Friday, January 11, 2008

The Ethics of Authorship

I received a couple letters, yesterday, from The Romance Writers of America (RWA) that led me to find out about quite a furor and a half going on over at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books, a very popular website of readers and writers of various Romance genre books. The Bitches have led many of their readers (including the wildly popular and successful Nora Roberts, herself a victim of plagiarism) to agree there really seems to be something to the allegations of abundant plagiarism in various works of Cassie Edwards, a writer of so-called "noble savage" type Romance books, whose 100th book will be published soon. She has written for Signet, Penguin and Dorchester, among others, and while the first response from one of the book publishers indicated the imprint felt Ms. Edwards "had done nothing wrong," a later statement by the same corporate entity indicated the publisher will be looking into the allegations.

(Update: Today, January 12, 2008, a day after I wrote the bulk of this blogpost, The New York Times covered the story in its Arts Section.)

When you go to the Smart Bitches web site, you'll see a listing on the right-hand side of the current blogpost called "Looking For the Cassie Edwards Articles?" I suggest you read the articles in order as it makes for a fascinating read. As well, it's a truly impromptu version of what crowd sourcing can do.

The Smart Bitches have done a rather masterful job of tracking down a large number of passages from Ms. Edwards' books, and in a PDF file worthy of academic research standards, the passages in Ms. Edwards' books are placed side-by-side with original source material, much of it out of copyright, which reveals, as The Bitches put it, "an eerie" similarity. They put it mildly at that point; later in their blog, it's clear that passages in the Edwards' books were lifted almost word-for-word from the original source material.

I suggest everyone who writes take a look at the PDF file, and report back to me! It's an amazing document.

Comment of my own: I don't need to know if something is copyright infringement, a legal designation, to know that it's plagiarism, an issue of theft, and thus ethics; however, if you read through all the comments over at the Bitches' site, you'll see a few people have allowed as how plagiarism might happen once or twice, by accident, but not a lot of times. I'm not sure I buy this. I know as a researcher, I read tons of material, and then I sit down to write a story using the information I have read, but not the words, not even a so-called paraphrasing of the words. The benefit-of-the-doubt people say that after of hours of research, it's hard to separate what you read from what you're going to write, that we're sponges, that we genuinely think what we've written is our own. I just wonder: How many of you have heard of a shoplifter who didn't know he was shoplifting? Probably no one.


Tsu Dho Nimh said...

It's true that after a few hours of research, things blur together. I do it all the time, but don't end up with passages that sound exactly like one of my sources. I pull exactly what I need out of the resulting stew pot and recast it with my own style and slant.

What Cassie Edwards has done is "magpie work", pulling snippets from here and there and tucking them into her work as expository dialog. She may reorder the sentences, and change a few words (years to winters, in the lamentable ferret incident, to give it a more "Indian" sound) but it retains the voice of the original author.

It's bizarre to have an 19th-century shaman talking like a 20th-century anthropologist or wildlife biologist.

T.T. Thomas said...

I agree tsu. What's remarkable though is that Edwards must have almost no cognizance of her own voice. If she did, she would readily see how absurd it was to try to pass off someone else's voice as hers. I have read excerpt or two from Edwards' books and the section of Edwards' web page called Latest News From Cassie. I was supremely underwhelmed, although I did get some perverse satisfaction out of this snippet from Edwards: "...and when he opened the door I the same as tackled him as I grabbed him to tell him the good news."

And don't anyone tell me that's just 'Illinois speak.' I grew up in Illinois, so I know it is, but it's not 'Illinois write.'

I do think, however, in reading some of the comments over at the Bitches' house, that comparing Edwards' sales to Nora Roberts' sales is irrelevant. More or less sales do not make someone right or wrong. I think one of the Bitches, liz, wrote a post saying as much when she said, about one of Edwards' publishers "...They're reading your words and paying attention. I urge positive reinforcement for positive acts.

