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Plagiarism (terms and conditions apply)

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If you are not one of the (at the time of writing) 8.4 million viewers who’ve seen HBomberguy’s magnum opus, Plagiarism and You(Tube), I highly recommend it. You can watch it here. It’s almost four hours long, but every moment is riveting. While the documentary is focused on recapping and contextualizing plagiarism scandals involving YouTubers, the opening described a plagiarism case in the writing world. And since that’s where I’m from, I found it incredibly interesting.

HBomberguy (real name Harris Brewis) talks about a case in which writers Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova successfully settled a plagiarism lawsuit against Paramount Television for lifting ideas wholesale. After Paramount rejected a TV pitch that Ellison and Bova wrote, the company produced a shockingly similar concept.

To reiterate: Writers approach producers. Producers read material. Producers make a show just like that material, but fail to pay and credit the writers who had the idea. Writers sue, producers settle. In other words, producers don’t want to go to court.

Over ideas.

Years ago, when Fifty Shades of Grey came out, it was proven to be Twilight fanfiction. There was absolutely no way to deny it. In an interview with Deadline‘s Mike Fleming Jr., James’s agent, Valerie Hoskins, described the book’s fanfic origins:

“This did start as Twilight fan fiction, inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s wonderful series of books. Originally it was written as fan fiction, then Erika decided to take it down after there were some comments about the racy nature of the material. She took it down and thought, I’d always wanted to write. I’ve got a couple unpublished novels here. I will rewrite this thing, and create these iconic characters, Christian and Anna. If you read the books, they are nothing like Twilight now. It’s very 21st Century, don’t you think?”

Yeah, unfortunately, it is very 21st century. The published version of Fifty Shades of Grey bears a staggering 89% similarity to the original fanfic, Master of the Universe, so the characters weren’t “created” by James. They were Bella and Edward from the Twilight series. The fanfic is patently Twilight, minus vampires, with very little new material added or old material reworked for publication as a novel. The blatant copying of Meyer’s work has been pointed out by numerous sources (including my own) and is openly discussed within the industry.

Yet, James and authors like her, who shamelessly pick over the work of others without bothering to obscure the origins of what they’ve stolen, are defended by some in the industry. “It can’t be plagiarism,” they insist, “because plagiarism means word-for-word.”

That didn’t seem to be a strong enough defense for Paramount Television’s legal team, or they wouldn’t have settled with Bova and Ellison. If they’d been confident in the argument, “Your honor, we only stole the idea. We didn’t copy them word for word,” they would have done so. But they clearly didn’t feel the law was on their side.

Why, then, is public opinion rarely on the side of people who face the same form of plagiarism? And it is plagiarism, regardless of what armchair legal “experts” on social media might say. The Oxford definition of plagiarism isn’t “word-for-word copying.” It includes ideas. That definition must build at least a probable defense in court, or else Paramount Television would have paid Bova and Ellison in hearty jerking-off hand motions.

“There’s no such thing as a new idea!” plagiarist apologists say, even when two books, like Kim Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and JoJo Moyes’s The Giver of Stars, feature more than one uncannily similar detail or plot point. Sure, Moyes inserted a scene with a horseback librarian getting attacked by the town vagrant, but it’s a historically inspired novel. Yes, Richardson wrote a nearly identical scene in her book, which was published first, by a company owned by the same company that Moyes writes for. There are no new ideas! And it’s a historical novel. The fact that the scene isn’t based on a historical incident that both authors might have uncovered in their research doesn’t matter, because there are no new stories. I mean, “horseback librarian attacked by town vagrant” is such a common motif throughout all of western literature that you’re almost required to include it in all of your stories. Because there simply aren’t new ones. We’re fresh out.

That’s why it’s okay to take a popular book and simply rewrite it, swapping out one type of character for another. Maybe instead of a vampire, the love interest is a billionaire with a tormented past. Maybe instead of surgeons in an exciting hospital environment, your story is a cast of lawyers at a high-pressure firm. You don’t have to change any of the beats. Why would you? They’re already written. Why reinvent the wheel, especially when you’ll be defended by other authors who either don’t like to rock the boat or who have based their entire careers on this exact same “not plagiarism, technically” mentality?

What would be indefensible, of course, would be to steal word-for-word. That is the only definition of plagiarism currently accepted by the publishing world, after all. Nobody would ever defend someone like, for example, Mark Dawson, who was recently exposed as a serial “borrower” of sentences and paragraphs from uncited sources. I mean, nobody except for all of the people in the comments saying things like:

While I agree with everyone that this doesn’t look great, the scope is tiny. We’re talking about single sentences. Is that truly egregious?

There are only so many ways a sentence can be written, and many many many millions of people writing them. Did you also, as part of your experiment, choose a few books by other authors, and input random sentences from their books into google, and see if there were any matches?

Some people boldly admitted to plagiarizing:

There are some phrases and words that just pop. I write those phrases down because they resonated with me. For example, there is a zombie book series and the first book is titled “Rot and Ruin.” and I LOVED that phrase as a description of the end of the world zombie apocalypse. I would use the phrase “rot and ruin” without blinking.

