Plagiarism is “Bull$#!t”

Many years ago I joined the internet the same way that many other people did at that time, by taking their first baby-steps into this wild frontier from the safe and loving arms of American Online. We were like children let loose, full of innocence and ignorance of what was out there having been raised on soft foods in padded rooms, and being only sixteen and private school-educated I think I was even worse off than many other people. So, when AOL offered up free websites I jumped on the opportunity, making my first (and really, really bad, I mean, I think I even used the flash HTML tag at one point…) website. I scoured the web for badly done animated .gifs, had a wretched layout not seen since the scuttling of Angelfire, and was quite proud about it. I was sixteen and a newb, what do you want?

Now, back in those days I used to put up my fiction. Really bad fiction (think The Crow fan fiction as written by a mopey teenager with no writing skills of any sort kind of bad) but I was proud of it; they were stories I’d done all on my own and I was happy about them.

And then came the strange day where I got an e-mail from myself. Or, more accurately, from someone with the same name as me.

Like me he was a high school student but living on the East Coast. Bored one day, he did a web search of his name to see what would come up. One of the hits was my lowly website filled with stories.

Several of which, he told me, he submitted for assignments in his English class.

At the time I didn’t know really how to take the news. I mean, on one hand here was this unscrupulous jerk with the same name as me stealing my work and taking the credit for it. On the other hand I got an A on his assignments. I can’t remember what I said to him if I said anything at all (what I’d say to him now I wouldn’t put here) and in the years since I’ve thought about who he was and what kind of person would do that sort of thing and then admit it to the person they stole from. I know that his admission of plagiarizing my work made it so I stopped putting my fiction on the website because it was the only way I could think of to keep people from ripping me off.

I think there’s this sense on the ‘Net that whatever is there is for the taking because it’s been “left out”, like the old, curb-side couches with a “free” sign on them. I’m sure that some people are aware of things like copyright, or common courtesy, and just don’t care and I have to wonder about the rest, whether it ever crosses their mind that taking something that someone put out there, be it a blog post or a picture they posted or some piece of fiction, is wrong. I don’t think it does, and I think, for some of them at least, it doesn’t cross their mind because they actively don’t consider it. They don’t want to think of it as theft so they don’t think about it at all and just take and take and plead ignorance if they are ever caught.

Well, it makes me happy to see that one such individual, an older gentleman responsible for publishing a newspaper in Oregon, got caught, was called out for it, and made to pay for his theft.

The thing that gets me about this video is that at no point does this gentleman, who points out he’s forty years older than the blogger like that means he’s entitled to his theft, apologize. He gets upset, he makes excuses, he even tries to physically intimidate the other guy by getting in his space and glaring but he never, not once, owns up to what he did and says he’s sorry. He does a lot of pouting and sulking but never offers an apology. His assistant or wife at one point says “And here you get to make an easy $500 bucks” (the amount he invoiced the paper for the article they appropriated) and the blogger points out that no, it wasn’t easy, because he did all of the work reading reports and writing the article and bravo to him for doing so. They’re the ones who made easy money off of work they didn’t do and they have the gall to get upset about it.

And when is all said and done and the newspaper guy realizes he can’t weasel out of the situation, how does he further illustrate his opinion on the matter? Their attitude is summed up quiet simply by the reason for the check written in the memo section on it (for you kids out there who have never written a physical check, old-timey checks had a space listed as “memo” for you to put a reason for the check so, when it was sent back to you, you knew what you wrote the check for): “bullshit”.

Plagiarism is never bullshit, whether it is some kid’s horrible, teenage fiction or a professional blogger’s researched article. We need to make sure that we protect ourselves as much as we can from it while continuing to get out the message that plagiarism is theft, plain and simple, and, when we catch a plagiarist, calling them out for it. It’s the only way we’ll ever get things to change.

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4 Responses to Plagiarism is “Bull$#!t”

  1. Bon Steele says:

    I have a copyright notice on my website, I try to source every picture that isn’t mine and still I feel like I have my ass hung out in the wind. I wish there was a comprehensive website with rules both domestic and international that spelled out just how freaking wrong it is to steal someone’s idea and call it your own.

    I am not going to watch the old man being a dick. I got enough dickheads in my past (yay, call center computer support jobs!) to last me a lifetime.

    • mattmarovich says:

      The problem with the one-website approach is that copyright law is both very simple and very complex.

      For instance, if you produce it (whether by drawing, writing, painting, etc) then you own the rights to it. But what if you’re drawing someone else’s characters? I mean, they developed the idea of the character and you’re drawing their creation. How much does their input influence your vision of the character? How much control does that input give them over your art? Copyright law is tricksie business.

      Believe me, I know what you mean; I worked in an in-bound patient call center for a large HMO/medical center chain. It’s rough enough dealing with unhappy people on the phone, but sick unhappy people are worse IMO.

      • Bon Steele says:

        And I do a great deal of fanfiction simply by virtue of the fact of my Gamer Status. The characters, et al are ours. But the setting, physics, rules, etc. aren’t. It’s tricksy, precious. Very tricksy.

        Oh, man. That would have sucked gangrenous donkey sack. :/

    • mattmarovich says:

      Heh, personal admission time but I met my first serious girlfriend/fiance through ElfQuest fanfic. AOL used to have some boards where people could write and role-play and were in a few of those together. EQ was good because the Pinis (who are awesome) gave tacit permission for the fanfic as long as we didn’t use characters they had made or tried to make money off it; all of the concepts, just none of the particulars, were our sandbox to play in as long as we remained cool. They even used to have a directory of fanfic groups on the old elfquest website.

      It did. Two years of that and I was hating life to the point where Michelle told me I could quit if I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing like knowing I made a difference in a sick person’s day and they appreciated it but those times were definitely in the minority.

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