Wednesday, 1 July 2015

COPYRIGHT AND COPYWRONG by VALERIE LAWS


'What's yours is mine, bwahahaha!'
I’ve been embroiled in a plagiarism scandal for weeks now and it’s still going on. Someone I’ve known for years, been to their launches, bought their books, has plagiarised friends and colleagues as well as famous writers, and it’s been going on for years under our very noses. At first mainly poetry, now as more and more of it emerges, it includes prose as well and cheating on a PhD thesis, and getting huge amounts of funding from various public bodies on the basis of track record as a writer. I got embroiled when two friends, co-publishees (and as they discovered after a book launch, plag’d poets) and our mutual publisher failed to get any satisfaction over several weeks of private back and forth. I started looking at other poems in the new book and discovered to my dismay that many of them were others’ poems with tweaks and synonyms inserted. We then brought in the ‘poetry sleuth’ Dr Ira Lightman, who’s also a friend, and who has brought to light several of these strange creatures before. The detective work goes on, unraveling many personae with various blogs, projects, fundings, names, qualifications, and more and more examples come to light all the time. Trust has been destroyed, people have fallen out irreparably, some who shared work on secret sites won’t share any more, writers are posting they feel scared they might be unconsciously using something they’ve read and are frantically googling their own work. If you'd like to read more about the ongoing case, here are some links. So far, so bad.

It's always hunting season for messengers!

You may think that an exposed plagiarist, who’s been getting credit and wedges of dosh for stolen work, on exposure, would be howled down. Their publisher, crimson with shame though innocent of wrong, would pulp the book, apologise to all concerned, repudiate the offender, and perhaps falling short of demanding refunds of funding, the plagiarist would be named, shamed and pretty much ruined as a writer. You may think that but you’d be wrong. People do like to shoot messengers. People may cling to denial, especially when it’s someone they know. But nothing prepared any of us, a core group of five, for the shitstorm that has broken over our heads. Much of the contumely has been aimed at us for exposing it. Partly this is a facebook thing, and partly it’s current attitude to copyright. All the sympathy was reserved for the plagiarist, and most of the abuse, to say nothing of the work of finding all the examples, was reserved for us, though the tide has slowly turned as the sheer scale of it has been uncovered. Our motives are automatically suspect. Dr Lightman must be some kind of sinister figure. This should not have been made public. (Not sure how else to put right the public theft of credit for others’ work…)
Notice the quote has been attributed properly, twice!
The word ‘witchhunt’ was used many times, though as someone pointed out, THEY weren’t REAL witches, whereas… The publisher issued a tirade aimed at Dr Lightman, complained about having to pulp the book which he only did after weeks during which he offered to just list the names of plag’d poets in the Acknowledgements on re-publication, for he planned to publish it again. And still does, at least publicly. As for the plagiarisms, he defended these as a valid way of working, of which more anon.  One wonders how he’d have responded to his own books or work being nicked. The plagiarist, when cornered, issued an apology which contradicted the publisher by saying the whole thing had been a mistake, getting muddled, accidentally using other people’s lines or whole poems – a stance still kept up now, when we are well into double figures. Plag’d poets around the world were informed and some were furious. Others were put off by the totally groundless assumptions about the perp's mental state made by amateur psychiatrists on social media and kept quiet rather than be blamed for upsetting their plagiarist. Continual questions are asked about whether the University who awarded the Creative Writing PhD are going to take action, since cheating was involved. Because they too seem to have been very quiet. Major organizations in the writing game (funders, other publishers, bodies employing the culprit as a marker of others’ work etc) have not been keen to respond, except when a wronged writer has forced them to, as technical publishers or funders of some piece of work. Those of us who’ve kept trying to put facts straight online have now alienated quite a few relatively powerful people, publishers, funders and writers, for standing up for the rights of writers. Maybe it's the mathematician in me, but I can't bear to let false information stand somehow. I've been plagiarised myself and it's very unpleasant indeed.
My Quantum Sheep idea was 'rustled' by someone who claimed they thought of it first though it'd been in the media for over ten years.
The worst fuss was about the widespread assumption, nay stated ‘fact’ that anyone who does wrong is automatically ‘mentally ill’ or has suffered ‘brain trauma’ and therefore needs sympathy. They don’t know what they are doing, poor muddled souls. A few of us objected to this on the grounds that 1) the person involved was still running several highly funded and complex projects very efficiently and 2) such assumptions are stigmatizing of those with mental illness and of disabled people in general. I’ve never had such a kicking on social media as after I made these seemingly sensible points. In the light of what copyright means to writers in all genres it raises a few questions.

