Writing Tip #18: Don't Be a Copycat (Plagiarism Is Wrong)

Image source: geralt on Pixabay

It's time to address plagiarism. We have had multiple incidents in The Ink Well recently, and we want to make sure there is absolutely no mistaking what it is, why it is wrong, and what happens as a result. Plagiarism is an important concept for all writers and creatives to understand.

Why Do People Copy Other People’s Work?

It's a little bit baffling, isn't it? There are as many ways to string words together as there are stars in the universe. In other words, the ways to express any story or idea are endless. So then, why would anyone want to copy the words of another person? Good question.

It’s rhetorical, perhaps, and something to ponder. Writing is hard. Coming up with ideas is hard. Copying is easy. Perhaps it’s as simple as that. But in fact, in addition to laziness, greed can play a role too. If you want to try to make money from writing, and someone else has already done the hard work, perhaps it’s tempting to repurpose their efforts.

Just don’t. Not ever. It’s wrong.

Let’s explore what it is, what it isn’t, and why there is zero tolerance for plagiarism on Hive, in The Ink Well, and in the broader world of the arts.

Plagiarism FAQ

There are many discussions about plagiarism on the Internet. To keep it as simple as possible, I've written a short FAQ.

What Is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the act of copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own.

Why Is It Wrong?

It is wrong in the same way that stealing from another person is wrong. The duplicated material is another person's intellectual property. The act of copying someone else’s work is also similar to cheating on tests in school by copying someone else’s answers. In both analogies, one has arrived at an end goal through theft and deceit instead of honesty.

Is Plagiarism Illegal?

It’s slightly complicated. Copying other people’s work is typically a copyright infringement. But even in the case where copyright protections have lapsed, you are still plagiarizing if you copy the work.

What Are the Consequences of Plagiarizing?

The consequences vary depending upon the circumstances. Here are some examples:

  • On Hive: We are fortunate to have @cheetah, a bot that detects plagiarism. Visit her blog to see daily reports. Cheetah will notify you if your content is very similar to existing content; take this as a warning. Your content can also be downvoted by Hive members and/or you can be blacklisted. Note also that Hive is still a fairly intimate community. People get to know one another. Reputation is critical. Plagiarizing other people’s work will very quickly damage your reputation. And it can be very difficult to recover.
  • On The Ink Well, we use tools to detect plagiarism. You will be “muted." This means you can no longer post in the community. Your content may also be downvoted. Please read The Ink Well rules, if you have not yet done so.
  • In the big wide world of literature, music, the arts, legal documents, research grants and other intellectual property, the consequences will vary depending on the type of content that is being stolen and can include everything from legal action to destroyed reputation. Plagiarism.org says it very succinctly:

If you’re caught plagiarizing, you can be punished by your school, fired from your job, or even have your career ruined.

The blog also provides examples of criminal charges, prison sentences and book publishers demanding the return of book advances.

Is It Plagiarizing If I Provide the Source?

Providing a source for copied material does not prevent it from being considered plagiarism.

Here are a few key guidelines:

  • You may include small passages of written work with citations listing the author and source, as an adjunct to your own writing.
  • You may not reproduce an entire poem, story, blog post, article, song, image, document or other material developed by someone else, unless you have received written permission from the owner.
  • To include images that are not your own with a piece of writing, you must choose them from sites that have “creative commons” licensing (examples are Pixabay, Pexels and Unsplash) and provide source attribution. You can also purchase images from professional stock image sites. You may not pull images from websites or search engines. These images are searchable, but that does not make them available for use. They are someone else's property and are therefore subject to copyright laws.

Is It Plagiarizing If I Copy Work and Change It?

Yes. To avoid plagiarizing other people’s work, start with a blank page and create your own.

What About Stories that Are Completely Retold, Like Roxanne and West Side Story?

This is a very good question, and it does add a bit of mud to otherwise clear waters. Let’s review some source material to get some clarity. What you will find is that there’s a very important distinction between finding inspiration in the work of another writer and imitating their work.

For example, I highly recommend you read the following if you are working on a piece of fiction that is inspired by something you have read. It will help you sort out right from wrong, and will likely put your mind at ease if you want to write a story that has some similar ideas or basic concepts as another work.

  • In the blog post “Looking for Inspiration or Being a Copycat,” the Hand Made in Europe blog offers this: “Plagiarism has very little to do with inspiration. While inspiration opens new doors to you, shows you new possibilities and gives you motivation to go beyond your everyday routines and limitations, plagiarism only confines you to reproducing the things that have already been done.”
  • There’s a great discussion of some of the misconceptions around plagiarism, as well as an exploration of the concepts of inspiration vs. plagiarism, in Kimberley Jackson’s blog post Nowadays Everything Is Plagiarized, Right?

In the case of Roxanne and West Side Story, it’s a well-known fact that they were inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac (the 1897 play by Edmond Rostand) and by Romeo and Juliet (the 1595 play by William Shakespeare), respectively. In each case the story is arguably an homage to the classic story that inspired it. The stories are completely modernized, told with different characters with different names and in different settings. Still, to me it's kind of a gray area and may have only worked because the derivatives were based on very old public domain works.

When in doubt, just make sure you tell a new story that you don't recall being told in any way before. Use our tips in "Overcoming Writer's Block" to get your creative juices flowing, come up with more new ideas than you could ever actually manage to write, and put your energy into writing 100% unique work.

I hope that helps you. Happy writing!

@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.

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If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.

Writing Tip #1: Writing from a Prompt

Writing Tip #2: Adding Conflict

Writing Tip #3: Writing What You Know

Writing Tip #4: Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump

Writing Tip #5: Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ a Writing Rule?

Writing Tip #6: How Fiction Writing Is Like Weaving

Writing Tip #7: Put It On the Page

Writing Tip #8: What Is a Story Arc?

Writing Tip #9: Should You Plot Your Story?

Writing Tip #10: Don’t Start a Story This Way!

Writing Tip #11: What Is “Writing Voice”?

Writing Tip #12: Reveal Everything and Nothing

Writing Tip #13: Character Types in Fiction

Writing Tip #14: Clichés - Avoid the Conspiratorial Wink

Writing Tip #15: Developing Memorable Characters

Writing Tip #16: Writing Character Descriptions

Writing Tip #17: Overcoming Writer’s Block

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We would like to invite lovers of poetry and short stories to visit The Ink Well, a Hive community started by @raj808 and run by @shanibeer @stormlight24 with support from moderators including @carolkean and @jayna.

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