Friday, July 28, 2006

Writers Beware....

For going on twelve years now, I've been invited to speak to writers' (and other) groups in the U.S. and abroad, discussing a wide variety of writing-related topics. From the hundreds of questions I've answered, I can always count on hearing one:

"Has anyone ever plagiarized your work?"

The simple answer is, a-yup. And if there's time during the Q&A period, I delve into the more complicated issues surrounding this thorny subject....

First, to tweak Bill Clinton's now-famous quote, everybody needs to be on the same page regarding exactly what the definition of plagiarism is. Fortunately, my dearies, it's waaaaaay simple: Plagiarism is stealing. It's taking another author's work and passing it off as your own.

The law specifies how many words, lines, paragraphs you can "borrow", and sets forth clear-cut rules outlining how. (Footnotes, quotes, identifying the true author and the source of the material you're "using".)

Okay, sure...there are lotsa times when it's sorta kinda almost necessary to borrow another author's work, say, in a history-type book. I say 'almost' because I've written lotsa non-fiction-historical-school-type stuff, and managed to find numerous ways to state facts and cite examples without taking the 'borrow it' shortcut: I did my own research.

Then there's the matter of "Do I need the authors' permission to quote 'em?" If you've given proper credit, followed the 'how much borrowed' rules and regs to the letter, the answer is usually 'no', but if the author is living and breathing, it'd sure be an Emily Post kinda thing to do....

Still...there's more to this prickly subject than first meets the eye. Borrowing other authors' written words and giving proper credit has long been standard policy for writers. Reporters do it all the time. Why, more'n'a few of 'em have quoted me. And to be truthful, if somebody thinks I'm good enough to quote, and they're honest enough to give me proper credit, I'm honored. Flattered. Heck, I welcome the free publicity!

Unfortunately, that particular practice isn't what I'm getting at here.

Taking somebody else's property--whether it's written/published words, or a jacket from a restaurant coat room--is stealing. And stealing is a crime. And in the eyes of most God-fearing human beings, it's a sin.

Since plagiarism is taking someone's words and tucking them amongst your own (maybe even amongst words you've...ahem..."borrowed" from other authors) without getting permission and/or giving proper credit? That's PLAGIARISM.

Having experienced first-hand what it's like to have my hard work stolen and passed off as A Thief's, I understand only too well the frustration, anger, and helplessness plagiarized authors feel.

Yeah, living by The Golden Rule is a great idea, and it's long been my motto. But it's a scary world out there; what choice do I have but to face a cold, ugly fact of life: Today's world is overpopulated by parasites who don't feel even a twinge of guilt when they take what isn't theirs and claim it as their own, no matter how many favors you've done for them, no matter how many years you've dedicated to helping them launch their writing careers.

So what do I do about it? Oh, I could sue The Thief...and fritter away my hard-earned money. But that could take years (and at my age, I don't wanna waste one precious minute!). I could confront The Thief, yet again, and see if maybe this time, I'd get some inner satisfaction upon hearing an admission of guilt. But narcissists don't change, and I couldn't stomach another chorus of "I'm an innocent victim, and you have an overactive imagination!"

Surviving a go-round with this "The world is my oyster and I'm entitled to all the pearls" leech taught me a very valuable life-lesson: I can't let stuff like this get to me, cuz another cold, hard fact of life is...if I let it get to me...I pay for The Thief's crime.

Instead of vengeance, or wasting even one precious second wondering why The Thief feels no tug of conscience, taking what's mine and passing it off as her/his own, I take comfort in the old "What goes around, comes around" adage....

All criminals think they're above the law, smarter than the rest of us, able to avoid being seen for who (and what) they are, indefinitely, with no price to pay...and "my" thief is no exception. But that smug, superior mindset is precisely what tripped up other scumsucking narcissists like Ted Bundy and that Enron bastard. And sooner or later, it'll trip up "my" plagiarist, too.

When it does, that's when I'll get my satisfaction.

Some advice to anyone who's considering the plagiarism route:

Live by The Golden Rule. Don't take something that cost someone else countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears...then pretend it's yours. Because no matter how cleverly you disguise it, or how cautiously you attempt to explain it, or how many times you try to rewrite and rework it, the words will never truly be yours. And even you can't hide from that cold, ugly fact of life.

Instead, trust your own instincts, have faith in the talent God gave you, and use your own stuff! Yeah, it might take a little longer to "get there", doing things The Right Way, but when you arrive, you'll be able to look yourself in the mirror...and genuinely like who you see. And if, upon arrival, you're greeted with applause, awards, admiration (money!)'ll enjoy the kudos, because you'll know it was earned, not STOLEN.

If you steal, you're a thief.

If you're a thief, you're gonna get caught.

And when you do, I'll be front and center, whistling and clappin' when the world learns the truth...

...about YOU.