These are some of the other excuses made for plagiarism, in a world where it is endemic in the student population, where all students’ work is put through detection software, where essays can be bought online or the internet used for copy and paste orgies.

He can't really complain that someone stole his 'r'.

‘Copyright is capitalism.’ Words belong to us all, to use as we like, regardless, and that includes how words are put together. Property is theft and so is intellectual property.
Neither did 'sue your ass off'...
‘Finders keepers; plagiarism is ok because people have always done it.’ Defenders of this stance often cite Shakespeare who was a plagiarist, you know. This ‘fact’ gets quoted all the time without any evidence. Or logical thought: after all, they burned witches then (witchhunts, remember?) and times have changed, ditto the copyright laws. Similarly the ‘writers of the gospels’ (another defence) may have collected oral traditions but that does not mean you can use others’ work now.

'Yes, but who from?'
‘It’s just remixing like they do with music.’ This is used to excuse the practice, alarmingly widespread, of ‘ghosting’ or remixing poems by other people and then publishing them as your own original work without even crediting the writer. Well it’s not ok. Remixing is done often in the electronic music world, only with permission and full credit. The remixer will often just get a flat fee and any sales of the remixed track will bring royalties only to the original creators. If you mash up a couple of tracks in your bedroom, nobody will bother much but if you try selling them, god help you. People get sued for stealing lyrics or tunes or bits of them, and sued to the tune of millions. The music world is far from casual about copyright. You can’t quote any lyric apart from the song title without permission, credit and often a very hefty fee. (So don’t quote music lyrics in your novels!)
I've posted this clever feminist spoof of 'Blurred Lines' (Full credits are on youtube!) rather than the icky version by Thicke and Williams who got sued for stealing from Marvin Gaye.  Enjoy!

‘It’s ‘found poetry’.’ This used to mean poetry you create from phrases found in the world outside, posters, newspapers, instruction manuals, which you incorporate into poems. It’s now being used to mean ‘I found a poem by X, I’m remixing it or tweaking it and calling it mine.’ I have now heard of workshops being run where impressionable newby writers are being taught these techniques. I found a website encouraging this and challenging people to produce one a day, easy enough as using someone else’s poem you can churn them out in minutes. All the above can apply to novels and short stories. Another plagiarist was lecturing at university while selling stories by the likes of Dylan Thomas as her own.

Who cares? Do you? Is it only writers and creators of original work who care about copyright? Is it worth fighting for, or should we just accept that it’s dying out?

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33 comments:

Dennis Hamley said...

Val, I read this blog three times, angry for you and for all the other victims, angry at the plagiarists themselves and angry at those who seem to think it's all part of the game and get trollish with anyone who doesn't. Fascinated, I followed your links and found, to my horror. that a writer whom I encouraged over thirty years ago, employed as a tutor on my creative writing courses for kids (and a very, very good teacher that person was too) but have since lost touch with, is cited as a serial plagiarist over many years. I don't quite know what I feel now. Sadness for the person, I suppose, but primarily anger on behalf of the plagiarised, embarrassment that I never realised what was going on and resentment that the craft we all practice with good hearts can be so debased - all these and probably more.

JO said...

