Mari posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Plagiarism was a big deal when I was in college. I now find it to be haunting me every time I write (I’m afraid that I might accidentally write something that is too close to one’s idea). Is this something we have to worry about on writing fiction novels?
Randy sez: First, let me preface all my remarks with the usual disclaimer that I am not a lawyer, and nothing I say here should be construed as legal advice.
My understanding is that plagiarism is not “stealing somebody else’s idea.” Plagiarism is “stealing somebody else’s presentation of an idea.” Normally, that means stealing somebody else’s words without giving credit (for short quotations that fit the “fair use” criteria) and without getting permission (for long quotations that don’t fit the “fair use” criteria). However, most people also consider it plagiarism if you copy somebody else’s work and then simply rearrange a few words to make it look original.
We are not talking here about inadvertently using a sentence that somebody else used in their novel. This undoubtedly happens from time to time. You read a great sentence. It sticks in your brain. Months or years later, you’ve forgotten the original book, but you’re writing on a related topic, and you type out that memorable sentence, thinking that you wrote it yourself. This is easy to do, and it’s not plagiarism. Yesterday at my critique group, I had what I thought was a brilliant and original idea for a title for my friend’s novel. She pointed out that I had suggested the exact same title a month ago! I had totally forgotten about it.
Plagiarism happens when you type out paragraphs or pages of somebody else’s work and call it your own. It is still plagiarism if you tweak the words a bit. It is still plagiarism if you move a few sentences around.
It is not plagiarism, so far as I know, if you take that idea, digest it in your own brain, and write it down in your own words. If you do this, it’s always a good idea to give credit to the originator, if you know who the originator is. But you don’t always know.
An example of that: I was sitting in the front row of a class at a writing conference a few years ago and a speaker who knows me well got up to speak. One of the first things he said was, “The purpose of fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience.” And I started laughing, because I coined that phrase years ago, and I assumed the speaker was about to point out that I’d invented the term. But he didn’t. He just gave me a very odd look. Later on, he asked me why I’d laughed at him, and I explained. It turned out that he had no idea that I’d coined the term. “Powerful Emotional Experience” has entered so much into the vernacular of the writing community that my own friend didn’t know it originated with me. (I sometimes wonder if I got it from someone else and have forgotten the source of it. But so far as I know, it’s original with me.)
The moral here is that using short phrases or even a whole sentence is not plagiarism, it’s just a sign that the phrase or sentence made a powerful impact on you. I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.
Please note that it is possible to steal ideas for stories. However, so far as I can tell, this isn’t considered plagiarism. If you steal an idea and use it extremely closely, then it’s considered stealing an idea. But if a plot twist or a character attribute in one story suggests to you a similar plot twist or character attribute for your story, then that isn’t stealing. If it was, every author who ever published would be a thief. I’m told that Shakespeare borrowed most of his story ideas from other writers, and most writers will tell you that they’ve borrowed ideas from time to time. If you borrow an idea and then remake it in your own image, that seems to be just fine.
Also remember that sometimes “ideas are in the air.” (I don’t know who first said this phrase, but I’ve heard it a billion times.) It’s not uncommon to see two novelists who never heard of each other simultaneously publish books with similar characters or similar ideas.
The same goes for titles. I submitted my first novel to my publisher with the title AVATAR about ten years ago, never dreaming that James Cameron would make that title famous with a movie in 2009. (My publisher didn’t like the title, and we eventually retitled it TRANSGRESSION.) My second novel, OXYGEN, appeared at about the same time as another novel with that same title. My sixth novel, RETRIBUTION, was published in the same year as a best-selling legal thriller with the same title. I only discovered the coincidence when I saw the other book in an airport bookstore.
I would say that if you take reasonable care not to model your story after somebody else’s, then you’re probably OK. If you inadvertently use a phrase or a sentence or a plot twist that you picked up somewhere else, it would at most be a bit embarrassing. Just don’t intentionally use more than that.
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Richard Mabry says
Good advice. It’s also possible to plagiarize your own work, in a manner of speaking. I encountered this when I was Associate Editor of a couple of medical journals and found a few instances when someone had taken data previously published in another paper, rearranged some of the discussion, and submitted it as a new paper, hoping to get it published and add another notch to his CV. I wonder what fine line distinguishes this from an author taking a non-fiction piece they’ve had published elsewhere and reworking it for submission to a different periodical. Want to tackle that one?
Randy sez: As long as there is at least one new idea, or the audiences for the periodicals don’t overlap, this is okay, I should think. I knew a physicist who was working hard to lengthen his publication list, and he generated whole groups of papers by adding one new idea at a time.
