Friday, September 6, 2013

Ms. Shreditor Speaks on Plagiarism and Permissions

There was no sample to critique this week, so Julie turned the reins over to me and allowed me to choose this week’s topic. She should know by now how dangerous it is to give me a microphone without conditions, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In all seriousness, I wanted to talk briefly this week about plagiarism and permissions. I’ve had some experiences with plagiarism over the past few years that would make your blood curdle. I’ve seen books cancelled because entire articles had been pilfered from the Internet. I’ve seen well-meaning authors pull material from various Internet sources without proper citation because of an erroneous belief that what’s on the Internet is free for the unattributed taking. (It isn’t.)

The reason this is so important is that a copyright attorney isn’t going to care if you meant well when you cut and pasted someone else’s material and forgot to include the citation, or that you weren’t familiar with copyright laws. Copyright infringement is copyright infringement.

Even when you’re writing fiction, this can become an issue. Say you’re offering up a basic history of Paris in your romance novel or basic biographical details about Charlemagne in your historical. You need to make sure that you’re conveying these facts in your own words and not lifting text from Wikipedia. (Yes, I’ve seen this happen.) This doesn’t mean changing a word here and there to “make it your own”—unattributed paraphrasing still constitutes plagiarism. This means presenting the material in a fresh, new way that could only have been written by you.

Next on the agenda is permissions. There are certain items you can’t just pull from source material and use in your book, even if you’ve attributed them correctly. Large excerpts of source text (particularly articles from newspapers and magazines) typically require written permission from the original publisher or author. The same can apply for poetry excerpts, depending on how you use them and whether or not the poetry is in the public domain. The same applies for images; unless they’re in the public domain, you must obtain written permission from the photographer, illustrator, or owner before running it in your book. Never, ever pull images arbitrarily from Google Images or other photo sharing sites.

The most important permissions-related element I can warn you about, however, is the use of song lyrics. Maybe there’s a Radiohead lyric you just have to use in your YA romance. Maybe you want to express your character’s anger through some gritty heavy metal lyrics. Don’t do it. Record labels are notoriously litigious about use of their artists’ lyrics without written/paid permission, even if the excerpt would otherwise qualify as “fair use.” And those permissions, even if they’re only for a few lines of a song, don’t come cheap. I recently worked on a nonfiction book that ran four lines from a song, and it cost the author hundreds of dollars. It’s rarely worth the trouble or expense in a piece of fiction, unless the plot pertains directly to the artist/song being quoted. If you still feel compelled to run that Justin Bieber verse in your novel after reading my warning, consider whether or not it’s vital enough to the book to justify the hefty price tag.

So what’s my secret? How do I sniff out plagiarism when I’m editing a manuscript? I’d love to say that I’ve caught every little instance of copyright infringement in a manuscript, but I’m not a machine. However, I have some pretty powerful tools at my disposal: Google, the Microsoft Word formatting palette, and my editorial instincts. I can often just “tell” when writing veers away from the author’s voice and becomes something else entirely. When I’m not sure, I can look at the Microsoft Word formatting bar and check for text styled as “Normal (Web),” an indication that text has been copied and pasted from a website. If the text is styled normally and I’m still not convinced, I start Googling random phrases within quotation marks as a final check. This is how I’ve caught 99 percent of plagiarism instances. (Once, an author actually came forward at first pages and admitted it. We had to pull the book out of production and send it out to be scrubbed clean of plagiarism. It was a nightmare, to say the least.)

I advise you all to go out and do your research regarding fair use, permissions, and copyright laws. It’s complex, but, as I mentioned before, ignorance is no excuse. Copyright lawsuits are so easily avoided with just a basic understanding of the rules, so invest a little time now to save a lot of money and sleepless nights later.


KaseyQ said...

I worked as a freelancer for a company that provided content articles for websites and plagiarism was a big issue- they ran all the articles through Grammarly. My technique for gathering information to write an article was to read the information, then put my Word document in front of the window and type what I could remember from the article in the form of notes, and I’d make sure to get info from multiple sources. Then I would take a break and write from the notes I’d written. That way it was kind of putting the articles through a game of telephone- first the filter of my memory, then the filter of my interpretation of my notes. Worked well! Thanks for this great info.

Debra Erfert said...

Thank you so much for this post, Ms. Shreditor. I know I need to change a paragraph in my last story that's much to close to Google information. It doesn't really sound like me, now that I think about it.