This is so deeply worrying - and good for you, Val, for carrying on niggling away at it. The problem seems so huge I wonder if there were times it felt so overwhelming and impossible you just wanted to hide away from it all. So thank you - and those around you - for all your efforts to expose this. It matters to all of us - readers and writers alike.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I entirely agree with you. And Dennis and Jo too. As you know, I've been following this discussion online and was gobsmacked, no other word for it, at the way people were defending the indefensible. Including the publisher. Anyone working for any length of time in a university setting these days knows that while plagiarism has become easier, it is also taken ever more seriously, with students being almost afraid to quote legitimately, with 'reference everything' being drummed into them and with their work being routinely run through software like Turnitin. When I was working for the RLF, I used to advise students to run passages that they were uncertain about through Google. If you're researching and writing a long piece of work you do sometimes forget where or if you found something, especially if your record keeping isn't terribly efficient but Google tends to know. I used to think it was a bit extreme but in view of what seems to be going on with poetry and some prose (how odd that it seems to be 'literary' prose) I've changed my mind. They're cheats who know they are cheating and should be mercilessly exposed as such. And some of the 'copy' poems I've seen were truly awful, insults to the original writer. I suspect it will take somebody with deep pockets to consult an IP lawyer and somebody being taken to the cleaners before things change. It will happen sooner or later. As you say - we learn very quickly about not quoting from songs without permission. In view of these thefts, the music industry has got it right.

Mari Biella said...

It's a difficult one, this. I respect copyright (and would advise other people to do so), and indeed assert it in the case of my own work. I don't practise plagiarism, piracy, illegal file-sharing, or any other kind of theft. And yet ... I can't help but feel that we're entering an age in which the concept of copyright will have less and less traction. With the immediacy of the internet, establishing who had an idea first will become more and more difficult, I think. The 'cut and paste' mentality is here to stay, I suspect. Ideas and words are becoming more fluid, and less easily attributed to one specific person.

All of which are just ideas, not justifications for the theft of intellectual property. It's astounding that you're actually being attacked for defending IP, Valerie.

Sandra Horn said...

Thank you for this - on all our behalfs. I'm so sorry you've had all this foulness to deal with when you were absolutely in the right. When I was tutoring for OUP a student copied an entire paper without attribution - very stupid, as it was well known in the scientific world. I refused to mark it and reported it, and the response was ' yes, but does it answer the question?' I had to battle over it. Years later, a colleague at another university told me he's just read a chapter from my book on Pain. 'What did you think?' I asked him. He looked glum. 'It was in a student essay,' he said, 'word for wword - and it was only supposed to be 3,000 words anyway. I don't know what to do.' I asked him if his university had a plagiarism policy and he sdaid 'Yes, but they don't like us to fail students.' We can't let this stuff go unchallenged or we'll all sink into a moral morass. It's not all right. It never was.

Lee said...
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Bill Kirton said...

I often come across poems or pieces of prose that make me stop and wallow in the admiration and feelgood factor they produce and make me glad to belong to the same profession as whoever wrote it. The same applies to longer passages, well-formed arguments, impeccably structured novels. When the overall achievement is a thing of such beauty, I recognise its uniqueness and I aspire to being able to reproduce the same sort of response in my own work. But, of course, I have no way of knowing whether the formulation is truly that of the person whose byline it carries.
In this case, though, there’s no grey area. Valerie and others have established beyond doubt that someone has stolen the work of other writers over a long period and that person has admitted the theft. Verdict? Guilty. Plagiarists can wrap their ‘confessions’ in evasions and use false ‘synonyms’ to try to deflect criticism, but stealing is not ‘borrowing’. When you borrow something, you give it back.
I suppose there’s one argument that says ‘What does it matter where the words came from? If they produce such an effect, they have inherent value.’ But if we go down that route, we’re simply confirming the supremacy of materialism and objectification in our society. Intellectual property has been devalued. Ideas are commodities. Like Gucci dresses and Ray-bans, they’ll soon be available in Oxfam shops. Unlike the frocks or shades, though, they’ll be free.

Andrew Crofts said...

As a ghostwriter whose work is frequently, (and legally), attributed to others, I realise I may be venturing onto thin ice here. I entirely understand that passing off another's work as your own in order to gain financially or to pass an exam fraudulently does not reflect well on someone's character. I am wondering, however, whether it is ever worth the angst and time required to pursue such bandits. I rather suspect that it is not, unless their crime somehow stops people from buying or reading your original work. (I also have to add that this is categorically not the view of the Society of Authors, who are extremely good at chasing up this sort of thing).

