Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be!
Plagiarism is often misunderstood by readers and
authors alike, and that misunderstanding affects our reading and
writing enjoyment. It seems a case of plagiarism hits the news at
least once a year. This is a new year. We are due for another. When
it happens people will weigh in with opinions on blogs, Twitter,
and Facebook, so it will help to know what plagiarism is and what
The kind of plagiarism that authors worry about is quite rare—that
is, having an agent or someone in a writing class steal an idea.
It’s hard to steal an idea. For one thing, there are no truly
new ideas in the world. If you don’t believe me, read Joseph
Campbell’s works (which you should do anyway). He divides
all of literature from Greek plays forward into a few categories
with a few basic elements.
Ideas cannot be copyrighted. A recent court case reaffirmed this
notion. It played out in London, but it applies to us all. If the
case had not gone as it did, much of Shakespeare’s works would
be considered plagiarism and, because science fiction writers often
borrow theories from those who win Nobel prizes in physics, that
genre could no longer exist as we know it.
Many kinds of borrowings are not plagiarism but merely the result
of the similar way our brains function. You’ve probably heard
the story of monkey colonies on one island who take up the habits
of monkeys on another island with no understandable way for them
to have communicated.
You should know that anyone who used an author’s idea would
surely write a different book. Authors might bolster their confidence
by trying this exercise: Ask three writers to pen a piece using
a very specific subject—maybe even something you’ve
considered writing yourself. My critique group used a story about
how, as a child, one of our members sneaked into a neighbor’s
house and ate frosted strawberries out of the Fridge. We then set
a lunch date and read each work aloud. In spite of the similar plot
lines, the voices, characters, and details were so different we
wondered why we had been concerned about a fellow writer stealing
an idea. Usually, a writer won’t be interested in writing
someone else’s stuff, anyway. Writing, after all is about
And readers? They may not want to go to the trouble of trying an
exercise like this, but it’s my hope that when they read news
of plagiarism, they’ll see it a bit different light. Plagiarism—like
much in the world—is not black and white. It is far more nuanced.
Often when a case of plagiarism occurs among those who have the
public trust, it gets lots of press. However, by the time the perpetrator
is found innocent, the case has lost its news value, and we never
hear about the accused’s exoneration. Thus, authors and readers
feel bombarded with reports of plagiarism-that-never-happened. Those
cases may sometime take on the stature of urban myth.
Careers of a few writers have been broken into kindling when plagiarism
was uncovered, but sometimes the opposite happens. Near-anonymous
writers or those relegated to the obscure halls of academia become
household names when they are found to have picked clean the bones
of others’ words. When controversy threatened to tarnish names
like Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin they became known
among people who would never have heard of them before. I’ve
often wondered if they were accused unjustly, if they made only
an honest mistake and if they indeed did plagiarize—if they
found all the coverage to their advantage.
Many times plagiarism goes unnoticed because the thief is not caught
or his work is so poor that even stealing cannot make it star-worthy.
But think! Think! How much is written, published, put out into the
world. The chance that your story might be the one stolen is minuscule.
Plagiarism is most rampant in academia. If you need proof, Google
“plagiarism.” Yep, a few famous cases and lots more
stories about kids trying to make the grade at school. We cannot
condone such theft, but authors should not allow the idea of plagiarism
to doom the progress of their writing careers. Generally it is only
the poor young schmuck who grabbed down someone else’s work
who suffers—whether or not he is caught.
Another consideration. If someone should swipe a few words or an
idea from a writer, his chances of becoming rich, famous, and envied
because of them are no better than the writer's. If he should, that
sets him up for legal action worth pursuing. If he doesn’t
get rich on an author’s work, the author has the satisfaction
of knowing he didn’t, and won’t need to bother her talented
head about chasing after a pauper. Authors might even benefit. The
publicity surrounding such a case could be the lucky stroke that
makes her the rich, famous, and envied author.
Tips and Tidbits
(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a Tidbit that will
help authors write or promote better. She will also include
a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected
books or a sapphire among the newly-published.)
Bruce Holland Rogers’ Word
Work for insight into the writing world,
Tip for Readers' Tip:
Use Amazon’s search engine
to find Joseph Campbell. He is deceased but
he has books and videos that are sure to increase any reader’s
love and understanding of literature, It is one of the beauties
of books and all things literary that an author’s works
may not die with him—the counterbalance to the fact
that it is subject to plagiarizing.
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