The Perverted Pleasures of the Plagiarist

Writing has its rewards. Money for one. But there are others. Personal satisfaction of course. A certain amount of kudos. A sense of belonging to the community of writers and creative people in general. And attention. Writers get it, in varying degrees. But even without being internationally famous, writers have people they don’t know following them on Twitter and Facebook. People email them to say how much they enjoyed the writer’s work and ask when the next book will be out. This attention is quite gratifying to most writers. They’re delighted people are reading their books.

Writers work hard to earn those rewards. Okay, it’s not exactly like going down a coalmine, but it’s time-consuming, sometimes tiring, often frustrating and it does your back no good at all. But if you want those rewards, you have to put the work in. Expect of course if you’re one of those people who thinks they have found a shortcut. For whatever reason, known only to themselves, one day they decide to steal someone else’s work and pretend they wrote it. All the rewards, none of the work! Maybe they do a little editing of the stolen text. Change names and places. Oh, how clever they think they are.

What are the chances someone will read it who already read the original story? Pretty slim, as long as they didn’t take anything too well known. In Romance especially there’s just so much out there the odds are in their favour. And hey, if it works once, then why not do it again and again and again? It’s The Perfect Crime!

Until they get caught.

It always starts out quietly enough. A reader reads a story that is suspiciously similar to something they read before. The track down the original, and, since it’s so easy to do now, they drop the author of the original an email. Said author posts about this online. Many of the author’s followers—and then many their followers investigate other stories posted by the suspect, and soon identify them as stolen. The shit hits the fan. Posts happen on blogs like Dear Author. The plagiarist posts phoney-baloney and inadequate apologies. More people blog about it. The whole thing is talked about for days. Even after it’s all over, the plagiarist’s name lives on in infamy. They either disappear from the internet forever, or they lie low for a while, come back with a new identity and start the cycle all over again.

So why do I say they want to be caught? Who’d want to be at the epicentre of such an epic shit storm? Because I think they are doing it for attention, and though the attention they get while pretending to be a writer is good, the attention they get when exposed is the ultimate payoff.

Why do I think plagiarists are doing it for the attention, you ask? Isn’t it for money? Mostly, not, I’d say, because it also happens when there is no money at stake—in fan fiction for example. So if it’s not for money, it has to be about the other rewards. Personal satisfaction is out. So it has to be the kudos and admission to the community of writers. Attention.

Attention can be addictive, so plagiarists rarely steal just one story. They need to have new releasers to keep their readers coming back and paying attention to them. Of course, there’s a dilemma there. The more people who read the stories, the more chance of someone who knows the original reading it. There’s the plagiarist’s dilemma. They want more attention, just as real writers do. But attention can also be dangerous. The plagiarist has to balance the desire for attention with the risk of being caught.

When they see other plagiarists exposed, they must watch the ensuing storm with a mixture of dread and envy. Dread that they may be next. But envy, because look at all the attention the exposee is getting! Look at all the people talking about them!

Almost inevitably, exposure will come to the plagiarist. In the internet age you can be sure your sins will find you out. What does they plagiarist do then? First they deny it. They may even counter attack and accuse the other author of plagiarising them! They present unlikely explanations of how it was an accident, or disingenuous nonsense about not realising it was wrong – after all, they did a little editing. And everyone is influenced by what came before, right? People create new versions of old stories all the time, how is this different? And didn’t even Shakespeare himself rewrite older stories? You should be flattered really. It’s a tribute. Yes, they attempt to derail the conversation. They may eventually come up with a grudging non-apology apology. Finally in desperation, they want us to feel sorry for them, they were under pressure. Their cat had just died and they had a deadline, and now everyone is bullying them! OMG! Oppression!

All of this nonsense helps keep the whole thing going for days instead of bringing it to a swift end as they could have by doing the right thing immediately – that is apologise at once and unreservedly, pull down all the stolen stories and make arrangement to reimburse anyone whose work they’ve made money from. Why keep it going? Why not? This is their fifteen minutes of fame. Their moment in the sun. They have to make the most of it.

I think there’s one more reason they want to be caught. Because at least then it’s over. Imagine, for a moment, life as a plagiarist. They‘re probably not heavily burdened with a sense of shame, but unless they are totally sociopathic, their conscience should give them a twinge now and again. So there’s guilt to live with. And paranoia. Just imagine the paranoia! Imagine waking up every morning wondering if today is the day it all goes pear shaped. Every time they see someone else exposed they will wonder if they are next. Living in a state of paranoia for a long time will drive even the sanest person batty. Exposure means it’s over at last.

Of course it’s in their power to end the situation at any time, by withdrawing the stolen stories and vanishing. But if they had the strength to do that, they’d never have submitted to the temptation to plagiarise in the first place.

It must be a strange and dark place, the mind of a plagiarist. I’m only really guessing at what they really want, because I find it frankly baffling that anyone would put themselves into this position. I know the guilt and paranoia would eat me alive.

11 thoughts on “The Perverted Pleasures of the Plagiarist

  1. Sometimes I think plagiarists are of two minds – one, so starved for attention of any kind that, as you say, they do this to first “bathe in the glory of authorship” and second so they can bleat out their heartbreaking life story when caught. But I think part of it is envy. They can’t write like the author – or they can’t write like that any more. They’ve tried – oh, how they’ve tried. But it’s never as good as (or at least, never recognized as being as good as) the author’s. And they want to be an author like that soooooo bad!!!!!!

    I’d feel sorry for them if they weren’t such liars.

    1. Yes, they are definitely filled with envy. And have the ability to justify what they do, which has to make you wonder what else they can tell themselves is okay to do.

  2. I think there are a couple of different kinds of plagiarists. There is the kind you describe here, where they are repeating the theft over and over again. The Manning case was one of those (lots of stories from lots of different authors, going back years). And I’m guessing the example we talked about on Twitter the other day was one of these even, though we only had the one instance in evidence in the conversation.

    But then there is also the person who borrows what I call the scaffolding from another author. They take the structure, the tropes, some but not all the characters, etc. This is closer to a fan fiction story, where you start with a structure and make it your own. The author may really need the scaffolding, because doing everything from scratch is hard. And if it looks sufficiently different to them, a lot of readers won’t call it plagiarism. And if enough people like the book, the author will get another contract and write a second, which may or may not sell, depending on the quality and readers’ interest. So in that case, the original plagiarism pays off.

    1. That sounds right. At least the second type do their own actual writing. It’s odd, because it’s perfectly okay to be influenced by what you’ve read and seen, and to explore some of the same ideas in your own story, that’s just normal. Naturally we write about things we’re already interested in. But why make it a thinly disguised copy? There’s always some new way to explore an existing idea and put your own spin on it. Again, some people just aren’t prepared to put all the work in that’s needed.

      1. Hear hear. There’s tons of stories that have similar themes, but it’s what the author adds to the idea that makes it their own. So why steal from someone else? Laziness and greed.

  3. You know well enough I’ve suffered a sort of plagiarism with someone from my writing group. That time I would like to believe was down to pure stupidity. He really didn’t realise what he’d done was so wrong.

    1. Yes, that was so odd. How clueless. It’s something every writer should be clued up about actually, so they know if they are hovering close to crossing a line. Or indeed if that thing retreating rapidly in the distance behind them is a line! 😀

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