The Word Thieves

Feature by David Biddle

Navigating the New Landscape of Plagiarism

 


Imagine that a rigidly controlled country you’ve always longed to visit suddenly undergoes a revolution and opens its borders. Its currency value is ridiculously low, making travel a bargain. Do you snap up airline tickets and book a hotel right away?  Or does the prospect of traveling in a land where laws and concepts of ownership are in flux give you pause?

Ecstasy of Influence book coverFor me, that tantalizing country is The Land of Getting Published, now dominated by a digital publishing frontier. I no longer need an agent or even an editor to get me there (though some copyediting help is always useful). With my self-polished text and a decent cover layout in hand, I can publish my own work in just a few clicks through Amazon, Smashwords, Apple, Lulu, or any of several dozen other online resources. With Amazon’s Kindle Select system, I set my own price for my stories (at or above the minimum of $2.99 per download), and I collect 70% of the royalties.

There’s just one catch: word thieves. The digital frontier is a wide-open vista for both publishing and plagiarism. Sure, the good online conglomerates provide some control through rights management options and encrypted filing, but, really, in this age of electronic access, anyone can copy and paste my words—or yours—and call them their own. And, as notions of “open source” content gain more traction in the literary world, who’s to say that such a copy-and-paste action constitutes theft and not just artistic “borrowing”?

As I’ve ventured into the digital publishing frontier, I’ve realized that plagiarism is an issue every electronically published writer has to examine. We all need to understand the various forms it can take and make our individual decisions about what we’re comfortable with—and what we’re not. And your decisions, like your travel choices, may end up being very different from mine.

 

Plagiarism Type 1: Piracy, Pure and Simple

Literary or journalistic plagiarism is usually thought of as a rogue writer copying someone else’s words, maybe making a few grammatical or stylistic adjustments, and then slapping his or her own name on the “new” work, giving no credit to the original writer. This is considered theft of intellectual property. Along with the legal ramifications, there are far deeper moral and ethical issues.

Theoretically, current Internet technology should make ferreting out plagiarizers, media pirates, and content counterfeiters astoundingly easy. Ten years ago, plagiarism experts predicted that Google and new apps on the horizon would reduce pirating problems dramatically. This prediction has yet to come true, maybe because the ease of piracy has risen even more quickly—or because there are more pirates in the world than plagiarism investigators.

The Bulletin book coverOne amazing case among the many plagiarism stories to pop up in recent years is that of the Montgomery County Bulletin, a now-defunct weekly alternative paper in a Houston suburb. In 2008, Slate writer Jody Rosen received an email from a reader saying, “I believe your…profile of musician Jimmy Buffett was reproduced wholesale without attribution [by the Bulletin].”

Rosen investigated, uncovering a bizarre saga that he reported under the title “Dude, You Stole My Article.” He discovered that the Bulletin essentially cobbled together feature pieces from other people’s work, publishing them under the byline of the paper’s primary writer, Mark Williams. The Bulletin made its money through paid ads, using stolen content that cost nothing. Rosen’s story brought down this newspaper, but it also showed how far those looking to make a fast buck will go if they can get away with it.

In January 2012, as I prepared to write this essay, an account of what may be the mother of all plagiarism cases appeared in the magazine Fast Company. In “Amazon’s Plagiarism Problem,” NYU journalism professor Adam Penenberg tells the story of a writer who self-published erotica using Amazon’s Kindle System, then discovered that stories showing up higher on the “best seller” list were published by someone who had plagiarized her work. Further digging showed dozens of fictitious authors self-publishing scores of books that were primarily copies of free stories from the online adult fiction site Literotica (along with, oddly enough, blatantly plagiarized copies of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland).

Penenberg’s piece and a subsequent NPR episode titled “On Amazon, an Uneasy Mix of Plagiarism and Erotica” focus mostly on how Amazon and other online stores deal with these radical cases of “content farming”—which is, not very effectively. As Penenberg notes, “the sheer volume of self-published books mak[es] it difficult, if not impossible, for e-stores like Amazon to vet works before they go on sale.” Amazon will remove content based on plagiarism complaints, but the process is slow—and plagiarists are quick to repost under new pseudonyms.

If your comfort level with this type of plagiarism is zero, you’re surely not alone. These are pretty clear-cut cases of out-and-out piracy. But let’s look at the opposite end of the plagiarism spectrum.

