copyright page. She was blown away by the timeline. See, readers are going to read in the same genre. So it doesn’t make sense to me. If these people are ripping off an author and putting it up, who do they think is going to buy the book? Probably the people who read the author they just ripped off because that is the type of book they like to read!

                Fear not! Romance readers tend to read across the genres, so they can’t just change a name, race, or species and copy and paste either. It will come out. The question is, can we prevent it from happening in the first place, or at least reduce the amount of occurrences? I propose Amazon invest some of the money they are making from all of this e-publishing in a program like TurnitIn. They can take my approach, pick a percentage rate for matching words that indicated a pull for review prior to publishing, and then they can spot check minor issues or eliminate them from the search.  With the amount of erotic romance pumping through the electronic veins it might be prudent to eliminate the “Fuck me!” phrase from the da
tabase of matching words and phrases.

                Sure, it might take longer for my books to go up and be available to the public, but I would rather wait a day or two for it to go through that system than to lose sales to people who are not even writing their own work. Yes, it is that serious of an issue. Every time someone pulls this shit, we all pay for it. Readers get anxious about trying new people. Authors get anxious about letting out advance review copies. Consumers of every genre get pissed because they spent their hard earned money on something they already read.

                We can’t copyright ideas. Some things are going to be phrased the same no matter the genre. We can be grateful for those people out there bringing this to light. Reviewers and avid readers are the number one source of policing this phenomenon. It is a heavy burden and does not come without its own cost. Those people who do not believe their author/friend/family would do such a thing retaliate. Social media makes it complicated as we have seen when people have attacked or killed “suspects” because they got the wrong “Jane Doe” with the same name as the real perpetrator. To my knowledge no one has gone that far over romance novels, but there is a fine line between calling someone to the floor for something they did and bullying.  Professionalism is required for anyone to be taken seriously when revealing something like this. It is a legal issue. People cannot control their reader’s behavior, but they should be clear not to endorse the hateful behavior of rabid fan-girls/boys.

                In a society where celebrities have to lobby for years to get to use their own name on social media, is it any surprise we have to deal with copy and paste plagiarists in publishing? Our society has become accustomed to a certain amount of plagiaristic behavior. The publishing industry giants are bringing some of this on all of us in the industry by not clarifying the boundaries of fan fiction being published. This might prevent new authors, often without knowledge of all this, from thinking it is okay to pattern and pull from another book.

                I say inexperienced authors because I struggle with accepting that seasoned authors would do this. From my personal point of view, not endorsed by anyone, some ways a new author can avoid these temptations or coincidences include:

  1. Stop reading within your genre. I don’t care what people tell you! I only read contemporary when I am not writing because I fear the subconscious phase that might leak out. This means I might rad one book a year and it is usually by one of three authors.  
  2. Get a reader group. You don’t have to get a peer group of other authors to edit you. It works best if you have a group of avid readers review your work. They will point this stuff out in a “Simpsons Did It” (courtesy of South Park) way before it gets to an editor to correct commas and spelling.
  3. Remember that every author raking in the big money was once a person starting out and writing an average, okay, or crappy story to get published. You wouldn’t steal from that book, so don’t seal from one they finally made it with either.
  4. Remember that writes are usually unstable, at least I am, and these books are kinda like our word babies. If you wouldn’t want me to come take an arm off your toddler, then I don’t want you to take a paragraph out of my book. It is hard enough when people tell me they don’t like it (aka your child is really ugly). It is so rewarding when they do (aka this child is going to do well in life). I can’t imagine how it must feel to find out someone stole a few parts of a book (aka I took out your child’s heart and kidney while you were sleeping). So don’t do it. It takes nine months to grow a baby and then you have the rest of your life as that child’s parent. It can take weeks to years to grow a book and as long as it is published it will likely outlive you.