Tuesday, December 15, 2009

But, But...I Wrote That!

A comment made in my Stout of Heart post got me thinking about copyright and all that it entails. Now, I know I've mentioned I have a law degree... I do. That said, I'm not about to spout out legal terms to y'all. One, because it's early and I'm not sure I would even be able to remember the correct terms at this hour. Two, because the technical legality of copyright isn't really what I want to talk about this morning. I'd be more than happy to do a rundown of copyright--and how it applies to books--at a later date, if anyone's interested. Perhaps Rachel and I can put our heads together on that one. Didn't know we had TWO legal minds here at ATWOP, did ya? Well, we do. And I'm sure I'm not the smarter of the two. (g)

What I want to talk about is the sort of freeze that comes over you as a writer when you THINK you may have lifted a line from someone else's work. Let's face it, it's probably happened to all of us at one time or another. I know I've certainly had my fair share of "oh shit!" moments when I've reread something and it sounds very, very familiar. Like maybe from the last book I read, familiar. CRAP.

Okay, you want my complete honesty? It's gonna happen. There's no way you can avoid it. So get over it now. We are ALL "thiefs" on some level.

However, this DOES NOT mean: 1. That you're a crap writer without original thoughts/ideas of your own. 2. That you shouldn't TRY to avoid it when possible. 3. That you're ever going to be sued for your big-fat-thief-tendencies.

The truth is, it's almost impossible NOT to steal something from time to time. Phrases, dialogue, description...even that oh so clever line that seemed to take YOU days to come up with...has PROBABLY been done before. In some way. I know we all want to believe that everything we write is original, and our manuscripts are The First Time A Story Has EVER Been Told This Way. And perhaps it is. But the reality is that there's going to be a lot of cross-over from the things we read, see on TV, etc. etc. So stop worrying about it, K? Unless you're deliberately copying someone else's work, chances are you aren't going to ever have a copyright case brought against you.

But as with all things, there is the "legal" side of things, and the "tacky" side of things. Tacky in that there are certain things you Just Shouldn't Do as a writer. I speak from the experience of being tacked upon.

Now, I'm what's known around these here parts as a .... *crit whore* Heh. Yes, I love me some feedback. In fact, when I first started out, I would send my book out to _everyone and anyone_ who asked. I'd "meet" random strangers on a writers forum and immediately send my book out for them to peruse. It was actually quite ridiculous how needy I was. *cough*AM*cough* I've curbed the habit a great deal over the last couple of years...mainly because of a couple of experiences I had with another writer.

No names, no specifics...and I want to say upfront right now that I'm not accusing anyone of deliberately copying me. (Just one legal fact -- you can't copyright an IDEA. If you wanted to go out right now and tell the story of a nun named Maria and how she took charge of seven kids for a retired sea captain in Austria, by God, you could do it. Can't copyright an idea, got it? BUT, you can copyright the WAY in which you tell a story. Okay, that's the closest I'm coming to legal jargon today, promise. And really, that wasn't so bad, right?) What I will say, however, is that I shared a great deal of my work with another writer early on in my career, and scenes told in a very similar vein starting cropping up in said writer's work. I was green at the time, and my crit whore tendencies were doing way too much of my thinking... *shrug* That said, it happened so often that if this writer didn't realize the proverbial "thief" bug was biting him/her in the ass, then someone probably needed to be hit with a big ass clue cannon. Just sayin'. But in the end, even I have to admit that a copyright infringement this did not make.

This writer told the scenes with her own voice...set in her own story with her own characters, with enough originality that most probably wouldn't have recognized them as "mine." That said, when I showed said scenes to other writer friends, they immediately said...But, But...Jen...you wrote that! Gah, it sucked.

Do Not Do This To Your Friends.

Inevitably some cross-over will happen, but be aware of what you're reading, and then in turn, writing. Lifting ideas from your friends may not necessarily be illegal, but damn, it's TACKY. (g)

And yes...other things have happened. Titles that I love dearly have been "lifted" (says she who is totally camping on Jennifer Cruisie's backstep). Titles that MEAN something to me...titles that took me a long time to come up with for their underlying meaning and significance to the story. BAH! :)

It sucks to be on the receiving end of such an act. Avoid doing it to another when you can. Capiche?

