***Well, gentle readers, this is a first. Here at Manuscripts Burn it's all about the story, and I virtually never stop the updates to write about that guy who cut me off in traffic or whatever. But today is a special day in the blogosphere, Plagiarism Awareness Day, so I'm throwing in my 1 1/2 cents. For more on this special day, check out http://howpublishingreallyworks.blogspot.com.***
When I was still at the age when I was learning vocabulary in school, I recall every time a teacher or librarian would describe an encyclopedia as a “book or set of books” she would inevitably look up over her glasses and add, “Almost always a set.” This issue came up rather often, I think at least partly because the Encyclopedia Brown series of mysteries was popular at the time, and so the teachers were always trying to “relate” to us children with things we enjoyed. For me, though, every time a teacher said that, I always shook my head, because an encyclopedia was just one book.
It was a black tome six inches thick with gold lettering and it dwarfed every other book in the house. It was published not a lot later than 1969. The article on World War II was about a page, the article on aardvarks was considerably shorter. It was the only reference of my young life, more knowledgeable than my parents, and more accessible than the Bible. This was at a time, you see, before the internet made every piece of knowledge accessible at the touch of a button. For me growing up, if it wasn’t in our antiquated single volume encyclopedia it didn’t exist.
The time came when I had to start writing reports for school. These were handwritten, double-spaced, on looseleaf paper, occasionally with accompanying illustrations (also on looseleaf paper.) Fifty or a hundred words was standard. (200 words was punishment.) Naturally when it came time to do a report I turned to my family encyclopedia and started copying diligently.
That is, until my sister told me about plagiarism.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It means that every seventh word has to be different,” she replied.
“Why?” I asked.
I never really got a satisfactory answer to that question. (We’ll get to that later.) But, dutifully, I would go back over my reports and make sure that no seventh word was exactly the same on my sheet of looseleaf as it was in the Kennedy-era encyclopedia. As a child this meant a lot of changing “the” to “a” or adding unnecessary synonyms and adjectives. (Hitler wasn’t just bad, he was very very bad. We also did a lot of that “very very” stuff to get our word counts up.) I’m sure in the end it didn’t matter because no teacher in their right mind would have had access to our encyclopedia. But I guess it was the principle of the thing for me.
I’ve come a long way since then (and, no, I no longer copy books and change every seventh word and call it my own.) The seven letter rule that I took as gospel as an elementary school student is obviously the letter of the law and not the spirit. Standing before a judge, could I have held up one of my hastily scrawled reports where no more than six consecutive words were the same and still claim I wasn’t guilty of plagiarism? No, clearly not. But why not? What is the answer to that all important question I once posed to my sister?
Plagiarism is stealing, essentially, but rather than stealing something physical it is stealing intellectual property. Woah. Heavy stuff, I know. What exactly constitutes intellectual property? Well, I’m no lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but it seems to me that intellectual property consists of the ideas which you are entitled to be recognized for having. In academia, it’s all about recognition. No one expects you to recreate the wheel. You can’t go back and interview the survivors of Vesuvius, but you can damn well say that you got your information from Juvenal or somebody.
In commerce it’s a bit different. It’s about…well, money. Recognition is nice, but if you go to the trouble to create a commercially viable product, you deserve some money for it. If you went to the trouble to write a song, and somebody else makes a million dollars playing your song, it’s kind of like they stole a million dollars from you. The same really goes for characters and stories. That’s why Darth Vader isn’t hawking urinal cakes, or if he is, George Lucas is getting some of that sweet, sweet urinal cake dough.
I can’t tell you what it’s like to be plagiarized. No one has ever seen fit to steal Adrian Cain from me, or Bleda Khan, or Zorbon and Zandar. Hell, no one’s ever seen fit to pay me for them in the first place. But I can tell you how I’d feel if someone did steal them from me. I’d feel like I just became the first guy in the world to squeeze a baby through my urethra only to have some asshole doctor steal the kid and claim credit. Is that a bit too graphic for you? Well, that’s all right, because I’ve got another story from my childhood to illustrate the point.
This story is, if anything, dumber than the one about the encyclopedia, but, hey, it’s Intergalactic Plagiarism Awareness Day, and this is all I’ve got. I was eight (probably) and for whatever reason we were learning about Mount Rushmore. Like an asshole, I posed a question to the teacher (yeah, I was that kid in class.)
“Are all the presidents on Mount Rushmore, or just a few?” I asked.
In retrospect I can just imagine the mountain range where they blasted 44 faces into the rock, a new one every 4-8 years. But, you know, you’re a kid and you get ideas.
The teacher, who was obviously patronizing me, or else a complete moron, replied, “I don’t know. Why don’t you find out and do a report on it for the class?”
I was excited. (Yeah, I was that kid in class.) I was smart enough to suggest a topic that even the teacher didn’t know about? In retrospect, I’m sure it was a complete load and it was one of those plans that teachers get in their heads to get kids excited about education, but nevertheless, I felt like a genius. So I went to the library and found me a little purple square-shaped book about Mount Rushmore.
Then, inexplicably, teacher saddled me with a partner. A girl. Ugh. I didn’t understand why. I’m pretty sure we were getting extra credit, because I can’t imagine a girl at that age (or any age, really) requesting to work with me. So we started to do the research together, by which I mean I did all of the research and she just sat there.
Then Girl A invited Girl B, who I gather was her friend, to be involved in the project. What had started out as my project was now a three person project all essentially to find out that there were only four fucking presidents on Mount Rushmore. But, I guess extra credit was like crystal meth in those days so Girl A found a way to shoehorn her friend in. I just kept plugging along on the project.
Then the other shoe dropped.
“Redleg,” she said to me, only, not actually, because that’s not actually my name but a pseudonym I came up with later, “We’ve decided that you haven’t done enough with the project so we’re letting you go.”
This is a true story. My point in bringing all this up is that these girls stole my idea. They stole it and they profited from it. I remember sitting in class and seething as they gave “their” report on Mount Rushmore. I mean, who gives a shit if Teddy Roosevelt personally blasted the rock out with dynamite on the back of a brilliant black Arabian charger? That was supposed to be me up there before a group of 20 elementary school students. Instead, two strangers were usurping my extra credit.
Hey, what can I say, I didn’t say it was going to be a great story, just that it was going to be a story. The moral of the story, kids, is that plagiarism hurts people. It might seem like a victimless crime, but when you steal someone else’s ideas they sit in their metaphorical elementary school chairs angrily not getting their metaphorical extra credit. Maybe that wasn’t a very good metaphor, but, you know what, just don’t do it. Give credit where credit is due.
© Manuscripts Burn 2009
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
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