2 February 2019

Don't Mess With The Reader: 5 Plagiarism

This is the final post in this short series. If you’ve come to it late, I’ve been catching up on my fiction reading which, unfortunately, led to an unexpected amount of eye-rolling. The problems I’m covering should never have made it to an editor, never mind to print. They should have been noticed by the author during the writing and corrected. It is the author’s name on the cover; it is the author’s responsibility.

If you need to read my full why rant, jump to 1 Openings, otherwise let’s cut to…

Plagiarism. Don’t do it.

You mean... I came across a plagiarised novel produced by a major publisher?!? Sort of.

The novel in question was passed to me because it was thought I’d like the storyline: a claustrophobic thriller conveyed in first person viewpoint. I did. Except... by page 20 I was thinking I’d already read it, yet it was published in 2018 so I couldn’t have. By page 50 the hairs were rigid on my neck. I knew this story; I knew these characters. I went hunting on the internet.

Of course I knew it; I’d grown up with its movie (released 1954). I even found the original literary work (which I’d never read) as a downloadable pdf, a short story, first published in 1942, by a prolific writer who died in 1968. The dates are significant.

There again, so is the storyline, so are the characters, so are the motifs. Not so much a “re-working” as a minor tweaking.

The dates are significant because US copyright laws were substantially updated in 1976. Does this mean the original story is in “the public domain”? The Americans are nothing if not litigious, and it seems as late as 1990 lawyers were arguing its copyright status in the Supreme Court. I bet that was costly.

A further court case was heard between 2008-2010 when a 2007 movie was said to have violated the copyright in the original story. I bet that case was even more costly. However, it also means that the original 1942 story remained in copyright as at 2010. Whether it has lapsed since I haven’t easily been able to ascertain.

As I mentioned above, I found the original short story on the internet as a pdf, but that proves nothing; it certainly didn’t carry what I would refer to as ‘corroborating citations’. And let’s face it, some of my novels, never mind short stories, are to be found on the internet as pirated pdf files in direct contravention of my copyright.

But back to the novel in my hand. It carries more author-cited publicity puffs than a three-masted sailing ship needs to cross an ocean. Did these authors not notice the similarities to what is an acclaimed movie from 1954? It is doubtful any read the script before lending their names to it, that’s the way publicity puffs work, despite so many citing the director of that movie.

But someone did notice, because the cover image uses part of the design of the movie poster. Fun, eh? The novel’s title-page states it is ...in development as a major motion picture... It could be there is more litigious fun to come. Never mind the copyright status of the original short story, the director of the original movie died in 1980. If his works are still in copyright within his estate, it could be they don’t enter the public domain until 2050.

So the moral of this tale is…?

Reading this book did not excite me, despite it being extremely well written. It made me angry, and it left me with a very sour taste in my mouth. I’ll never read this author again. I’ll never trust the publisher, and I’ll look at all other mainstream publishers through the lens of this experience.

But that’s me. If you’re a reader you probably don’t care a jot. If you are a writer you should seriously take note. Why? Because publishers’ contracts have warranty clauses, the aim of which is to indemnify the publisher against, among the list, the risk of libel, invasion of privacy, and copyright infringement.

Besides, if you can’t write anything decent without lifting it whole (or quartered) from another writer’s hand - dead or living - you should be doing something else.

UPDATE 07 February 2019

The digital ink is barely dry on my post when I'm sent a link to The New Yorker which, on 4th February, published a long "profile" of the author of this novel. It reads like an exposé, the duplicity I highlight the merest tip of a monstrous iceberg. I wonder how those big-name authors feel now, those who lent their names, and their reputations, to the publicity puffs. There again, the publishing industry doesn't come out smelling of roses. An archetypal case of The Emperor's New Clothes. 

As ever, the august movie director is named but the originating author is forgotten, so let me remember him here: the late Cornell Woolrich.

Grab a coffee. The New Yorker read is long:

This is the final post in this short series. If you wish to read the others:

Starting out? Reading A Writer’s Mind… covers everything from plot elements to the use of alliteration, rhythm and subliminal detailing. Paperback or ebook. Gain an insider’s view:

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  1. Madeleine McDonald8 February 2019 at 07:47

    See www/theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/28/prolific-romantic-fiction-writer-exposed-as-a-plagiarist, about another "author" who rewrote a male / female romance as a gay romance. Publishers seem not to care so long as the money comes in.
    Deliberate theft has always existed but what I find worrying is the number of schoolchildren and students who are encouraged to copy and paste in essays, and who grow up not knowing that using other people's work is theft.

    1. Thanks for the link, Madeleine. That is so blatant, and of a work of a living writer. But it's always, "...I made mistakes"... No, in their eyes the only mistake they made was being caught.

      I also agree re students. Pirating songs, ebooks, movies, is only a short hop from calling them "all your own work". Except it is the Work they don't want to labour over.