 

Plagiarism Type 2: Transformative Artistry

Novelist Jonathan Lethem launched the definitive argument for a more lenient approach to copyright issues and artistic plagiarism in his infamous 2007 essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” in Harpers Magazine (the essay also appears in his recently published book, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc.).

Lethem presents case after case of artists using the works of others to create substantially new works of their own, from Nabokov’s lifting of the plot for Lolita to Bob Dylan’s liberal lyric thefts and William Burroughs’ “cut-up method” of appropriating other writers’ text fragments. In sections with subheads such as “UseMonopoly” and “You Can’t Steal a Gift,” Lethem argues persuasively for viewing works of art as gifts to the public domain, rather than as property to be zealously protected and litigated over. The punch line comes at the end: an extended key referencing the copied sources for almost every line of the essay.

Reality Hunger book coverIn all fairness to Lethem as an artist, he writes: “Nearly every sentence I culled I also revised, at least slightly—for necessities of space, in order to produce a more consistent tone, or simply because I felt like it.” But the full-frontal content of this essay is still in other people’s words. If you are ignorant of this conceit when you read it, the ending is quite a lesson.

Reading it, you might find yourself warming to this type of creative plagiarism (if it qualifies as plagiarism, given Lethem’s scrupulous attribution of sources at the end). You might even find it an inspiration—as, arguably, did David Shields, whose similarly constructed book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, came out in February 2010 and prominently featured a quote from Lethem on its front cover.

Reality Hunger is a declaration that literary fiction is no longer useful, and that reality—essay, memoir, reporting, and anything else we might call “nonfiction”—is taking over. Shields’s method for making this argument is to borrow text liberally from others in the vein of Lethem’s Ecstasy essay, demonstrating his stated intent “to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists…who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.” He did not originally intend to reference the quotes he excised, but at the last minute he relented to the dictates of his publisher and their attorneys and provided a key in very small print.

Are Lethem and Shields word thieves? Or simply innovative borrowers? If someone “borrowed” your words in this way, would you feel unfairly used? Or honored?

In fact, there is a legal principle of “fair use” that might be applicable in such cases. In a 2011 article for the New York Times called “Apropos Appropriation,” Randy Kennedy points out that fair use “gives artists…the ability to use someone else’s material for certain purposes, especially if the result transforms the thing used.” He goes on to quote a law review article making the case that this is especially important “if the new thing ‘adds value to the original’ so that society as a whole is culturally enriched by it.”

If all plagiarism could easily be sorted into either Type 1 piracy or Type 2 transformative artistry, taking a stance on it might not be so difficult. But of course, you knew it wouldn’t be that simple, right?

 

Plagiarism Type 1.5: Somewhere in the Muddle

The year 2010 was notable not only for the release of Shields’s book but also for several less transparent cases of literary plagiarism.

In February of that year, I read in passing about Gerald Posner, a writer for the Daily Beast, who had copped to using other people’s copy in his own news pieces. Posner was suitably (to some) chagrined and was later quoted by Henry Blodgett of Business Insider as having written in his blog: “In the compressed deadlines of the Beast, it now seems certain that those master file[s] were a recipe for disaster for me. It allowed already published sources to get through to a number of my final [sic] and in the quick turnaround I then obviously lost sight of the fact that it belonged to a published source instead of being something I wrote.”

Axolotl Roadkill book coverThis is an example of the “accidental plagiarism” excuse—a standard operating statement of respected writers.

A few days after the Posner affair died down, Helene Hegemann, a then-17-year-old German literary sensation, was called out for copying from another source for sections of her book Axolotl Roadkill. As described in a New York Times article, “Author, 17, Says It’s Mixing, Not Plagiarism,” her defense was, essentially, an unabashed, Yeah? So!—which apparently, even two years later, no one knows what to do with.

Hegemann is not some dumb kid who just lucked out. Prior to Axolotl Roadkill, her play Ariel 15 premiered in Berlin and was then adapted for radio. In addition, a screenplay she wrote when she was 14 has been made into a movie, and word is that Axolotl Roadkill is destined for theaters as well. Even with evidence of plagiarism, her novel has been translated into 15 languages.

While Hegemann was being vilified in Germany, Michel Houellebecq, France’s major global literary export, was on the hot seat for copying sections of his newest (and least pornographic) novel, The Map and the Territory, from Wikipedia.

