Plagiarism, copyright infringement, and the rights of authors

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Catniss is far more concerned about stealing my attention than my ideas

The first edition of Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter contained a handful of quotes from authors whose books were influential in my spiritual journey. Some authors’ works were in the public domain, such as that Saint Augustine, but others, like Lauren Winner’s memoir Girl Meets God, were not. I hold a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and was certainly not ignorant of plagiarism: I cited each quote with the correct author and the work it was from, in MLA format, no less. What I didn’t know about was copyright infringement, which complicates the rights of authors and artists in ways I did not expect.

Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about the dangers of copyright infringement until after publication. I reasoned that the authors I quoted would never stumble upon my little self-published book; but that would mean I couldn’t promote it as much as I would like. What if the sister of a friend of the publisher of Winner’s book somehow got hold of it, and then came after me for not asking permission to use her quotes? Though Winner herself might be flattered (I hope) and have no problem with my attribution, ultimately the decision would not be up to her; she’d have to answer to her publisher, which holds the rights to her book.

The anxiety was too much; I ended up removing the book from the market (it had other issues besides improper use of quotes anyway, like never seeing the eyes of a proper editor. The second edition is the one worth reading!).

Now with the advent of social media and blogging, everyone is an author in their own right, and the rights of authors are much more complex. Is posting a screen shot of a tweet I did not originally publish a form of plagiarism? In fact, I can’t count the number of screen-shot Tweets I’ve seen shared on Facebook lately, in which users poke fun at Donald Trump and make quips about political hypocrisy. Did my Facebook friends request permission from the original Twitter users before sharing? Most likely not. Or does social media, emphasis on social, imply distribution to as wide an audience as possible?

I would assume the latter, but you never know. As an author, I’m possessive of my words, so I understand the potential controversy. But when it comes down to it, so long as my name is attached (and preferably linked to the source from which it came), then I have no complaints.

Not everyone feels that way. Now, when I quote words from other bloggers on my own blog, it’s mostly bloggers I know personally who wouldn’t mind the plug. I try to use my own photos as much as possible (helpful hint: in the world of blogging, pictures don’t always have to match the post content, so much as grab readers’ attention. It’s for this reason that I’ve started using photos of my kittens on almost every post, no matter what I’m writing about).

Technology, as we know, is never stationary for long. The Internet is constantly advancing; shape-shifting, even. As this continues, the definition(s) of plagiarism and ownership will only grow more complicated. Dictionaries are not so quick to catch up with the times, either, for those who swear on Webster as the ultimate guide to reason:

Pla·gia·rism

[ˈplājəˌrizəm]

NOUN

  1. the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.

In·fringe·ment

[inˈfrinjmənt]

NOUN

  1. the action of breaking the terms of a law, agreement, etc.; violation:

“copyright infringement” ·

  1. the action of limiting or undermining something:

“the infringement of the right to privacy”

Cop·y·right

[ˈkäpēˌrīt]

NOUN

  1. the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same:

“he issued a writ for breach of copyright”

ADJECTIVE

  1. protected by copyright:

“permission to reproduce photographs and other copyright material”

VERB

  1. secure copyright for (material).

Again, the dilemma resurfaces: did I have the right to quote Webster? Did I need written permission for use on this blog?

Think about it too hard, and it makes your head start to hurt. There are plenty of other careers to choose from that don’t have this kind of legal danger, yet this is the only one I want. The good news is, I’m far from the only one who’s confused about the rights of authors in this technological world.

This is anything but sound legal advice, but ultimately I believe that intent must be a factor in determining whether a fundamental literary right has been broken. The student who purchases a research paper from a paper mill and writes his own name at the top is not the same kind of guilty as the student who quotes a scientist by name, but forgets to include the title of the article in which he found the quote. Similarly, I would say my intention in quoting Lauren Winner was not to pass off her work as my own, but to compliment her for her insight. But as soon as I realized it just wasn’t that simple, I resolved never to do it again.

The question we must all ask ourselves is what connotes fair use and unfair use of literature. Furthermore, are authors aware of the risks they take in putting their work out into the world for public consumption? After registering their work for copyright, what more is there to do?

Thankfully, books and blogs are time-stamped. Books mention the year of publication on the copyright page, but blogs are much more specific in labeling the exact date and time, which could come in handy if it were necessary to prove who published what first. Ideally, any time a work is published or created, it is automatically copyrighted. It is intellectual property even if it is not recognized as legal property.

Still, it’s hard to imagine “stealing” that which is not tangible. Plagiarists aren’t stealing physical books, but words and ideas. It is not a kind of theft in which one places the stolen thing in their pocket and hides it so it can never be found. It’s a curious thing to debate whether one can truly own a particular pattern of words, which can be so powerful, and yet cannot be seen or touched.

Properties and possessions can disintegrate over time, yet words can endure for as long as humanity persists, and eventually end up in public domain, free for creative use on coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, posters, and bumper stickers. Who does copyright benefit then? Until a consensus is reached, the question of intellectual ownership will remain a gray area: a pretty unsettling thought. Luckily, that fear does not keep me from writing and sharing my work. My writing is my business, and my name is my brand. And should someone try to pass off my work as their own, I doubt their accompanying cat pictures will be nearly as cute as mine 😀

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6 thoughts on “Plagiarism, copyright infringement, and the rights of authors

  1. donnajm says:

    Do you self-publish? I wonder if it is because of the publisher. I have bought several books off of Amazon.com for my kindle that are loaded with quotes from famous people. I was thinking of using some myself in my next book. I will definitely keep this in mind. Thanks for the information.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lovessiamese says:

    Thank you. You brought out some things I had not considered, such as intent. I grew up before the digital world was even on my horizon (as far as I knew). I’d never even heard of digital. It is a question to ponder in this new techno age: where is the demarcation line for plagiarism? It may not be as simple as it used to be. Perhaps the best solution for me is not to quote anyone and make sure that I haven’t used any phrases I’ve seen in the tons of books I’ve read. That could be a daunting task.

    Liked by 1 person

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