Val Clark says
My lawyer friend tells me that you can’t copywrite ideas. So I guess you can’t plagiarise them either.
Cecelia Dowdy says
Great advice, Randy! About a year or so ago, there was a panel of writers and a blogger at my local romance writers group. The subject was plagiarism and they mentioned some of the stuff that you pointed out. The most famous cases that I hear about in the news, mimic what you said, about copying whole paragraphs and pages, practically word for word. Sometimes, the plagiarizer just gets a slap on the hand when caught! I blogged about his a long time ago here:
I recently finished my life-sucking manuscript (for the 2nd time) that I began 3 years ago. To celebrate, I cracked open a highly acclaimed debut novel which I’d been saving for just such an occasion. Within the first 30 pages I was freaking out. Not only had that author and I chosen a number of similar ways to describe things but we had numerous similarities in our subplots. Obviously I’d never read the book, didn’t read or critique any portions of it, nor had I any prior knowledge of the subplots.
As I read the book, all I can think about is how in the world will I sell my novel now if people assume I ripped off not one but numerous ideas from this author? And how will I convince people that it was some huge cosmic coincidence and not me being so lazy or lame as to borrow that much stuff from someone else? A person would be criminally stupid to rip off so many things and try to pass them off as their own. I have to assume this author and I think alike or something (flattering for me, scary for her). I sure don’t know what else to do.
It also makes me wonder if those of us gleaning writing advice from the same sources are writing from the same pool of thought.
Randy sez: Yeah, we all breathe the same air. You should probably ask your agent about the issue with this other author. My first thought is that it’s not that big of a deal. There really aren’t that many new ideas, and there are only so many ways to describe things. But your agent can give you a better answer if she’s got the time to read the other book. Or at least she can talk you through things. Don’t panic until there’s a reason to.
I think the advice of just writing the story without intentionally copying anything should solve almost all problems that could arise. There’s just so many books already written that it would be impossible to know if anybody has already written the same sentence/paragraph before so just consciously not copying something is about all you can do.
Lois Hudson says
And it’s true, isn’t it, that titles aren’t copyrighted? I’ve seen numerous repeat titles.
I think the idea is not to bring your work out at the same time as another, or recent one, of the same title.
I had a working title, that in researching, I discovered had been used by Danielle Steele.
I changed my title (work was nothing like) and prefer the new one, but technically, I think I could have kept the original. As we’ve heard many times, there are no new ideas – just new treatments.
I am working on a novel and have found that a chapter based on an incident somebody told me happened to them when they were a child was apparently lifted from another work. So, even though I did not intentionally copy another work, there are some similarities which are probably recognizable. As I said, this would be one chapter in a larger work that has nothing to do with the other source, but it’s uncomfortably close. So, the question is, does this constitute plagiarism? Or, even if it doesn’t, is it “too close for comfort” so that my end result would be tainted by the ‘smell’ of plagiarism?
I am writing a book on care of a breed and I am using research articles and photos (with permission) to represent my ideas. I have a resources section, tables, photo credit. I am trying to refrain of making the book a research paper so using quotes would be odd. HOWEVER, I do mention who did the research and it is coming from my brain. I am just typing. I just don’t know if it’s considered plagarism since I am writing a care and keeping book, with genetics, studies, and other tidbits.
I published a novel in 2013. Met a writer in 2014 and signed with one of this writers (who I shall call “the stealer”) publishers. Found out about “the stealer’s” upcoming book scheduled with a BIG publisher for 2015 release–which had many of the same ideas as mine.
In fact, the cover blurb was the same story line as mine and I could actually interchange character names and it worked just fine. I then found she was working on chapter 11 of her book about 6 months after mine was published. Plus I had done a free ebook giveaway of about 1,000 of my book, and had posted the synopsis on a popular writing forum this writer is a member of. I believe I had even submitted my book to her agency.
The entire concept was stolen, as well as individual scenes. From the Ferris Wheel on the cover, to the diner in which the pivotal scenes take place, the monsters, strange birds, a child crying to catch the main characters attention, horrible things that guard the strange world between life and death–all of this. To me, it is beyond suspicious. I understand about not copyrighting ideas. But in this case, what would YOU say?
Idella Felina says
Hi! Sorry to hear such a horrible thing. In China, there is a similar story, A “stealer” Tangqi stole ideas from several YAOI books and rearrange it. For now, the law in China can do nothing to the stealer.
I am curious. What happened next? Did you sue the stealer?
PS: I forgot to mention that I had a chance to email with the Stealer a few times, since the Stealer was such a big-shot, I asked some advice on a few business aspects. The Stealer told me they NEVER post a synopsis or any aspects of their work in ANY way. Looking back now, this pretty much says it all. Those most guilty of a deed are most afraid of it being done to them. I guess this was the Stealer’s warning to me.
