When I was in college, there was a huge emphasis on the consequences of plagiarism. And I don’t mean, “If you steal someone’s essay, you’ll get reported for cheating and you’ll fail the class.”
No. If you got caught plagiarizing, you were expelled. Period.
It didn’t matter if you claimed it was accidental. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t verbatim. If you took something and didn’t cite it properly, you were done.
I loved that.
When I was a teenager, I joined an online writing community where I posted my melodramatic poetry. It was always appearing in other places by people who’d steal it. It wasn’t even that good, but having it stolen made me feel vulnerable and outraged. I can’t imagine how much worse I would have felt had someone plagiarized an entire novel of mine. But the fact is that most unscrupulous people don’t plagiarize whole works. They steal little bits. They’re sneaky like that.
But little bits can matter a lot. If someone steals your character names and the basic premise of your story, that can really kill your original work. Even if the thief’s prose is original, the ideas are stolen.
As an editor, this drives me crazy. Receiving plagiarized submissions is utterly offensive to me. I’d like not to have to Google everyone’s stories. I’d like people, in general, to be more ethical. In short, I’d like to be able to expel people from the universal writing community if they’re caught plagiarizing.
Another problem is libel. As writers, we often base our stories off personal experiences and our characters off real people. But this isn’t acceptable when you purposely create a fictional character to perfectly mimic someone you despise so you can harm their reputation through your writing. Um, duh.
Are these really such fine lines? Is this not common sense?
Sometimes I have to wonder.