Thursday, August 1, 2013

Plagiarism and Publishing

I've probably mentioned this before somewhere, but some things have happened lately that have made it come under discussion again: Plagiarism.

There are many types of plagiarism, but what's been getting chattered about lately is the type wherein folks steal chunks from different works, maybe paraphrase them, then put the results up for sale. (The collection method is called "content scraping", and the "convert to paraphrase" step is optional. There is a form of "content scraping" that isn't plagiarism, but the ethics of it are still questionable.)

Yes, even paraphrasing can result in plagiarism. See, there are three main ways to plagiarize:

  1. Quote directly from a source in an improper manner, in violation of "fair use" (don't cite it, use too much, use it in an inappropriate setting, etc.)
  2. Paraphrase a single source directly in an improper manner, in violation of "fair use" (don't cite it, use too much, use it in an inappropriate setting, etc.)
  3. Use the source in such a manner that "fair use" does not apply (use exclusive information from a source without citing it, resell it without proper authorization, illegally repackage it without proper authorization, illegally redistribute it without proper authorization, etc.)

The definitions of what qualifies as "fair use" and "an improper manner" differs depending on if you're talking about novels, poetry, song lyrics, etc. For example, you can quote a favorite snippet from a novel—but from a song? Legal precedent is far more constricting*. The "without proper authorization" is a pertinent detail, because there's "PLR" (mainly in non-fiction) and some forms of the "creative commons" licenses that might allow such redistribution, repackaging, and/or resale.

*I am not a lawyer. This isn't legal advice. It's just one layman's understanding of what she's read. If you want to know if "fair use" applies to your situation, ask the appropriate type of attorney for your question.

On one hand, I know that a lot of schools somehow expect students to understand what plagiarism is without ever teaching them. (I changed schools pretty much every year, throughout my education. I also tutor and tend to get in education method discussions with professional teachers.)

So I, personally, have had a lot of exposure to folks uneducated or improperly educated about plagiarism. There have been several cases wherein a person gets a book deal—or an article assignment, or lauded by teachers, etc.—only for people to find out later that the item is plagiarized in some fashion. I've also had a (…few…) cases wherein someone stole an article I wrote and assumed it was okay because, well, it was online, and "Everyone knows online content is free." (That's incorrect, for the record—both in the "everyone knows" and the "online content is free" sense.)

So it's theoretically possible that some folks might do that paraphrase-and-resell form of plagiarism not realizing it's plagiarism and in violation of others' copyrights.

In fact, I'm sure somebody somewhere has done it on accident.

In this case, though, the "author" had several other layers involved (and, from what I've read, actually lifted the stories from—so the author plagiarized first, then the second person plagiarized the plagiarist). So I think it likely that the person knew precisely what he was doing.

So this is getting screen time on writers' blogs and forums, and a lot of people are freaking out or stunned in disbelief or shocked…

But, see, I've been seeing this same sort of thing happen for…as long as I've been on the Internet. Folks would content scrape articles or infoproducts, resell them on Clickbank or personal websites or other such websites. Folks would nab stories from sites like or and repost them on the same site, on similar sites, on vendor sites, on personal sites…

Something a lot of folks don't realize? It's been possible to easily sell e-books online for a good decade. The problem was drawing the audience, since the sites involved necessarily catered to specific niches that, yanno, knew what e-books and web stories even were and what to do with them.

The difference is that a broader spectrum of people are now aware of it.

And don't be mistaken—Amazon is keeping its eye out. There's only so much it can catch, though, and then it also has to be careful because sometimes folks have non-exclusive contracts that say two or six different people can publish the same thing. I've gotten "Hey, is this really yours?"** letters from Amazon for duplicate content.

**Okay, so that wasn't quite how it was phrased, but that was the implication.

The fact is, plagiarism happens.

When you're aware of it, you can act on it, but fretting over it will only hurt you. It's bad for your health and creativity.

Jami Gold's article on plagiarism has some good tips to minimize risk if you're worried about it, but… Personally? I'm unconvinced that it's worth worrying about. Register your copyrights and set up some Google Alerts. If you keep writing and publishing and build a fanbase, then readers will notice and tell you when you've been plagiarized.

That's how all the major plagiarism cases (that I can think of) have been caught, after all: a reader noticing and responding indignantly.

Not that I expect readers to watch out for plagiarism—I don't. I don't expect readers to point out typos they notice in my stories, either.

But…some readers will notice those things. If you're traditionally published, your hands are usually tied by your contract, whereas with self-publishing, you can act on it—whether it's plagiarism or typos. As long as a writer does their part to avoid either, trusting readers isn't lazy.

Now, if a writer expects readers to find plagiarists, to tell them about typos, to edit their book… That's another story entirely. (Sadly, that does happen, too.)

But no matter the precautions you take, if you publish your writing, you will likely be plagiarized—somewhere, someday. The plagiarism might be intentional, but it can also be accidental (so it's best to react politely, because the intentional ones will ignore you anyway). If it's worth reading, it's worth stealing.

So take a deep breath and be wary…but pick your battles. ^_^

Did you know you could plagiarize with paraphrases? What do you think of my attitude toward plagiarism? What's your attitude about accidental plagiarists vs. intentional ones?


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