I am currently reading the excellent "How Music Got Free - What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?" by Stephen Witt, which gives an entertaining glimpse of the new world we are entering.

Lee said...

Well, Andrew, my ice is even thinner. Ownership is a social and economic convention, and like all conventions, subject to change. And I've been planning to read the Witt book for a while now, so thanks for recommending it -- I'm going off to get myself a copy.

Though I might be incensed if someone made a Hollywood blockbuster from my work (heheh) without contributing to my rather sad pension fund, I'm perfectly happy with minor copying/remixing/whatever -- attribution however preferred -- but frankly, I can't understand why someone would take pride in anything but minor (whatever that means) borrowing. I suppose I can understand the incentive in terms of financial gain, but for me it's not just a moral issue. It's not about any sort of theft (which legally doesn't apply to copyright anyway, as far as I understand). I want to do my own work. I need to. Otherwise, the person I'm cheating most is myself.

Lee said...
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Lee said...

BTW, anyone interested in the wider implications of human conventions and institutions might be interested in reading Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens. Bestsellerish but fascinating.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I think there's a big difference between 'ideas' - which of course you can't copyright - and the plagiarism that has been going on with poetry. And I must admit piracy worries me a lot less than this kind of thing which seems to strike at the very heart of individual creativity. Pirated sales don't necessarily mean lost sales. But for somebody to be celebrated for work that is not their own - that's a step too far for me. I've seen novelists (wrongly) accused of plagiarism when tackling historical subjects where if you're writing about a certain pattern of actual events, you aren't going to change it! But the poetry plagiarism I saw seemed to involve people not just cashing in on the work of others but also damaging it in the process. One example might serve to illustrate the point. I can't remember the exact words, but the original, very fine poem involved a woman exposing her (pregnant) belly to the full moon to ensure a girl. The stolen poem left moon in place but changed girl to boy. How crass and stupid is that?

Andrew Crofts said...

It seems we have very similar reading lists, Lee. I loved "Sapiens". Along parallel lines, have you read Johann Hari's "Chasing the Scream"? A fabulous book from an author who has got himself into a fair bit of trouble regarding plagiarism in the past.

Lydia Bennet said...

Thank you for the supportive comments folks, (makes a nice change! :) ) and it is an area for discussion as technology changes our lives - it's easier to plagiarise but it's also easier to get caught and publicised. It can be very violating, being plagiarised, some of the poems taken were deeply personal responses to profound life events, from poets whose lives have been pretty epically difficult, and to see someone blithely take your mother's death and turn it into their own bastardised version is pretty grim. It's the kind of thing people can be casual about until it happens to them.

julia jones said...

Fascinating - depressing - very well done.
Thank you

magi gibson said...

Thanks for this post. I've been following the Sheree Mack case with horror. I had considered her publisher as a future publisher for myself, having met him at a launch, but am now aghast at his unwillingness to totally condemn the plagiarism that undoubtedly was perpetrated. I've met Sheree too, and she seemed a very personable young woman, so I'm doubly shocked. As a poet, writing and publishing for nigh on 30 years, I'm more taken aback than I can express. My husband's a stand-up comedian, and he's suffered this in the world of comedy, so for another take on how casual people are about using others' intellectual and creative output here's a link to what happened to him. http://www.comedy.co.uk/features/articles/ian_macpherson_genealogy_of_the_joke/
We all need to condemn this outright. Not be mealy-mouthed about there being nothing new under the sun. Some people are truly original and creative and they should be credited. Those who steal, because that's what it is, stealing, should be outed. They should be censured if they hold university posts and funding based on their track record of work should be reconsidered. My, I feel better for writing all that. And all my own words too, in the order that I chose.

Kathleen Jones said...

I'm with you all the way Val and absolutely gutted at the reluctance of the publishers and the various arts bodies, not to mention the universities involved, to actually condemn outright and take proper action. The US author whose story was plagiarised has talked about suing. I hope she does.
Sorry you had to go through all this.

Susan Price said...

"Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed."

