Monday, August 23, 2010

Please Do Not Plagiarize

I don't think anybody living today can say they've never accidentally plagiarized something, whether it was on purpose or by accident. We Americans live in a culture that seems to revel in stealing the work of others and either turning it into a joke or a competing product.

Lets say you've just finished reading something that really got your imagination flowing, like Steph Meyers' The Host. When I read it, I became very interested in alien invasion stories. To be clear, I don't mean I started researching alien abductions and close encounters; I simply enjoyed the idea of aliens coming to earth for some mysterious purpose. This was the basic idea behind many episodes of the original Twilight Zone in one form or another, and sometimes the aliens turned out to be us.

After reading The Host, I didn't start trying to write a better alien invasion/romance story. I don't want to copy anything, especially not something filled with romantic mush. Instead I started trying to think of new spins on the idea.

What if the aliens are actually ancient Earthlings returning to Earth to capture a relative who has no idea his ancestors flew off in a saucer?

What if aliens land and do nothing but lie about everything? Though they already did this in a Dr. Who. SPOILERS: The alien invasion is just a cover while the real aliens subvert all of the governments of the world. END SPOILERS.

If you read enough sci-fi short stories, inevitably you're going to read something about one kind of alien invasion or another. Star Trek has done it many times, Isaac Asimov has done it more. In one episode of The Next Generation, they even had the humans dress up like aliens and move around among the aliens. Why would they do this?

To make sure it's safe for the rest of them.

I was gonna have a clip from Signs up there where that army general says that line ominously, but it seems nobody has put it on YouTube. But imagine how cool it would have been if I had had it!

Anyway, the point it that my interest in The Host didn't result in me stealing any characters, events or plot hooks and writing them into my own story. My English teachers, and probably yours too, were very adamant that we do not plagiarize!

From an academic perspective, they're more concerned that you give credit where credit is due; listing sources and whatnot. As a creative writer, it might be a little harder for some people to notice that you've stolen something, but eventually somebody is gonna figure it out, and you're gonna look like an

You obviously just took sections out of the Harry Potters and one of the Artemis Fowl books, changed the names and added steampunk laser guns!” These are the last words you hear before Scholastic Books sues you. Probably.

Of course, some people can't help plagiarizing things. Like faces.

But William! I'm a casual writer! I'm never going to get my work published! My stories are going to live on the internet forever!”

You have to remember that plagiarizing is wrong, regardless of whether or not you get paid for it. Why is it wrong? Some people don't understand why they can't make a book mashup like they do for those Nirvana songs. Yes, you have to watch at least a minute of the following video.

To answer your question, it shows you're lazy. Why would you bother writing something that you're not going to bother to write? You're wasting your time if you do this, plus it leaves you open to pot-shots from the internet community. Maybe your mom has never read Fahrenheit 451 and so misses your clear plagiarism of seashell earbuds, but you can bet your right hand that some guy online has, and he's gonna call you on it.

I knew a girl who would take any idea that “looked cool” and Blend-Tec-blended it into her own stories. It could be anything. Books, movies, comics, television, conversations. After a while you just kind of hesitate to tell her anything because you know it's gonna wind up in her story, and she's probably gonna get paid for it.

There's another kind of plagiarism that affects many people, perhaps even more than the deliberate plagiarizers: Accidental plagiarism!

Lets say you come up with a brilliant idea. You don't know where it came from, but you know it's all you. You've decided to write it down, or draw it, and somebody walks by your desk and says, “hey that looks exactly like Jack Skellington!” Or somebody reads your story and says, “This is just Speed on an airplane instead of a bus!”

I'm not sure why humans tend to do this. Other creatures might do this too, but every time I ask the dog, she just looks at me. We'll probably never know.

Anyway, I think this usually happens because we're tired, or we were half asleep in front of the TV when Twilight Zone was on. It probably comes from bad memory recall. After three years in digital art class critiques, you realize how quickly people compare things to other things. You also realize how hard it is to be original.

It gets even more annoying when your story actually is quite original, but people read it and still make comparisons that you never intended!


So I guess my point is that you should always strive for originality. Don't settle for making something “like” something else. Be creative in your creative writing.

Also, you get bonus points if you can guess the name of my favorite photo blog.


  1. I was just thinking about this the other day, only related to knitting. (Because you know my life revolves around yarn.) It's very difficult to try to come up with a design that doesn't look like someone elses.

    Also, there should definitely be no comparison between Keanu Reeves and Bruce Willis (or the movies.) Bruce Willis owns all, and Speed was lame.

  2. Try being an anime fan, to anime nerds, EVERYTHING looks like Evangelion; even things that were around before Evangelion, like the Bible (because Eva invented crosses, halos and angelic beings with eyes all over their bodies that cry acid).

    Also: Every fantasy artist subconsciously rips off Frank Frazetta. Even if they try their best not to.

  3. Try reading Eregon and counting the number of things he ripped off. First, Eregon is a name of a region in Lord of the Rings with one letter changed. Then his mentor dude is Gandalf/Obi-wan Kenobi, who gets killed off stupidly. He gets his psychic dragon and becomes a Dragonrider of Pern or whatever his dumb world was called. It goes on and on and on.

    The trouble is, when writers plaguerize a LOT of different things, they call it "artistic license" or "paying homage". Even though it's just flat-out ripping off.

  4. Well since no one answered your favorite blog question, I will is it

    You know when I was in school, I swear my English teachers used a sledge hammer and banged away with thou shall not plagiarize. I wrote a story once and I thought it was so original and I loved the whole thing, I did it weeks before it was due.
    I got it back with a a great big F with a see the teacher on it after class. I was stunned and took it up to the teacher who proceeded to tell me how I had totally ripped of a Heinlein short story. Now, not being a fantasy or a science fiction fan I was so completely shocked. The story had come to me one day in my room and I could see it as clear as a movie, it was the only time I can remember that I just wrote what I saw. I could even see how hard the wind was blowing in the square in Chicago.
    I tried to tell him over and over and he flunked me right then and there.
    It made me sort of nutty about someone stealing someone else s work.That is why I never wrote fiction again. I don't even think I wrote another story for that teacher and I think I ended up with a low grade. He wouldn't believe me so I was pretty much finished. He kept asking me over and over why I wouldn't write for him anymore, it was just a matter of principle I think. I think it is so sad when famous authors do it like Larry McMurtry did in Lonesome Dove.He stole it from a old, old book my brother has a copy of and he loved Lonesome Dove and then he read the old book with almost word for word and Larry McMurtry didn't even bother to change words, and that is his defining work I think or maybe the Last Picture Show.

    So good post, you hit a nerve I see.