Plagiarism and Other People’s Words: Welcome to the Revolution…or the Nuthouse

As an independent author, I am always tuned in to plagiarism and copyright issues. I’ve written on these topics already this year, but they are so vast and dynamic I want to first reiterate something important for all readers, writers, agents, publishers, and editors to think about. This industry is in the process of re-making itself from the ground up. There are no real rules anymore. There’s a revolution going on in the publishing world. And when things are hot during revolutions everyone’s confused as hell — especially those who think they know what’s going on.


The core principle of publishing has always been copyright law. The associated tacit principle “thou shalt not steal from another writer” has always been the first law of professional ethics. But these two issues are now getting a major overhaul whether we like it or not. And what’s really fascinating is that since no one really knows where we’re going and there are no longer rules in the industry we have lots of confusion and gray area to deal with. 

Take for example the most recent plagiarism scandal highlighted by the online mainstream press over the last week or so. Fareed Zakaria, a CNN program host and a columnist with Time magazine, admitted to copying several paragraphs written by New Yorker writer, Jill Lepore, for a piece he wrote on gun control. What’s most interesting about this story is not Zakaria’s quick and definitive admission of guilt, but a difference of opinion between Edward Jay Epstein in his “Fareed Zakaria Didn’t Plagiariaze!” piece posted by The Daily Beast, and Seth Mnookin, whose “No, Really, It’s Plagiarism,” was picked up by Salon.com. Read the comment section after each of these articles to see how bizarre this one is. It’s actually quite hilarious.

Let’s go one step further. Earlier this summer we saw an interesting twist in the plagiarism game – Jonah Lehrer, a rising star who moved from Wired to The New Yorker, was accused of “self-plagiarism.” In essence, he was accused of cutting and pasting pieces of blog entries into blogs he wrote for The New Yorker. The problem was attribution, I suppose, but it really seemed to me that Lehrer was being treated like a 14-year-old accused of statutory rape because he figured out how to masturbate and act like nothing is wrong with it. Not exactly plagiarism, but it was too weird for everyone to deal with, so he got in trouble.

From my perspective, these recent word theft scandals are just part of frontier life for all of us in publishing. Confusion about self-plagiarism and Zakaria copying someone else’s words, comical as both situations are, shows that we’re (and I truly mean all of us) living out a sort of “King of Hearts” revolution. The Internet is like a vast lunatic asylum masquerading as a pro sports team locker room. If you don’t believe me, check out Michael Barthel’s long Salon.com piece on the Zakaria scandal

I am not an expert on these issues. I’m not sure you can be an expert on anything in the publishing world anymore. But it’s important to look at plagiarism and copyright issues as an area where we are all forced to reconsider what we thought we knew about books and writers and reading. If you ask me, this re-thinking doesn’t start with journalists and mainstream writers, it starts with a much larger, more diffuse, and truly influential group — indie writers.

Us small fry in the publishing world are at the mercy of venal, money-grubbing con-artists and thieves. My first independently published novel has been available through Amazon’s Kindle Store for just a bit more than two months and already weird stuff is happening with the paperback version. You probably know that Amazon’s sales pages always offer new Amazon copies but also have links for independently sold books and used books. In the past two weeks, the paperback edition of Beyond the Will of God is being offered off Amazon’s site for anywhere from about $14.00 to nearly $35.00. That’s all very interesting since the paperbound version is priced at $15.99 brand new through Amazon and CreateSpace. You can’t make money below that price, and who would buy something for double the cost when its readily available through Amazon at such a reasonable price?

It’s very likely that hundreds of indie writers recycle blog material and copy and paste from each other all the time. The only reason they aren’t “caught” is that they aren’t in the mainstream (and money isn’t involved). There’s no question in my mind as well that indie stories and books are being mined for ideas and plots. I am about to take advantage of the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program and offer as a promotion this weekend three days of free downloads of my novel. I’m going to guess I get several thousand takers. Thousands of other KDP writers will do the same thing this weekend. Who is doing the downloading? I have no idea. When “Free” is involved, random takes over. And in this world, “Free” is a global proposition. There could be syndicates in Eastern Europe or Africa or Asia downloading, breaking the digital rights management code, and then repackaging my story for sale at any price they want. What can I do? 

Paranoid ramblings? Hardly. Already people are selling my book irrationally and I don’t see a dime from their success. Writers have had to deal with this issue forever, just not at such dramatic volume. Do I care? Not really, although its still all very interesting. I know that hundreds, if not thousands, of good-hearted, gentle readers will also be downloading my book. I hope they read it. I hope, too, that they like my writing enough to want to buy my collection of short stories. I’m banking on building up a group of folks who want to buy the other two novels I will be putting out over the next year and my second collection of short stories. If there are assholes looking to profit off of illegal copies of my work or folks who want to steal ideas and even paragraphs from my blog entries, so be it. 

There’s one rule in this whole publishing frontier that is essential: writers write. Some people won’t follow this rule very well for whatever reason (I can only imagine the pressures Zakaria and Lerner were under that would cause them to cut corners like they did). For most of us, especially us indie folks, the whole game may be lawless and out of control (and insane), but working hard to come up with great stories, relatable characters, and new ways of talking about the world is still the whole idea. What distinguishes a writer is not whether he or she has a contract with a Big Six Publishing House but production. For indie writers, production is wholly self-motivated. No one tells us what to write and no one gives us deadlines. We can post love stories between giraffes and zookeepers just as easily as we can kinky romances between billionaires and breathless twenty-something Lolitas. 

The system is in place now to get whatever we’re writing out there directly to readers. We don’t have to posture or guess what our market segments will be (although we do need to make sure people know our books are available). And we shouldn’t be too worried about this revolution that’s going on and whether folks are trying to figure out how to make money off our hard work without us benefiting. 

The lessons the pros are learning right now (and their publishers) will help all of us get a better handle on professionalism and ethics and what it means to be out here on the frontier leading-edge of things. Hopefully the big guys will re-employ fact checkers and develop explicit standards of conduct that make sense. That may take a while, though, since the publishing world is all of a sudden chaotic and super competitive. 

In the end, I believe that quality, original writing and creative, thoughtful insights through that writing will carry the day. I’m sure Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria know this now. You as a reader have always known this. Keep watching as “content providers” try to police themselves and figure out who they’re becoming. We really are like a bunch of lunatics let loose in a locker room. The weird thing is that we get to go out on the field whenever we want, and whoever is out there gets to watch us do whatever we think we’re supposed to do. It’s going to require some time, but eventually the rules will become obvious again and things will settle down. I hope it takes a while for that, though. I kind of like being free to make things up as I go along.

I hope Lehrer, Zakaria and all the other nuts who are getting sent to the showers can get back on track with this freedom thing. As Patti Smith once sang: “This is the era where everybody creates.” Welcome to the era, then. It’s a nuthouse.

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If you want to read more on what plagiarism implies, see my April article, “The Word Thieves,” at TalkingWriting.com HERE.

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