I participated in a blog contest on my other blog a few weeks ago. Considering what happened with Melania Trump at the RNC Convention, it seemed apropos to repost it here.
For the first round, I had to answer this question:
What is originality and what is plagiarism? As writers we experience a fine line between the two. Most ideas have been done, but if we take our own original take on them, are they new? Sometimes we find inspiration or influence from other authors; it is how we grow as writers. How do you deal with this dilemma in your own writing?
The other day I complained to a friend how reading as much as I do has constrained me when it comes to starting a new story. Every time I think I have a great idea, I remember a book or story that tackled it already.
“It’s been done already,” is a phrase I oft repeat, and it’s downright depressing.
I can also point out certain ideas in my current stories that have come from other books and even television shows. Does that make me a plagiarist?
First, let’s consider the definition of plagiarism (according to the Oxford Dictionary):
the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.
On the surface, yes, I have plagiarized other writers.
According to Wikipedia, however:
Plagiarism is the “wrongful appropriation” and “stealing and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions” and the representation of them as one’s own original work. The idea remains problematic with unclear definitions and unclear rules. The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement.
Plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics. It is subject to sanctions like penalties, suspension, and even expulsion. Recently, cases of ‘extreme plagiarism’ have been identified in academia.
Plagiarism is not in itself a crime, but can constitute copyright infringement. In academia and industry, it is a serious ethical offense. Plagiarism and copyright infringement overlap to a considerable extent, but they are not equivalent concepts, and many types of plagiarism do not constitute copyright infringement, which is defined by copyright law and may be adjudicated by courts. Plagiarism is not defined or punished by law, but rather by institutions (including professional associations, educational institutions, and commercial entities, such as publishing companies).
The Bible even addresses this difficulty in the Book of Ecclesiastes (verse 1:9):
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
All in all, a certain amount of plagiarism can’t be avoided in anything we write. A large percentage of what we know and learn originated from someone else.
What we have to do as writers is try to make whatever idea, concept or thought we find from someone else, and put our own unique spin on it.
For instance, one idea I copied pertains to mental telepathy. In my stories, some of the telepaths’ strengths and weaknesses were taken (although I prefer “borrowed”) from the television series “Babylon 5.” I could claim the rest is all from me, but if I searched every book, story, and television show, I would find a lot more similarities.
My world and my telepathic characters, on the other hand, are different enough from “Babylon 5,” I believe only true fans of the show will see the similarity between the two. I doubt they’ll contact the owners of the show and convince them to sue me for plagiarism, though. If anything, they might consider it a compliment – the whole “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” kind of thing.
As the Wikipedia article states, I am certainly in an ethical gray area if taken to plagiarism’s literal definition to the extreme, but I don’t use the ideas to subvert or otherwise harm the “Babylon 5” writers, or to claim their work as my own.
That’s really all plagiarism is. It’s not using other people’s ideas and thoughts to create something different or unique, but to take something someone else has done or written in entirety and claim it as my own.
As for the rest, if you want to borrow my words and my ideas to mix in with your own, you have my permission. I’d be flattered if you did.