While “rot and ruin” isn’t something I’d consider actionable plagiarism, what else is that writer jotting down for future use? And doesn’t it become plagiarism the moment you see someone else’s words and say, “Yes, I think I’ll have that for myself?” There’s a wide gulf between, “Wow, that sentence is so evocative, I’m going to also use it,” and “I accidentally forgot I read this good sentence and thought I came up with it on my own.” If you’re writing down pieces of other people’s work to use later, then every time you sit down to write you’re doing so with the intent to plagiarize.

In a now-deleted thread, one Redditor insisted that it isn’t plagiarism at all to find a sentence or paragraph that you like in someone else’s work and use it for your own. Then, that Redditor argued with numerous academic professionals that “their” definition of plagiarism, including the definition directly copy/pasted from a dictionary, wasn’t really plagiarism simply because he didn’t like it.

I truly, deeply regret not screenshotting that thread, and only didn’t because I believed that there was no way someone so phenomenally pig-headed would ever retreat via deletion. Lesson learned.

But Mark Dawson is a well-known figure in indie publishing. He’s made a fortune and amassed a huge following teaching other indie authors how to get rich from self-publishing. As with most indie authors who’ve never achieved mainstream success but insist they have all the answers, Dawson’s course is much more popular than his literary catalog. But those who’ve paid him hundreds of dollars to teach them what he can’t even do for himself refuse to stop supporting him. After all, he’s helping their career, somehow. And they’ve invested in him. They’ve spent money on him. They’ve recommended him to other writers. To admit that he’s a fraud and a plagiarist would be admitting that they were duped.

The target of plagiarism often invalidates the accusation, as well, as in the recent case of Donna Dickens. In December of this year, Dickens alleged that an entire article she had written for ScreenRant had been scrubbed from the site and reposted in 2022 with another writer’s byline. And when I reached out to ask if I could include those allegations in this post, she gave me permission with the caveat that I should be careful about doxxing and harassment that might come my way. Dickens posted the now-infamous “Fake Rome” video to TikTok in 2021, which leads me to wonder if ScreenRant didn’t disguise the article to cover their past association with a controversial figure. If that’s the case… cool story, still plagiarism. But ultimately, no one will care because in the social internet hivemind, Dickens doesn’t deserve to be defended.

The definition of what constitutes plagiarism will always change depending on who the victim is. Kim Richardson wasn’t plagiarized by JoJo Moyes, because Moyes is a very popular New York Times Bestseller with a movie adaptation and Richardson is not. E.L. James is not a plagiarist because she only lifted another author’s characters and story beats, not whole sentences. Mark Dawson isn’t a plagiarist because he only stole sentences and paragraphs, not… Well, it doesn’t matter. He makes a lot of money and sells courses on how to make money. ScreenRant isn’t in the business of plagiarizing because fuck you, that writer made a conspiracy video and deserves every bad thing. Here’s her home address.

There’s always a reason why it’s okay for some people to plagiarize and others to be plagiarized without recourse, and that reason usually has to do with audience response to the person making the allegation. Did you see a scene you wrote show up in someone else’s book, with a few tweaks here and explicit sex added in? You’re jealous. Did you read a book and recognize the plot, characters, themes, or story beats from another book? Well, you’re just a reader. You don’t understand the industry. And besides, that isn’t Kylo and Rey. They’re on Earth, working at restaurant. You’re confused, probably because the author made it clear to everyone that the book is a Reylo AU fanfic and the cover clearly features a faceless cartoon man who is unmistakably Adam Driver. Okay, yes, this over here is an Aladdin fanfic that has been widely hyped on the author’s social media as being absolutely, one-hundred-percent based on Disney’s movie, including characters that don’t exist in any other version of that story, but the author’s Beauty and the Beast retelling changed Gaston’s name by a single letter, so obviously everyone is overreacting. That’s normal when you, gosh, simply just don’t understand the way the business works, or you’re just a jealous hater.

None of that is plagiarism. Plagiarism is when someone without a parasocial army to scream down allegations does those things. If you have a big enough following, it’s just fun with online friends that happens to net a huge advance and massive marketing campaign. It’s Girl Boss empowering (if women are involved) or a deliberate dodge around the gatekeepers (when men do it). And yes, there is an indie author out there peddling her Reylo/You’ve Got Mail crossover fanfic and yes, reviewers have pointed out that the author used whole lines of dialogue from the movie in her book, but who am I to point that out? A misogynist. That’s who. A person who hates fanfic. A hater who wants to uphold all the problematic barriers to traditional publishing. A traitor to all author-kind.

The definition of plagiarism seems to be flexible and evolving at a rapid pace. That evolution is dependent on who is doing the plagiarizing, how many copies they move, what their online following is like, and how quickly they’ll mobilize into a silencing army. Even though James Somerton lost an estimated 70k followers and scrubbed his entire channel of content after Brewis’s video, he somehow still has over 200k followers. Illuminaughtii, another YouTuber called out in Brewis’s video, boasts a patently ridiculous 1.27M followers and continues to post multiple, probably plagiarized, videos every week. Her latest posted three days ago (at the time of writing), complete with sponsorship ads, albeit with the comments turned off.

