I just got off the phone with a friend who has a book idea. It’s a darn good idea and I hope someone publishes it. He’s got talent the size of Mount Kilimanjaro and a work ethic I envy. His name has been on one or two book covers and you’d probably recognize his work if you saw it without his name on the cover. He’s a recognizable sort. As we talked through his idea, I spitballed an idea or two back at him to help him build the house within which his idea might find a home. Right after we closed Zoom, I opened a google doc and typed out a rough (very rough) outline and shared it with him. It took me less than two minutes.
Now, if he uses that outline, finds a publisher, and makes a bestseller, who owns that outline? Whose intellectual property is that outline?
This is a question that finds its answer in a myriad of places. Is it mine because I scribbled it out first? Is it his because it was just the skeleton to his flesh? Is it nobody’s because it was so rough the final outline will be unrecognizable from it? Who owns an outline that was birthed in a brainstorming session?
This is an interesting question for him and me in particular because about a year ago, a book appeared on the scene that (without going too much into detail) had some striking elements to his and, incidentally, my work, almost palpably so. Was it plagiarism? Was it creative liberty? Was it Austin Kleon’s “stealing like an artist”? Or was it just plain old human admiration turned inspiration? Who knows? Does anyone know?
Now, before anyone gets their panties in a twist, you should know that I gave that outline to him freely. It wasn’t my work. It took the elements of his work and just put them in a tangible order. He’s my friend and I want him to succeed, of course, but I still decided in my heart to whip out those words in two minutes for him. It means nothing to me—even if it results in a whopper of a bestseller for him—and I hope it does! Friends share, but sometimes they have to be explicit about that.
But what happens when what gets said in a private conversations turns into fodder for someone’s work? When exact phrases are coopted for someone’s own self-promotion?Is that still sharing? Was permission given? Was there an explicit moment of person one asking person two for permission to use their words without citation and receiving permission? If no then,
Is this plagiarism?
What about when two people aren’t friends but their work overlaps in significant ways, so much so that they are reaching similar audiences with similar content? When in a blind test between the two of them, it would be difficult to nail down whose words are whose? Is that just some strange convoluted amalgam of same place same time? Or does one have the stronger or first voice, and the other is follows shortly behind? If yes then,
Is this plagiarism?
Yes. Maybe unintentional. Maybe a bit blurry. But still dangerous ground to play around in.
Recently I wrote something up and didn’t have a place to share it. I shared it with a friend, though, and she knew a place it might work but I didn’t necessarily want to publish there. She was free, though, I said, to use it however she wanted. But, she said, it really is recognizable as your work, it’s your voice. I made a decision in that moment. I thought my argument was good but wasn’t interested in following it through, so I just gave her the piece, told her to do her worst and best with it, take what was valuable or essential, omit the rest. A freebie.
Was this plagiarism?
No. I gave her permission.
Now, what if over a long period of time, one sits at the feet of someone who uses a phrase on repeat? So much so that that phrase is absorbed into one’s mind and heart, so much so that it feels like they said it themselves. In fact, they do say it to others on a regular basis. It feels like such a part of them, a part of their vernacular, that they forget they weren’t the first to say it. They feel a sense of ownership over the phrase. They put it in writing and publish it in a book.
Is this plagiarism?
Plagiarism comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s super darn easy to do and also super darn easy to avoid.
We do it by accident. We do because we’re absorbing information all the time. We do it because sometimes phrases pop into our heads and we think, “That’s a great thought!” but we don’t follow it up with, “I wonder if I was the first to think that thought?” And then we don’t follow it up with the old Google try.
So it’s easy to do and easy to avoid, and yet every single day, without exception, I see tweets, images, memes, carousels on Instagram that show words either without attribution entirely or with someone else’s name attributed on them.
A post went viral a few weeks ago with my words on it. I saw it and said to myself, “I said that and I said it to that person in a private conversation a while ago.” Then I thought to myself, I wonder if I ever wrote it down, though, and sure enough, the old Google told me I hadn’t, at least not online. I’d only said them in a conversation with him. And I remember the moment explicitly, because he’d paused and said, “Hang on, that’s really good, I need to write that down.” And write it down he did, all the way to a book, a Bible study, and now a viral meme.
The feeling of pure ick in that moment is palpable. And this is why plagiarism is such a beast to deal with. It’s hard to prove unless you have cold hard facts. It’s hard to get an admission of guilt, especially if they’re someone with power because they have a lot to lose. It’s even harder if they’re someone with no power, because then you just sound like a selfish bully who doesn’t want to share with the little guy.
Plagiarism is hard to get publishers to care about, especially if the plagiarizer’s book is doing well. It’s hard to get readers to care about, because who wants to believe their hero is a thief? And it’s hard to get those who plagiarize to care about it, because what would they do without the belief that it’s not stealing if they fudge the words a little bit? Add a word here or there, omit one here or there. The victim is always the one who has to advocate for themselves and often times it’s just not worth the energy and potential professional retaliation to confront it.
But it’s still stealing. And God still sees it.
As I said above, plagiarism is so easy to avoid.
By differentiating your voice. By practicing your writing over a long period of time. By sitting on what you’ve typed out longer than you might want to. By asking God to show you any place you may have plagiarized intentionally or not.
The people who most often plagiarize (intentionally or not), are often writers who haven’t been at this for long, a few years or so. They’re still learning their voice, they’re still learning what’s okay and what’s not. Or they’re lazy and just want to steal. It’s a matter of maturity and the main thing about maturity is it takes time. Patience must have its perfect work.
If you’ve been plagiarized, I want you to know it matters. It sucks and it matters. And God sees. They might be a bestselling author with a whole kingdom to lose, but your words, the words you warred for and won, those matter to God. And I want you to know they matter to me.
I’m happy to hand off that very rough outline to my friend, I do it joyfully. I’m angry that my words are being used for another’s self-promotion without my permission, I feel sick about it. And there’s not really a fix for it, not in the capitalistic world in which we now live. It’s the job of publishers, editors, readers, and writers to eradicate.
And, I don’t mean to end on a minor note, but that means it’s your job.
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As a lawyer and a writer, I'm always disappointed when I see plagiarism. And I see it... a lot. Glad you wrote this, Lore.
I hate that this happened to you. And ironically, I recently found your PDF of your “Fidelity to the Word of God” saying (this phrase has changed my life. No exaggeration/hyperbole) and I wish I could add your name or the hashtag #wilbertwisdom to it, because I printed it as a poster for my home and I couldn’t add any words to it, but I know those words do not belong to me and I’m always terrified of plagiarism. And I’m not very tech savvy, either. But after reading this, I wanted to let you know and also thank you for the PDF, and maybe put your name on it?