As reported in a September 2010 article in the Independent, “I Stole from Wikipedia but It’s Not Plagiarism, Says Houellebecq,” he eventually explained: “This approach, muddling real documents and fiction, has been used by many authors. I have been influenced especially by [Georges] Perec and [Jorge Luis] Borges…I hope that this contributes to the beauty of my books, using this kind of material.” And then he won the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize.

Here in the United States, the translation for The Map and the Territory has recently hit the shelves. None of the major reviews I’ve read mention anything about Wikipedia plagiarism.

So…piracy or transformative artistry? Compared to the hack thievery perpetrated by the Amazon erotic-content farmers and the bogus “newspaper” described in “Dude, You Stole My Article,” the artistic larceny performed by these three critically acclaimed writers may seem less severe.

And yet, appropriating someone else’s words the way Gerald Posner, Michel Houellebecq, and Helene Hegemann have done—without acknowledging sources prior to being exposed—can’t really be seen as borrowing for the sake of “fair use.” They have certainly concocted their stories like found-object writers, but, at least on an ethical level, it’s not clear they have added value or transformed the words of others by incorporating them and calling them their own. Whether they’re willing to admit it or not, they simply copied prose to make the writing process easier for themselves.

Was this stealing? I’d say so. But the consequences, at least for Houellebecq and Hegemann, seem to have been minimal.

And that brings us to what is really going on right now: Theft is just a different beast on today’s digital frontier.

 

Prepare Yourself

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad on live Internet feeds worldwide in 2010, it was clear that the digital media world was never going to be the same again. With Publishers Weekly reporting in January of this year that “nearly 1 in 3 Americans now owns a [tablet or digital reading] device,” we are well on our way to a digital business model for all text-based media.

The Map and the Territory book coverIn the wake of this revolution, people are fond of saying that the rules of the publishing industry are changing. The fact is, there are no rules to speak of anymore. Certainly, we still have the traditional model—and a few people continue to benefit from it—but the borders of The Land of Getting Published are now wide open for anyone who wants to put their work out digitally for others to read. And the hard reality is that ownership of text online just isn’t the same as with the hard copy model.

What we send into the liquid electron world is extremely public and profoundly interconnected. Imagine someone in Pakistan taking your blog entries, translating them into Urdu, tinkering a bit with the context, then calling them their own. How can you ever really know what happens to your words once they’re on the Internet?

You can’t. But knowing what could happen—and giving some thought in advance to what you’re comfortable with—can help you be prepared.

If you’re worried about becoming the victim of Type 1 Plagiarism, you can try to foil would-be pirates by choosing a unique sentence from each of your published works and Googling it on a regular basis. If Type 2 Plagiarism, despite its artistry, doesn’t sit well with you, you might brainstorm some ideas for mutually satisfactory arrangements between borrowers and those from whom they borrow. And if you suspect you might have a propensity for committing “accidental” Type 1.5 plagiarism, learn from Gerald Posner and make sure you’re keeping track of quotes from others in your writing files—or else work on your “who cares?” shrug à la Hegemann and Houllebecq.

Be aware, though, that not all exposed literary plagiarists emerge as unscathed as these folks. Lizzie Widdicombe’s February 2012 New Yorker essay, “The Plagiarist’s Tale,” about Quentin Rowan’s initially acclaimed novel Assassin of Secrets, is a powerful cautionary tale. The novel was recalled after it was found to contain many cribbed passages from other spy novels.

“The peculiar thing about Rowan’s case,” Widdicombe notes, “is that he could have obtained a degree of social permission simply by being honest about borrowing from other writers—by doing what Jonathan Lethem did, or by claiming that he was producing a ‘meta’ work.” But Rowan would not have felt comfortable admitting his method because, he told Widdicombe, “I honestly wanted people to think I’d written it.”

 

Leggo Your Legos

In the end, how comfortable each of us feels about plagiarism seems strongly connected to our sense of ownership toward our work, which is a personal issue for each writer.

Frozen book coverIn “Something Borrowed,” a 2004 New Yorker essay about learning he had been heavily plagiarized, Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, wrote: “So is it true that words belong to the person who wrote them, just as other kinds of property belong to their owners?”

