Is it time to change the advice on plagiarism?

Plagiarism illustration: From WikiMedia Commons, public domain.New writers are often deathly afraid of plagiarism. They pop up on forums asking what’s to stop someone who reads their story from taking it and publishing it as their own. Other people usually tell them to stop worrying about it, it’s very unlikely!

But every week we seem to see another plagiarist exposed – which is probably just the tip of the iceberg. So is it time to change the answer to the question? What should the new answer be?

1) Stop worrying about the wrong people. The new writers often ask what’s to stop a beta reader, agent or publisher from stealing their unpublished book when the writer sends it to them. But these are actually the least likely people, as long of course as the writer has done their research and made sure the person they are sending it to is respectable and trustworthy. There are dodgy agents and publishers out there – but they aren’t going to steal an MS, they are going to try to make the writer pay them money to edit and publish it. The plagiarised books on the other hand are usually stolen not from someone’s unpublished manuscript that’s fallen into the wrong hands; they are copied from published books, online free reads on author and publisher website and from fiction publishing sites, including fanfiction sites.

2) Is it increasing? It’s difficult to say as who knows what was out there before undetected? Maybe we just hear about it more. But it’s certainly easier to do now. You can copy and paste the text from an ebook format, make a few strategic changes, turn it back into an ebook and put it up on Amazon and Smashwords. Some plagiarists will do a bit more work in the changes; some will do barely anything at all and just basically steal it as is and put their name on it. You can usually spot these on Amazon as having 300 books in 20 different genres and apparently publish three new novels a week. Some do this on an industrial scale. They don’t last long, but they make money off other people’s work for was long as they are up there.

3) The consequences for plagiarists are minimal. Sure they are tarred and feathered in the court of the internet, but when did you last hear of one being taken to court? Most people don’t have the time, money and inclination to do that, especially if the plagiarist is in another country. Some go away and pop up again under a different name. If they are self-publishing they aren’t going to be pursued for the royalties previously paid out. It’s no wonder the ethically-challenged are doing it in apparent increasing numbers.

4) Copyright registration will not save you. A burglar knows it’s against the law to steal people’s stuff, but they do is anyway. Plagiarists know that what they are doing is wrong, is breaching copyright. They still do it.

5) So if it’s increasing and the consequences are minimal and nobody can apparently stop it from happening, what can a writer do to protect themselves? They can make sure they can prove they are the author of the story and had it first. Remember plagiarists sometimes counter-accuse the person they stole from, claiming that writer actually copied them! So if you’re writing always do the following while working on a book/story:

  • Keep all your notes and outlines about it. Write the date on every bit of paper you write a note on and archive them all when you’re done.
  • Keep all your previous drafts. Hell, the files are small, keep a copy of the draft as it was at the end of every single day if you want.
  • Keep backups of these drafts online, in something like Dropbox, GDrive or Skydrive, or whatever your cloud storage of choice. And once you upload a copy never touch it again so you preserve the time stamp. I’ve never heard of a plagiarist faking up an outline and previous drafts.
  • If you email a copy to someone keep a copy of the email. Not because you don’t trust that individual, but the email is another time stamped record of the fact you had that file on that date.
  • If the plagiarised story was on a fiction sharing or fanfic site or a blog don’t panic and pull it down when the plagiarism comes to light. For one thing that’s bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted. For another, the page or post its on is dated and is more proof of when you had the story – i.e. before the plagiarist can show any evidence of having it.

I don’t know about anyone else, but in a court of law or the court of the internet I’d give you the benefit of the doubt based on the above evidence that you’re the author of the story.

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3 thoughts on “Is it time to change the advice on plagiarism?

  1. Another good idea here is to snail mail yourself the first chapter or a couple of pages from each chapter on hard copy/paper. Once you receive it, do not open that envelope. The postal stamp will be your proof. Also, for emailing the draft or even the MC itself, don’t we all have more than one email? I’d email it to myself as well. Make a file in your email strictly to store all these documents.

    1. Emailing it to yourself is good too. It’s another form of cloud storage, useful as both backup and proof of when you had the story.

      The thing of posting it to yourself is often cited, but it doesn’t actually have any legal validity. It has been tested in court and the problem is that you could just post an empty unsealed envelope to yourself and put something in it later. All the postmark proves is that the envelope was in the system on that date, not what was in it.

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