Comments? Questions? Is anyone interested in a rundown of Copyright at some point? (I.e. AFTER I find my copyright notes and can state them in a way that won't make my copyright prof's head spontaneously combust?)


  1. I used to be the same way - sending out chapters and whole stories to anyone who asked. Luckily I never had a bad experience from it (at least not that I'm aware of). And thankfully I read and heard enough horror stories to smarten up and cut back to a select few whom I closely trust - though none of them are writers.

    On the other side of it though, my younger sister used to imitate me a lot and she'd come up with some pretty great stories lifted from pieces of mine that inspired her. She now has her own style and voice and genre but it was nice to be the source of all that. (Ok I was pretty irritated at the time but we've both grown since then.) :)

    I've always been confused about copyright. Any light you could shed on that would be helpful I think.

  2. There's a humungous row about plagiarism going on in New Zealand literary circles at the moment. Actually, it's overflowed from literary to the mainstream media. One of our leading writers has been exposed as having lifted chunks of text from numerous research sources in his latest novel. To make it worse, he's a university professor of literature who should know better. He says it was insufficient attribution of sources on his part rather than actual plagiarism. The actual expose was in a print magazine, and the online version of the article won't be available until 26 December, but you can read more about it in the same magazine here, and also some interesting comment on the blog of Jolisa Gracewood, the reviewer who discovered the plagiarism.

    It's a bit sobering how easily it can happen; and, with the aid of the internet, how easily it can be discovered.

  3. Funnily enough we recently had a similar problem over here - not about copyrights, per se but ghost writers. A McGill professor was found to have put her name to various articles that were actually written by some ghost writing company down in the States. Big brouhaha over whether this mattered - since, apparently, she got to choose which articles she put her name to, so was it merely collaboration, or did the fact that she didn't actually conduct the original studies herself matter more?
    I'd go with the latter route myself - if she didn't do any of the work, why is she attaching her name - and only her name - to it?

  4. Jessica,

    Yeah...I still WANT to send out my work to everyone who asks (who am I kidding? They don't have to ask at all...I'm shameless in my crit whore tendencies), but have found I need to rein it all in a bit. Of course, the tough thing is trying to decide who to send it to when there are about...well, a billion and one people I want to read my stories. Guess I better get off my duff and see one of these puppies through to publication, eh? (g)

    And yanno, I think starting out by mimicking your favorite author is a great way to begin. What's the saying...imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? :) It takes time to find your own voice, etc... but if you can get in there and practice with someone else's world, I say go for it. Of course, should that story be any good, you might have some issues. (g)

    And cool...I'll plan a post or two about copyright. Oh my. :)


  5. Helen,

    Aha...your very own Cassie Edwards, eh? :) Yeah, you've gotta be pretty daring to try something like that and think you're going to get away with it in this day and age. Unless you're ripping off some ancient text that will never find its way on to the internet (even then you're probably not safe), why in the world would you think you'd get away with it?? Don't get it. Of course, some of these writers probably weren't prepared for the power of the net... Crazy.


  6. Jen,

    >>>Didn't know we had TWO legal minds here at ATWOP, did ya? Well, we do. And I'm sure I'm not the smarter of the two. (g)<<

    Ah, you are so sweet ... and so very wrong. (vbg)

    >>>I'd be more than happy to do a rundown of copyright--and how it applies to books--at a later date, if anyone's interested. Perhaps Rachel and I can put our heads together on that one.<<<

    I think I was asleep during my copyright lectures. (g) And my law degree is caked in a very thick layer of cobwebs and dust, seeing as it's now almost ... counts ... oh my God, 15 years old! But maybe next year - after I've undergone repressed memory therapy - I'll be able to dredge up enough to add to your shiny-bright ruminations on copyright.

    An excellent post, Jen. It is well worth remembering that skating along the edge of the black letter of copyright law may mean you avoid a law suit, but it won't do a damn thing for your credibility or your career.