Gladwell struggled at first when he learned that big chunks of his journalism had been cribbed into dialogue for a Broadway play called Frozen. However, as he thought through the idea that his words had now been used for something completely different, he realized that “instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause.”

The process of writing this piece has forced me to examine my own feelings about owning my words, and I’ve made a discovery that shocked my copyright-conscious editors (who compel me to point out that my view does not reflect that of Talking Writing): For me, as soon as something is out there in the digital realm, whether a story or a piece of nonfiction journalism, I no longer feel tied to it personally.

I can’t think of what I’ve written as a gift exactly—it’s more a thing I’ve left for people to find in the woods. It’s like when I go out walking with my kids, and we leave a little Lego person standing on a rock or an action figure sitting in a tree. My stories especially feel like that now. I make them available on Amazon for a modest price, and people find them.

Similarly, I now pass on my accumulated knowledge about plagiarists to you, fellow traveler in the digital frontier. Pirates and borrowers, content farmers and transformative artists: They’re all out there, and you may find that awareness useful in your travels. You may decide to take precautions—the digital equivalent of wearing your cash in a money belt tied under your shirt—or you may decide, like me, that you’d rather not be looking over your shoulder all the time.

What matters is that you’re there, in The Land of Getting Published, with readers stretching out as far as your words can reach.

 


Publishing Information

Image Information

  • The cover image of the June 2008 Montgomery County Bulletin is used to illustrate the alternative newspaper involved in the case described by Slate writer Jody Rosen in “Dude, You Stole My Article.” The low-resolution scan of this image therefore qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. The image was scanned by Slate and reposted on Wikipedia.

 


David Biddle is a contributing writer at Talking Writing. His digital fiction can be found on davidbiddle.net.

"For the first forty years of my life, I was quite happy as an adopted child who knew nothing about his origins. But as my sons began to grow up, I realized the gaps in my knowledge were being transferred to them. I was like a piece of dead wood, lying precariously on the family tree." — "Always an Orphan"


 

Comments

Great essay, David, and I love your "lost Lego" attitude toward ownership. The transformative possibilities remind me of a wonderful essay called "The Persian Dub," which discusses the joys of watching John Wayne movies dubbed in Farsi in the 1970s. The dubbed movies included asides and dialogue that had little to do with the action in the movies, creating something entirely new.

David,
Thank you for this. As someone who is actively contemplating self-publishing my memoir with Amazon, you left me with a lot to think about. It makes me wonder what it is about me that wants credit for my (I hope) unique conglomeration of words and phrases to create my prose. I wrote it, damnit, and I want the credit.

On the other hand, I love mash-ups and sampling and allusions. In theory, I love the idea of playing with language and freely borrowing it. But when it cuts this close to the bone, maybe not so much.

Anyway, this article reminds me of a wonderful article that appeared in Harper's several years ago about "Molotov Man." http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081386 The article showed how an image of a Sandinista rebel throwing a Molotov cocktail had been morphed and used in everything from radical tracts to advertising.
Thanks for the brain boost this morning.

I'm looking for advice about

I'm looking for advice about a situation I never dreamed I'd face. I've published some short stories in small lit magazines, work as associate editor for a couple of local magazines, and self-published a light humor book about how Christmas expectations don't go as planned. I have a highly polished novel draft written several years ago and a rough draft of a second novel. A friend's reading group volunteered to read the first (pretty much ready to print) novel draft. One of the readers took it on a cruise and inadvertently lost it. While I know it's highly unlikely that the manuscript survived, there's now a shadow over me. I wonder if someone will take and tweak it and publish my idea. What sorts of legal precautions can I take to protect the ideas of my novel? I get the Lego concept, and that's honorable, but I haven't made it to the point that I'm recognizable, and those words haven't been credited to me anywhere digitally to begin with. Suggestions?

Sarah, you're asking a really

Sarah, you're asking a really serious question about who owns ideas in the digital age. I wish there were a straightforward answer. There are few truly original ideas, so the issue becomes whether somebody steals the specific words you use to convey a story idea. Even there, digital media is rife with mashups and fakery. As a nonprofit organization, we can't offer any legal advice. But it seems to me the only way you'd know if your novel had been stolen is if it got published and brought the plagiarizing author a lot of fame and fortune. From where I sit, that rarely happens these days with any novel. Cold comfort, I know.

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