by John Peragine
Often when I am reviewing a book for a read-through or edit, I do a plagiarism check. People are often confused about what plagiarism is and are surprised to learn that there are several different types of plagiarism.
Plagiarism is taking someone else’s idea and passing it as your own. It can occur in fiction, nonfiction, and even songwriting. Sometimes it is intentional, but often it is not. The problem is that there can be severe consequences to plagiarism, no matter the intent. In the academic space, it can get someone failed out of a program, and in the commercial space it can lead to loss of reputation or even a lawsuit.
Copyright Law states:
“…for a limited and “transformative” purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner.” (Copyright.gov)
Unless you are a copyright lawyer, which I’m not, this can be vague. My understanding is that unless you are doing a review of a book or song or a parody, you will need permission.
This question often comes up when people ask if they can use a song in their book. The answer is no unless you get permission to use it. You can reference a song, but putting the lyrics, even a few lines, can get you into some trouble. If you are wondering what constitutes as parody - “Weird Al” Yankovic is the king of parody. It is the basis of his entire career.
If you are writing an academic piece, you can use quotes, but you must clearly cite them. And, you cannot use long quotes- only short ones. You must get permission for anything longer than a few paragraphs. Also, if your book is mostly quoted from other people, that won’t fly either.
This is the type of plagiarism we are most familiar with -- a word for word copy of someone else’s work. There are many different plagiarism programs available on the Internet that will pick up these copy-and-paste types of work.
Think of Wikipedia for this type of plagiarism. If you quote something that you found there, it can be a secondary source or be misquoted. It is essential that you always cite the source or get the permission of the original author, not a secondary source. Dig deep and get it right.
If you are using a quote in your book, even if it is fiction, you still have to source it properly. Even if you find the quote in several different sites, it does not make it fair game. Authors often overlook website plagiarism but are more inclined to go after another author if it is in a book because that material is then being used for monetary gain. That is when a lawsuit can arise.
This type of plagiarism is one that all authors need to be careful of, especially in the area of anthologies and short works. If you post a book in a contest or a magazine, and they have the rights to that work, even for a specified amount of time, you cannot publish the work elsewhere. This includes putting something up on a blog (a chapter or two of a book) and then publishing the book. If you do not own the blog, you can run into trouble. And, if a publisher sees part of a work published elsewhere, they may pass or even cancel a contract.
Always be sure of the rights you give away when you publish works online or in magazines.
If you write a book and then decide to use some of that material word for word in another book, it is still considered plagiarism. It matters less if you are self-publishing both books, but if you self-publish one and then take that same material and try to publish it with a traditional publisher, you can run into problems.
I often hear the question, “If I self-publish a book, and it does well, will I get noticed by a traditional publisher and be offered a contract?”
The answer is: rarely. And you would have to pull the title and transfer the rights to the publisher. This situation can get sticky, especially for sites like Amazon. They are sticklers about publishing multiple versions of the same material. This can even get you banned from KDP.
I see this type of plagiarism all the time, especially in the nonfiction, self-help, or business space. An author tries to paraphrase or change some of the words around or even resort to a thesaurus. Sorry, but this is still stealing. Plagiarism is about stealing people’s ideas, not just words.
You can state what another person’s idea is, but your book has to be your intellectual property, not the rewrite of someone else’s.
This type of plagiarism is the evil twin to paraphrasing plagiarism and is sometimes referred to as patchwork plagiarism. It is adding in original material to other people’s work. Changing a couple of scenes with sparkly vampires and adding a teenage witch named Yabrina will not pass the plagiarism test.
Whether you intend to use someone else’s material or not, it does not matter. Ignorance of the law will not give you a pass. If you are not sure whether your book will pass the plagiarism test, it is always best to send it for review to a copyright attorney. I often send passages of a book with questions, rather than the whole work.
Understanding the types of plagiarism not only protects you from making a mistake but also helps you spot others copying your work.
Have you ever caught someone plagiarizing your work? What did you do? Please tell us about it down in the comments!
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John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine Enthusiast, Grapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMaker magazine, and Writer's Digest.
John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. His newest book, Max and the Spice Thieves, will be released Spring 2021. https://www.facebook.com/twilightdjinn/
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So informative. Thank you! I shall be saving this one.
