Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Writer's Rights and Plagiarism Pt 2

When people think of plagiarism, they usually think of essays and papers at uni or school. After all, there is a website called where you can pay for ready-made essays on all kinds of topics. Yes, if you're there to learn stuff, you really want to buy an assignment, forgetting that the purpose of assignments and essays is to show you understood what you were taught. Not. We do a big talk to our professional writing students about plagiarism, and it's not just about the penalties if you get caught. It's also about being a real writer, about being able to create your own stories and novels and poems. It's about building a reputation as a great writer, not as a word thief.

As I said in the last post, Google may make it easier for you to pinch stuff, but it also makes a heck of a lot easier to be found out. Why do people do it? Lots of reasons. A desperate need to be published and receive accolades and validation. Pressure from others to be published. Money and prestige. The pressure of deadlines that you can't meet. We have very few cases in our course, thank goodness, but we have picked up occasional attempts. One was an essay of bits pinched from all over and cobbled together into one piece. Apart from anything else, it read oddly - the change of tone and language was quite obvious. The teacher tracked down every stolen paragraph using Google.

Some writers argue that copyright is outdated and irrelevant now. I had an exchange of emails a couple of years ago with a journalist who couldn't see the point of protecting copyright. He said he wrote lots of stuff and was happy for it to be used anywhere, once he'd been paid for the first publication. He didn't seem to get my point about: a) without copyright, he couldn't have claimed that first payment - how could he prove it was his? b) as a journalist, he wrote several things a week at least - as a novel writer who might spend two years on a novel, why would I want to give that away for free?

If I don't own copyright on my own work in perpetuity, and am free to sell it and re-sell it, how can I ever make a living as a writer? My copyright is my life work, my salary, my bill payer! I certainly don't want to be reliant on the government for grants, nor do I want to have to write things I'm not interested in, simply to get a one-off payment. And if it is a one-off, and then anyone can do with the work what they like, logically the work would then be de-valued and taken less seriously, surely. Strangely enough, in the middle of all the current furore about copyright, artists (as in paintings, drawings, etc) are negotiating payment for resale of their work. Imagine that. You sell a painting for $2000, and ten years later, it re-sells for $40,000 and you get a share of the new, much higher, price.

Writers' rights are also coming up in relation to the digital age. We have Google Book Search, and the decision of whether to opt in for payments or not. We have publishers pushing contracts with digital rights that include every kind of format/version/application not even conceived of yet, for minimal payment. We don't know where digital formats will go, but hey, let's make sure authors, yet again, receive the absolute minimum. When are we going to see publishers' bean counters (because that's who pushes this stuff, not editors) realise that looking after your authors and paying them what they're worth in the marketplace is going to be a bonus? So many authors are way ahead of publishers and publicity departments in terms of reaching their audiences via the internet, blogs, podcasts, e-books, etc. Give us a bit more support and who knows what we can create together?

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