There’s been another big plagiarism scandal recently – I’m not going to name names or add links, but I am drawn to chronicle the discussion, and comment on how and why this keeps happening.
When this happened to a friend a few years ago, I tried to write an impartial, balanced article about it called “how to handle plagiarism with dignity and poise instead of furious wrath” but that was mostly bullshit.
If you found out that somebody had the audacity to steal your ideas and copy your work, you’d be righteously pissed off. Especially if you were a smaller author not making money, and somebody had used your to springboard a YA fantasy book series to a huge audience and make lots of money with it.
There is some discussion to be had, that ideas can’t be copyrighted and everything has already been done; or that the pirated version might be better quality (it succeeded because it improved upon the less popular book that had good ideas but wasn’t all the way there).
But that doesn’t mean it’s excusable or forgivable. It’s bad enough when paragraphs share the same content but have been respun – and a human reader can “get” the similarities; it’s worse when a whole sentence is lifted word by word.
Why book plagiarism keeps happening
The same excuse usually comes up: it was written by a ghostwriter. This for me is the most believable, and actually a little scary. A few years ago I tried working with ghostwriters and cowriters. They came up with some good material that I’m slowly revising and publishing. I’m *pretty sure* it’s all unique content, but unfortunately there is no way for me to tell for sure. I can’t read the hundreds of thousands of books in my genre.
I can see how an unscrupulous ghostwriter might borrow heavy inspiration from a lesser known author thinking “what’s the harm?” and I can see an unknowing author sudden finding out years ago in a big scandal and being absolutely devastated. This has happened more than once; both with fiction writing and with book covers (some artists were using stuff they didn’t have permission for).
I don’t blame the authors necessarily, because as I said, I can understand how something like this could happen. For me personally, I write all my books under my real name and I publish with co-authors with my penname.
But *if* I was ever accused of something like this, of course I’d apologize, take down all the books, and make reparations in some way if possible. The closest I’ve ever come to this, I said some not-nice things about some book covers in a video and the authors were angry I’d singled them out; I offered free covers but I couldn’t assuage their anger. They were justified. I was remorseful. It was a bad situation all around.
I like the *idea* that we grownups can all play nice and converse civilly and find rational solutions. And I’m against the witch-hunt, outrage culture where some people use controversy to build a following. However I completely understand that if somebody big copies my work, I’d be angry and desperate and a little squeakish. I’d want people to know, but with a small voice or following, accusing a big name author, I’d have to raise my voice. I’d want justice.
At least, I can sympathize with all that. (Truthfully, I have had people copy me or steal my work or pass it off as their own. I ignore it or politely ask them to take it down. It doesn’t bother me much.) But those are for little things. If someone copied from one of my books and the other book was widely selling with a big audience, you bet I’d try to receive credit and acknowledgement for my work.
As a final note, this isn’t limited to the indie drama of self-publishing communities, as plagiarism similar to this has been accused of big trad published authors also – the controversy tends to die down. It doesn’t completely ruin the main author’s reputation. The books will keep selling (though, the author accused of plagiarism is much faster to be punished these days by a storm of negative review bombings).
It’s kind of a weird problem, and I’m always a little surprised that it happens at all. Although I know there are indie publishing specialists who recommend authors find a popular book and copy it, they mean general tropes or ideas, not an actual plot or story and definitely, definitely not actual paragraphs.
My YA fantasy plagiarism confession
As a sidenote, one of my novels has a 1-star featured review showing images of all the stuff I had “copied” from. I had previously published some samples on another website I own, and was accused of copying from this website, which is objectively silly. But I also had my protagonist discover original myths from old books and quote or cite those passages – I do this to add a flavor of realism; these older books are copyright free (public domain). Unfortunately the scathing review stands and influences readers, even though the grounds were meritless.