Thank you Miss Blue!
This turned into a major kerfluffle when an author was rewriting other authors' books with minor changes and one of the authors was an IP lawyer. And then Nora Roberts was hit. You DON'T mess with Nora. One writing program I beta-tested had a 'check for plagiarism' button, and it came back with a 100% match to another book. Fortunately, it was mine.
Terry, did the writing program you beta-tested go out into the world? Seems like that check for plagiarism button would be a handy feature.
I think every writer should have that button!!!
I think those authors in question would never have availed themselves of that button, and I don't think it would work for a book you were reading that 'sounded familiar'. I believe it was readers who notified the authors that they thought something was fishy in the plagiarized books they were reading.
And sorry, I can't remember the program that had that feature, so I don't know if it's available.
For my WIP I'd planned to include a few songs that looked to be within the public domain. My editor suggested I consider removing the songs because they might not really be legal to use. I removed the lyrics and just mentioned the titles, not copyrightable, and a bit of what one of the three was about. I'm so glad I did! Curiosity caused me to do more digging. Not all of the songs were in the public domain although by year of publishing they looked clear. Better to be safe than sorry.
Songs are a common misstep.Copyright owners and organizations like BMI don't play around. I remember sitting in a coffee shop in a tiny little town in North Carolina. Population was like 1,000. The coffee shop I think had three tables. A rep from BMI walked in, and asked the owner if they had a license to play the radio in the shop. They threatened to fine them thousands of dollars if they did not shut it off or get a license. They said, they send in agents to places like that all the time- uncover. That coffee shop was silent from then on. Not worth the risk!
Great piece John! I'd like to chime in that from a cultural perspective, what we consider plagiarism, in other countries sometimes isn't. I've had to learn the cultural nuances, and how to explain them to multilingual authors who are looking to publish in the US, and have used passages from another book or publication in their own work w/o citing the original source. As an editor, a lot of tact has to be used here because you don't want to offend your client (who doesn't know better), but instead educate them so they are not set up for failure in the future. In some countries borrowing other people's words is sometimes considered a sign of admiration/respect for them (even if you don't mention who they are), and in other countries there are no laws that protect authors against plagiarism and it blatantly occurs with no recourse.We are lucky to have laws in place that protect our work, but as writers (or editors) knowing the different types of plagiarism that exist and how to avoid it is key. As is knowing how to tactfully inform someone else why and how they are committing plagiarism and how they can (and should) fix it.
Book pirating happens a lot in other countries as well. It is pretty common- although I don’t believe it is cultural - it is just stealing for profit.
I use Copyscape for every article I write, but I absolutely hadn't considered it for books. SO smart!!
Copy-Paste-Cris *allegedly* lied and was blaming ghost writers, had won at least one award, and she was plagiarizing major bestselling authors. It was blatant and mass plagiarism--close to 100 authors. Readers told Courtney Milan, she went public, then other authors started checking their works.
And, it wasn't the first time it had happened to Nora--the other time was with Janet Dailey.
If you republish a work you had with another publisher, always be sure to have a reversion of rights in writing--make sure the reversion covers all bases, too, if needed. Audio rights are tricky.
Check your contracts. You can sometimes publish parts of a book which didn't make the final edit--the contract usually covers the final edit which goes to print. So that scene you cut can probably be posted on a blog.
Know your IP and how it's protected as far as characters, settings, and series. Meaning: you and your friend can both have a Jane Doe living in Small Town USA, but there can be a point of crossing the line. That's where having a book bible comes in handy. This happened to a friend and it was settled with the publisher having the IP in the other person's book changed so there was no question. It had been an accidental thing, but it's something to aware of. It was found by a reader.
Probably the best known case of song copyrights was "Happy Birthday." That's why all the restaurants came up with cute birthday rituals. For years, even through multiple publishing buyouts, "Happy Birthday" was protected by copyright and the publisher would fine people for using the song. A judge finally ruled against Warner Chappell, and in 2016, the song became part of the public domain. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/warner-music-pays-14-million-863120
Great info Denise! Thank you so much for sharing that . It happens more often than people realize !