Nora Roberts had the courage to stand up and be heard, period. She voiced her opinion based on verifiable facts. For that she is being attacked by the pro Edwards faction. Mind you, not a one of them, as far as I've read, has responded to the issues inherent in comparing Edwards' texts with the original source work, as provided by the Bitchery in the PDF. Some of the posters on the Bitches' site are trying to reason with the pro Edwards faction, but one can't really reason with fanaticism and blind devotion. I don't begrudge Edwards' loyal fan base for one minute; I am, however, finding it really difficult to believe there seems to be not a one of them who is willing to say "Whoa! I've been duped!" And I don't care if they don't care that they've been duped: I just want them to acknowledge it. If they still want to read Edwards, they can have at it.

And finally, where is Cassie Edwards own comments about all this?

T.T. Thomas said...

It only took me about 8 hours, Pseudonym. LOL. Let's see I bet you're really...heh.

Madeline said...

Hey T.T.Thomas -

Just responding (here) to the comment in response you made to me on the Smart Bitches website. :)

I'm not sure that we disagree. I completely believe that this ought to be a legal issue, and that if there is a copyright infringement case to be made, that Ms. Edwards should be prosecuted. I guess that the "benevolent" part comes in where I was saying that I think there needs to be some leniency from within the community.

It's possible that if I were a published author and knew more about the way that publishers talk about plagiarism with their authors, I would have a different perspective on this. But as a student who was recently in high school, I know that we were not given particularly exact guidelines on what plagiarism is, especially in terms of fiction. I think that it's reasonable to believe that someone might be fully aware of the fact that they're lifting a paragraph from a source but still not think of it as plagiarism, because it's not an entire work, because it's not more than a paragraph - whatever.

Are they wrong? Yes. Should there be consequences? Yes. Should those consequences be as dire as some people have suggested? Well, I don't know. I certainly don't think a person should be blackballed from publishing for such a mistake. I agree that it's very hard to know whether or not someone really knew better, or whether they are just making excuses for their knowing poor behavior; maybe leniency isn't possible because it isn't possible to know whether a person is truly ignorant.

What I do know is that there's an abominable lack of education about plagiarism in at least American public schools, and even American colleges, and I think it's absolutely a shame and must be fixed. From all that I've read, it seems like it might be a problem in professional fiction writing communities, too. So.

T.T. Thomas said...

I do hear you, Madeline.

You say, in part: "I think that it's reasonable to believe that someone might be fully aware of the fact that they're lifting a paragraph from a source but still not think of it as plagiarism, because it's not an entire work, because it's not more than a paragraph - whatever."

I guess that's the notion I picked up from your first post over at the Bitches resort. And that's why I called it a "benevolent" interpretation.

But let's say you're right. Let's say people know when they're lifting a paragraph from a source but they don't know it's called plagiarism. Do you think they know it's called stealing if they use the paragraph they're lifting as nearly exact dialog for one of their characters? Even today, kids who know little or nothing about the rules of writing know when their fav singer/songwriter accuses another singer/songwriter/group of "lifting" their lyrics. I think the kids know what that means. I think they know it's just not a done thing.

I'm not saying the schools shouldn't cover the issues of plagiarism, because if this Cassie Edwards situation shows anything, it shows that some people who know what plagiarism is still think bringing it to light is the same as "trashing" someone's career or "ruining" their life. (Not saying you think that, btw). So not only do we as writers need to raise the whole awareness of what the "sin" is, I think we need to have open and thorough discussions about what should happen to the "sinner." The sin/sinner is a favorite example of mine because how often have I, and my friends, and millions of people I don't know, been told they love the sinner but hate the sin. Once you're on the receiving end of that whacky, wild ducks concept, you know it's just not possible. I think that's what we're seeing at the Bitches' spa---most people know that such wholesale "lifting" of entire passages from original source work and passing it off as one's own is wrong and speaks to the moral and ethical fiber of the person doing it.

And it doesn't much matter whether Edwards' writing is of value or of voodoo---it's a vomitory vehicle of theft. The writing is the getaway car, the loot belongs to someone else. Of course, poor writing, stolen or not, is worth it's own weight in punishment, so, in that regard, though the Bitches and Nora Roberts are getting the heat for discovering and/or commenting on what Edwards did, it's really a classic case of self-flagellation on the part of Edwards. I know---I sound unbending. I guess I know just how damn hard it is to do one's own writing.