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where the power balance is more uneven, where professional writers with a platform are in a position to read the unpublished work of unknown, or less well-known, writers without a current platform.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.
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