Scott Ironmonger says
Hey there. Great advice. I do have a question, possibly just to settle my mind.
I have an idea for an Urban Fantasy Novel about a half-witch, half-human who helps the Police solve crimes. The only worry I have, even though I have sat down, outlined and created the characters in my own vision, is that the way I use magic and the possible storylines.
I am British, and I have based all my magic off several published books that speak about Wicca and actually performing magical spells. This, I have come to realise, is similar to several already published well known authors, so that tells me that is okay, as long as you make ideas your own and all.
Storyline wise, I am confident my first book idea will be okay storyline wise, but the second planned book I am fearing it is similar to Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon, as in I will be using a magical pelt for my Werewolves.
Sorry to make this a long ramble, but this is my first book and I guess I am just scared about sitting down putting my heart and soul into it, and then because the magic might be similar to what is already out there, it will be turned down or what not.
Any advice you could give on this would be A HUGE help to settle my mind and nerves 🙂
Thanks in advance :):):)
Chris Ruttan says
I am writing a historical fiction. In one of my information sources, an autobiography, the writer includes verbatim conversations with historical figures as he remembers them, often including instructions and advice to them. It’s frustrating because they are so relevant to the historical events that transpired. What are my options?
I was working on a fictional story about cats but I took a break from it when I realized it was unintentially simular to Felidae. Despite having many aspects unique to felidae both stories had a Tom as the main protagonist who ended up mating with a female tied to the antagonist in some way and both had a love interest that was murdered after being in the story for a brief moment. They both also had antagonists who took part in some form of eugenics although both had vastly different motivations, backstory, and plans. In the end I wouldn’t say my story was a blatant rip off, but I felt there were too many similarities that it would be best to take a break then go back to the drawing board. Since the part where my protagonist mates with a female tied to the antagonist is a major plot point that triggers a set of chain reactions in order to reach the climax, it would be necessary to change a lot of aspects of the plot. I dont want to completely abandon the story though since there is a lot aspects of it I’m proud of and there was a lot of research put into it.
Randy, this blog article has been hugely reassuring to me. My next novel is being published in spring and – a big surprise to me – is already creating a major buzz. In other words, it’s going to get a lot of attention, and may well be reviewed by novelists and experts who’ve written on a similar theme (It’s a historical novel). The effect of this unexpected spotlight has had me in a paranoid frenzy of forensically searching for phrases, metaphors, and plot lines that I may have soaked up from other novels or movies. Publication ought to be an exciting prospect. It’s made me a nervous wreck!
I have written a historical fiction based on the true story of my ancestor from the 17th century. I have altered his name…including those around the story. I have crossed the ocean to the new world. All along the way, I have fictionalized in my head how he got recruited, how he was forced to be kept on an island for a month, all kinds of fictional events along the way that never ever happened, fictionally made a stop on NFLD, the goal being to get to Ville-Marie as a Servant-Soldier (this is true), to save the citizens from the Iroquois who were decimating their numbers (also true…but my stories of travels and attacks and stops on NFLD are untrue. Is this plagiarism…with names changed? lora of embellishment?
I do reveal the real name of the Servant-Soldier in History (my ancestor) in my Acknowledgements… Plagiarism?
Jeff Jiffie says
It’s common for books to share sentences and phrases that appear in other books. I’ve found Harlequins that nearly word-for-word seem to copy others in the romance genre, with sentences like “he kissed her, and she covered her lips to hide a sly smile” or “I’m going to kiss you to death/kiss you unconscious” or some variation. I would argue that such things are bound to happen in genre fiction. Still, it’s good to be careful and to credit where credit is due. Some authors who can’t directly cite within their texts add a note in the book’s copyright section that thanks or references any creation they borrowed from, typically with permission from the original creator. Stephen King does this constantly with song lyrics, and usually gets permission to do this. There’s a myth that if you change 20% or more of another work, you’ve altered it significantly enough to make it a whole new work, but this is not true for books, and even if it were, how they would even measure this in a civil suit is beyond me. The truth is, a lot of books borrow phrases, character traits and even whole sentences from other books, but that’s just life and I don’t think the courts preoccupy themselves too much with that. It’s when a book starts presenting whole ideas or paragraphs as original that plagiarism becomes more of a legal concern. Ideas beget ideas, but not in the exact same format and layout twice in a row. Tweaking character names/locations need not apply, it’s still plagiarism, but oftentimes the social damage hurts the plagiarist more than the legal damage. There are cases where a plagiarist could not be held legally accountable for copyright infringement, but they were “cancelled” by audiences to the point where their reputation was forever tarnished.