Friday, 22 June 2012

Plagiarism - is it impossible in the digital age?

Open University lecturer under investigation after 'publishing a Dylan Thomas story under her own name'

I read about this in the Times this morning, and. being a writer myself, a nosey one at that, wanted to know more, so I googled. And, wow, just wow - the gall of this woman is just amazing, and she's an academic with the OU as well! Not only did she plagiarize Thomas,  but she was discovered by another author, whose work she had nicked, Alex Keegan: the entire saga of how he found out is detailed on his blog, an interesting and horrifying read on the scale of Benford's copying. Within hours, he and his contacts on-line had discovered more cases than could be counted on your fingers and they were still going.

This whole thing got me to thinking about plagiarism and what goes through someone's mind when, in this day and age, they think they can get away with it.

Dr Benford (whose PhD Thesis was also being looked at by Alex and his band of investigators, see his blog for details), is alleged to not only have copied, but copied blatantly. The Thomas work apparently just had a different cover and her name on it. Not even the names of the stories and poems she allegedly stole in a lot of cases, Alex Keegan's being one. For a literary academic to do this is dodgy enough, I mean, imagine going to a conference and someone noticing that your work bears a remarkable similarity to a famous writer like, oh, let's say, Dylan Thomas, or Leonard Cohen (another cut and paste job under investigation), but it is also reprehensible: plagiarism will get a student thrown off their course. Add to that, in this day and age, when half an hour on Google can get you enough evidence to hang someone out to dry, how can anyone possibly be deluded enough to publish their copied work on Amazon, iBooks, LuLu etc, where the search engine is king?

From my own point of view, I'd never consider plagiarism:
  1. I think stealing someone else's words is reprehensible.
  2. I have enough ideas of my own to keep me going for more than a lifetime
  3. I feel guilty enough if my ideas vaguely resemble someone else's, even if they were independently created. This happens with me and my twin a lot, we just think alike and sometimes come up with stories that are very close to each other without even discussing them first. We've come to accept this fact and just look at it as interesting.
  4. I don't do bad things well, I get guilty (I'm the person that buys a ticket for a train that is half an hour late and left me standing in the rain, even though there is no conductor and no-one checking tickets at the other end - I just can't cheat) and then I'd worry, for the rest of my life, I'd worry about getting caught, about having done a bad thing 
  5. I want my work to be mine. I would not gain any satisfaction from any praise, or prize if that prize was earned by someone else's work, because, I would know it was not my effort that made it great. What type of glory is there in fakery?
Plagiarism vs Collaboration

However much I dislike plagiarism, there is part of me that has been thinking about 'complete and free collaboration' and what kind of gems could come out of that. By this I mean, not just sharing ideas, but a free exchange of characters, stories, places, concepts, objects, a sandpit where anything thrown in could be used and reused by anyone else. The only thing an author, or indeed any artist playing in the sandpit would own would be their own immediate creation, i.e. the words of their story (not the story itself), the pixels of an image. Thus the cut and paste copying of Ms Benford would not be allowed, since there is no creative input, but, say a person thought someone else's story was a good one and they wanted to see where they could take it if they took the idea and rewrote it - you'd have the same story twice, but told from different artist's perspectives. Someone else could also come along and turn the story into a graphic novel without fear of reprisals, because it's in the sandpit, that's why it's there, to see what the collective can do with it.

And then, taking the thought experiment further, what would happen if people were allowed to do what they liked with their immediate creation, i.e. sell prints of a picture, publish their story? There would be no case for plagiarism if the image or words had not been copied verbatim, if someone had created something else from your ideas, since by putting your stuff in the sandpit, you have given permission for people to do just that and work off your ideas. Yet, anyone publishing anything from the sandpit does not own the sandpit, so there could be no trademarking, or selling of copyright like Marvel does with its characters, because the author would not own the character, the sandpit would own the character. The author/artist would only own their interpretation of said character in the very limited sense of that one immediate creation, i.e. that one story/image/music, no-one could prevent someone else using that character in any way they chose.

I expect there are many collaborative works out there, but I'm a bit of a geek and a scientist at heart, I like to know 'why' things are, and I would love to create such a sandpit in a way where I could track its evolution, watch story branch from story through new interpretations, e.g. AU, different endings, rewrites in a different style. See characters develop as different people mould them in word, image and sound. Even understand which versions are most popular and understand why someone chose to branch off an idea at a particular point. So, rather than unpicking something's evolution after the fact, a situation we face most of the time, create an environment where such tracking was inherent in its make-up.

So, finally, I detest the stealing of words and images and music and anything else, but, being an author, words are closest to my heart. To take credit for someone else's work, whether that is emotional or monetary, is not right. I don't understand how anyone could feel good about something like that. But to create something beautiful built on the support of other's ideas when those ideas are freely given appeals to the creative and collaborative part of me.

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