We like to pretend that plagiarism is a serious offense. A career-ruining offense. Something that one couldn’t be granted a pass for or possibly recover from. But it simply isn’t. For every HBomberguy video calling out plagiarism (okay, let’s be honest, he’s the only one producing four hour documentaries about plagiarism), there are ten successful plagiarists who will continue to plagiarize while their supporters make excuses for them. “I’m a college professor, I think I would know what plagiarism is! I would absolutely bring the hammer down on any student doing what this particular author/creator is doing, but in this case, I enjoy their work, so it’s not plagiarism!” “I’m a former lawyer, I know it’s not plagiarism because I don’t know the difference between plagiarism and copyright.” “I’m a publishing professional and we would never publish a book that was plagiarized (unless both writers were in-house, of course).”

While I enjoyed HBomberguy’s video, I couldn’t help but become intensely sad. Because I know it’s a wasted effort. Every single attempt to bring a plagiarist to justice is a wasted effort, if that plagiarism is profitable. And with the internet deepening the parasocial bonds between authors and readers, every novelist is one popular TikTok influencer away from never having to consider ethics in their career ever again.

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  1. Katie

    I wonder how many just assume a book plagiarized is just a “retelling”. Because those are so popular now. It can’t be plagiarized if it’s just an homage to the original.

    I sometimes find myself writing ideas that I think are great. Then suddenly I reread a book I haven’t touched in a while and I realize why it’s so great. And I pivot or trash my work because I don’t want to knowingly copy someone else. And though I’m realistic enough to know it happens all the time, I’m naive enough to still be shocked whenever I come across it in other authors.

    I’m a dinky nobody who will probably never be touched by success and a small part of me is glad of that. Because the publishing world is so full of garbage.

    December 27, 2023
  2. Lena

    This is a terrible era to have ethics.

    It is WILDLY popular to encourage writers to either handwrite or type published work to “develop muscle memory for good prose.” Why analyze writing and learn why it’s good so you can apply that knowledge to writing something that isn’t copied wholesale when you can just get really comfortable transcribing someone else’s words into a document that has your name on it? It’s not like there will be consequences if you’re exposed as an intellectually lazy, unimaginative fraud!

    The last time I read an author’s account of being plagiarized, one of her own readers commented, “Copying you is a compliment! It means they recognize excellence!” Well, when you put it that way, I see an intellectually lazy, unimaginative fraud profiting from ripping off someone else’s work in a much more positive light! *endless scream*

    December 27, 2023
  3. Ilex

    In a now-deleted thread, one Redditor insisted that it isn’t plagiarism at all to find a sentence or paragraph that you like in someone else’s work and use it for your own.

    Whoa there. I can see how you can honestly accidentally end up with similar sentences in books by very different authors – even fairly striking sentences – but recommending stealing entire sentences and paragraphs?! Somebody else’s paragraphs shouldn’t even work in another book, even if they’re just descriptions of scenery or whatever. The voice and worldview won’t be yours, or your character’s, and it will be jarring. This seems like terrible advice even if it wasn’t also deliberate plagiarism.

    I used to think that people write because they have to get their own unique characters onto paper and tell their own stories, and yet I’ve seen enough reports of plagiarism to realize that isn’t quite the case. It makes me wonder what drives those “writers.” And when they end up as successful as E.L. James, where’s the incentive to other writers to make up our own characters who never before existed in any form? It seems so much easier when there’s an existing fan base looking for hot, horny, and somewhat recognizable Bella and Edward. Sigh.

    To be fair, published writers are under absolutely terrible pressure these days to churn out an awful lot of words: blogging and tweeting and producing a full novel at least every year, and some of them have day jobs as well. So I can see the temptation to use a little something already written by someone else, like taking a store cake to the school bake sale. But you’re not supposed to be entering that store cake in the local baking contest! If you’re supposed to be writing, and are claiming to write, original words, then that’s what you’d better be producing.

    December 27, 2023
  4. Al

    This is awful, everything is awful, people suck.

    December 27, 2023
  5. J

    As a reader, the first time I encountered plagiarism in published work was in one of my favourite childhood series. I read that series over and over as a kid. Then, I got older and read another (more famous) author in the same genre, and found the same descriptive paragraph. The famous author wrote it first. My favourite series was the product of plagiarism. And these were written in the last millennium. Published plagiarism is not new.

    December 27, 2023
  6. leonix

    Having just recently read Yellowface this is oddly topical for me. It was incredibly interesting to see how the industry dealt with the plagiarism allegations there (basically ignore them). I think this happens so much. In our book club we read a few books who got some heat for being similar to other books (The Housmaid being one) but it never amounts to anything. Is this because writers don’t want to rock the boat in case they want to steal someone’s work at some point? And how much new writing is really just very good fanfiction?

    December 28, 2023

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