I'm not claiming to have written this! But for me, it says it all. Why does a poet or writer want to be credited with their work? Not because it's 'capitalism' - that's a crap excuse for stealing my good name. They want the credit because it is the immediate jewel of their souls. In this field, reputation is all. You can't look at someone and identify them as a good poet. The work must be attached to its creator.

If you steal that creditfrom them, you steal everything - but it doesn't enrich you, because the jewel isn't from your soul, and you're a liar and a cheat.

Stealing other's works, and pretending that you have such jewels in you soul, without actually having to do any of the feeling, thinking, refining - the work, in other words - used to be quite difficult. You had to copy the stuff out - what a bore! Now all you have to do is highlight, copy and paste - so of course it's more prevelent. The number of shameless liars and cheats haven't increased - they just have to do less work, so more of them give it a go.

Sadly, I'm not surprised at the way people reacted, Valerie. Shooting the messenger has always been easier than admitting you were fooled, and then doing something about it. Much easier to bluster and bluff and claim that, actually, nothing was stolen, even though it staringly was. I have great admiration for your refusal to back down. Defend the jewels of your soul! - I'm cheering you on.

Lydia Bennet said...

Thanks Magi, and I'll look at the link. Thank you Kathleen and Susan for your understanding and support.

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you for such a thought-provoking examination of this issue, of concern to all writers. I agree that you would expect a publisher of pilfered prose to dump the offending author and made amends when caught red-handed. That's highly unlikely, however, in the world of global corporate publishing today. Your blog brings the case of my long-time friend and colleague,prolific author Lewis Perdue to mind. Lew is a prodigious writer of thrillers and other books - more than 20 published, some 4 million copies sold over several decades. When Perdue read best-selling author Dan Brown's 2003-4 super-hit novel, "The Da Vinci Code," he was aghast (as was I) to discover not only "almost identical" plot and concepts from his 1999-2000 novel "Daughter of God" (arguably unprotected as "ideas") but a slew of specific matching details - characters, locales, twists, etc, (Lew wrote letters of complaint, consulted an attorney and cited the similarities in his own blog. (By the way, Lew, among other things, is a top-notch investigative reporter and was very careful to quote the facts solidly in that blog without making any wild allegations.) Nevertheless, Brown's publisher, Random House (to which the Da Vinci code was a gold mine) made a preemptive stirke. It sued Lew before he could file any motions against the publishing house or the author. Thus Lew, a writer of lesser resources, found himself on the defensive, with his pro-bono lawyer outgunned by an army high-caliber attorneys smothering his case in paperwork. Neither Random House's complaint, or Lew's subsequent counter-complaint ever went to trial. Nevertheless, Random House's corporate lawyers petitioned the court to madeLew to cover all legal fees. Fortunately, that motion was denied. Lew had to back away. Vanity Fair Magazine ran a long, in-depth feature about the case -- as how a big publisher can make an example of any complaining writer - quite sympathetic to Lew (back in 2005). More details at http://davincicrock.blogspot.com/

Susan Price said...

Dear God. Dare to complain about being robbed, and you get sued by the thieves!

Dennis Hamley said...

Dear God indeed. I must read Daughter of God. I noticed a few odd parallels in Da Vinci Code with Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum as well.

Lee said...

I regard theft as stealing a possession which the rightful i.e. legal owner can no longer use -- stealing my car, for example (which has happened to us, BTW). This is not the case with plagiarism. That's why I feel Catherine's point about the damage done to the original work an interesting one.

How do most of you feel about fanfic, for example? Would you consider it plagiarism?

As to stealing credit or reputation, Susan, the very ease of doing so in the electronic age also makes it just as easy to cast doubt on an alleged thief or cheat -- I'm using your terminology, not necessarily my own. Reputations are rather cheap these days.

Lee said...

Thanks for the Hari suggestion, Andrew. I hadn't heard of the book but will certainly follow it up.

Lee said...

Lydia, a poem may be a deeply personal response to a profound life event, but the poet has chosen to make it a public response as well. If a writer is going to feel violated by copying, then how would she feel if a reviewer or critic tore apart her poem? if someone wrote and published an ironic version of it?

Lydia Bennet said...

