Saturday, July 18, 2009

Plagiarism: Proof and Power

OK, I was a bit rushed yesterday, so here today are some more detailed thoughts about the difficulties around plagiarism.

Many of the current blog discussions centre on internet writing forums, and I have nothing to add to the helpful guidelines in avoiding committing plagiarism offered to participants. But here are some thoughts on the vexed matter of situations where the power balance is more uneven, where professional writers with a platform are in a position to read the unpublished work of unknown, or less well-known, writers without a current platform.

Some blogs have been keen to insist that those with responsibility would be unlikely to filch ideas. But consider this: if you have ever been the editor of a literary magazine or a creative writing tutor, how often have you read a piece and thought, I wish I'd had that idea!? How often have you thought, What a pity that writer hasn't written that as well as they could have done, and: I could write it better! As a past editor and creative writing tutor I've had that response several times. I've never consciously filched someone else's ideas (I want my ideas to be my own) but how many times do you think people have had that response and then either cynically (come on, now, think about human nature!) or unconsciously (think about the subconscious workings of the human brain) gone on to write that idea for themselves?

What if you are on the judging panel of a competition with a well-known filmmaker who is arguing passionately for something whose subject matter really speaks to him and says he wants to make a film of it, but in the end it doesn't win and afterwards never sees the light of day. But then one day the filmmaker makes a film which is uncannily like that piece but doesn't bear the other author's name? Is this plagiarism, ie, did the filmmaker cynically use the idea, or was he so affected by the piece that it entered his subconscious - or did the piece indeed chime with obsessions that were already there? * How can you tell? How can you prove anything, especially if you are an unknown author with no voice and no status? How would you want to - it would all be so unpleasant, and yet maybe there was no malicious intent, so how would that make you look? How would that affect your potential career?

*Edited in: this is why there's no copyright on ideas (and why neither should there be) and why therefore it's so difficult to legislate on plagiarism.

What if you join a TV new writer scheme and the well-known tutor is so impressed by the idea you have entered that he wants to know exactly how you'd do it, and is impressed in turn by that. Your piece isn't chosen for production, but then next time you see the author's work there is your story - with some different trappings, but the important things, even down to the camera shots, identical to yours. Once again, what can you do? Nothing, beyond deciding to feel flattered, because you simply can't be sure it wasn't unconscious, and anyway YOU HAVE NO POWER. What's beyond dispute is that there's no way you can offer your idea to any other TV company, ever.

I don't want to be a damp blanket and scare new writers, but I don't think we should give anyone a false sense of security: these are real cases. Personally, I am very wary nowadays of where I show my unpublished work, and I no longer read unpublished work at readings unless they're going to be recorded or filmed.

Though as I said yesterday, I think the greater general awareness of the problem created by this debate can only be good.

9 comments:

Belinda said...

Hi Elizabeth, interesting post, but ideas cannot be plagiarised because they are not protected by copyright. Does that mean they should be protected? Yes, definitely, but only by the person holding them, as you say, be wary of sharing ideas that are not fleshed out sufficiently as to then be able to claim protection for themselves. But there's also the issue of the collective unconscious, as Jung would have it, that we all have access to the same or similiar ideas and it's how we shape and mould them. Some do it overtly, some covertly. Belinda

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, I agree with all of this, Belinda. This was my implication (guess I should have been clearer, and I was about to edit a bit in): there's no legislation on protecting ideas because it's all such a grey area, and neither should there be.

SueG said...

This is all very wise. I also never read unpublished work in public and, to be honest, I don't even put it on my website or blog. I do think you have to be very very careful, unfortunately.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Great post, Elizabeth. Synchronicity. I have talked with several writers of plays (screen large/small and stage) about plagiarism over the last month, and was astounded how many had had the experience of having their submitted work copied by the selectors. Far closer copies that can be explained by collective consciousness arguments. Entire scene rip offs, plotlines, down to the individual tics in a character's behaviour/speech.

And also how many seemed to acept this is 'something that happens'.

Well, I may be naive here. But it should NOT happen. The person who has solicited the manuscripts in the first place is abusing their position totally.

Its a bit like the solicitor in Devon who years ago 'helped' my family through the sale and purchase of old and new homes. Who advised my father to sign the final sale contract on his own home the night before the 'new' property contract, and who actually signed for the 'new' property for his own son. Leaving us without a house.

and no, the Law Society did nothing.

Life, perhaps, is like that.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Vanessa, I think people accept that 'this is what happens' in the world of TV and film a) because it does happen so often and b) because those whose scripts are ripped off are, as I say, utterly without power. Of course it shouldn't happen - it's a question of morality, though again, that's the trouble, it's immoral rather than illegal, so it's nigh on impossible to anything about it. Except create a high old fuss about the general problem, as we are doing here: a whole greater awareness might serve as some kind of deterrent.

Can't believe that about your family's house....!

Sue, yes it is unfortunate that we feel we have to protect our work in this way, especially when there are such benefits in sharing, as Vanessa points out on her blog.

Elizabeth Baines said...

PS. And Belinda, I'm not sure that fleshing out our ideas (ie writing them) is enough protection - they can't protect themselves. The only protection is having had it published: then you can prove your work was written first. Some people laugh at the idea of new writers sending themselves their unpublished work as a record; I don't. I've actually done this, but it still didn't protect me because, as I say in my post above, I didn't think that little ole me with my script in a bank vault would make many waves against a gigantic corporation.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

It is strange, and I will never know... but the first thing ie ver had published was a short story sbout a young guy who got on better with cacti then people, visiting a social worker. She has cacti on the windowsill, and he talks to them...

It was published online. About 18 months later, a phonecall from someone who knew the story - 'turn the telly on.' There was a made-for-TV short film on, about a young guy who speaks to cacti, visiting a social worker, ...



pftttt.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Vanessa, that does really seem like more than a coincidence. I mean, cacti: it's so specific...

Ailsa Cox said...

Did I spell whose as who's? It's because I've been writing most of the day in my Welsh bolthole...wires are burnt out between fingers and brain.