I don't see any connection between stealing someone's work and reviewing it harshly, they are apples and jockstraps.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

The thing is, fanfic is just that. The clue is in the word 'fan'. Somebody loves a piece of work enough to want to write lots more of it, or falls in love with the characters enough to want live with them for longer. The original author may not much like what's done, but in genuine fanfiction, the original work is always credited. Obsessively sometimes. There's a world of difference between that and rewriting somebody's poem, and then passing it off as your own, your own feelings, insights, ideas - with no reference at all to the original, pretending for all practical purposes that the original doesn't exist.

Lydia Bennet said...

Exactly Catherine.

Susan Price said...

Catherine said it. Lee, I 'm not in the slightest convinced by your arguments.

Theft is defined as taking an object and depriving the original owner of its use.
As Catherine has said, fan-fiction does not deprive the original owner of the 'use' of the work - that is, credit for its creation, the reputation of being a good artist or craftperson - and whatever little payment the work might earn. You may have other means of earning a living, and may choose to take a pride in giving your creative work away for nothing - but as I believe I've explained to you elsewhere, that has not been an option for me.

If someone steals - yes, steals - my work and passes it off as their own, they have deprived me of its use. As Valerie's story shows, there are always people with a vested interest in defending and believing the thief. My reputation is damaged forever. I have to spend time and energy trying to convince people that I created my own work.

Your comparison with scathing reviews makes no sense to me at all. If someone gives my books the heaviest kicking imaginable, it would hurt, yes - but they aren't denying that I wrote them.

But if someone steals my work, and, in clumsily adapting it by way of disguise, ruins it - and then it's badly reviewed... I'm then being blamed for bad work that I didn't mar.

I imagine the thief would quickly withdraw any claim on it, and then I'm being judged a poor writer on something I didn't write!

Where do you draw the line on this? Imagine a competition where pieces of beautiful embroidery are being judged. Someone wins first prize with another person's uncredited work - and the person who actually produced the best piece comes second. Is that okay? If - as has happened - someone wins a marathon by sneaking off the course and catching a bus, and is awarded first prize instead of the person who actually won, is that okay?

I imagine you would say that it's not the same thing. Why isn't it? Credit, reputation, is being stolen.

John A. A. Logan said...

"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"
The Crucible, 1953


There have been historical times when the attribution of a name to a piece of work was not deemed important - but that could be argued to have had its root in political/sociological periods where the "rights of the individual" had not yet come to the fore. Certainly the "rights of the individual" can be at times imposed to the detriment of the whole, but, overall, I think it would be a step backwards to return to a time when "Anon" could be the only "name" accurately attributed to a beautiful, or uniquely personal, fragment of art, which, much the same as a fragment of the Soul, is an individuation set out from the peninsula of general thought...it belongs Uniquely to Somebody...and to that Somebody alone...


Well done, Valerie, for standing up for Common Sense/Common Decency...in one fell swoop!

Lee said...

Susan, the comparison with scathing reviews refers to the sense of violation -- Valerie's word -- a writer,if plagiarised, might feel regarding a profound life event. Any writer who chooses to make her work public risks exposing herself to all sorts of hurts, and should keep this in mind when deciding to publish those pieces which are particularly sensitive.

I understand your point about reputation, but even in the case which Valerie discusses, it doesn't seem that the plagiarised poets were deprived of the use of their work. At best, the plagiariser was better at marketing herself. But Valerie can correct me if I'm wrong.

Take the Dan Brown example: has the publicity hurt Lewis Perdue? I'd love to know if his sales i.e. use of his work actually increased?

Ira Lightman said...

If a plagiarist takes work in manuscript and publishes a plagiarism of it, Lee, then the stolen-from poet often doesn't publish his or her original: just like a car.

Lydia Bennet said...

it's pretty violating when a more famous person plagiarises an unpublished writer as no-one will believe they thought of it first, so they are very much deprived of the use of it. So you think Lee that plagiarists who are good at marketing themselves (and they often are, they have plenty of time for it while others are actually creating the work) in some way 'earn' the right to use others' work? This seems an odd viewpoint.