Does plagiarism matter in fanfiction?

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Title: Does plagiarism matter in fanfiction?
Creator: tacky tramp
Date(s): August 7, 2006
Medium: online
Fandom: all fandoms, Harry Potter
Topic: fanfiction, plagiarism, Cassandra Claire, Ms.Scribe
External Links: Does plagiarism matter in fanfiction?, Archived version
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Does plagiarism matter in fanfiction? is a August 7, 2006 post by tacky tramp to Fanthropology.

The subject was plagiarism, with a focus on Cassandra Claire and The Cassandra Claire Plagiarism Debacle.

Opening paragraph:

Many of you have probably already seen bad_penny's latest piece of fandom history: one longtime fan's account of "the Cassandra Claire plagiarism debacle." It's not quite as delightful as the MsScribe chronicle -- there's much less jaw-dropping bat-shittery here, but perhaps more seriously thought-provoking fodder for fanthropological discussion. [links to bad penny and The Cassandra Claire Plagiarism Debacle] I read through this last night, staying up far past my intended bedtime; this morning has been similarly consumed by following the comments and the wank that may well be just beginning. charlottelennox captured my attention because the characters and situations were so over-the-top and the aftereffects so surprisingly far-reaching. This, on the other hand, is a grimmer sort of page-turner. This is a nigh-incontrovertible skewering of the BNF of all BNFs, who, unlike MsScribe, is still a gargantuan presence in fandom. Who has reduced hundreds, maybe thousands, of readers to tearful wibbling with the last installment of the sprawling Draco Trilogy. Who has been quoted and fangirled and merchandised and god knows what else for six years. And who has grabbed the brass ring and gotten herself a book deal. Cassandra Claire is the fanfic golden girl. Which makes the bad_penny story more than a naughty, after-the-fact tell-all: it threatens character assassination.

If, that is, you think there's anything wrong with plagiarism in fanfic.

Running throughout the objections to and dismissals of Cassie Claire critiques (which have been around since 2001) is the idea that this just isn't that important. Okay, maybe she lifted some descriptions and some dialogue in her early fics, but all fanfic is derivative anyway. It's not serious writing. It's about fun and humor; it's lighthearted; it's ironic; it's practice; it's play; so the normal rules don't apply.

This may or may not be an accurate reflection of how fanfiction is intended by its authors. However, it absolutely does not speak to the way much fanfic is received by its readers.

Excerpts from Comments

  • comment by madlori
    "I'm tangentially connected to these events (I'm the Lori who is cited as a "minor player" and I run the often-mentioned PoU list) and Cassie is a friend of mine. You might call me a BNF. If we still have such things in HP, which we increasingly don't (and thank God). I posted one comment on the bad_penny community, and all I said was that regardless of where you stand on the CC plagiarism debacle, I think that her new trilogy ought to be judged on its own merits and not based on what she may or may not have done in her fanfiction. I'm a little more concerned that it seems posts were deleted from my mailing list without my knowledge. But that's another issue."

  • comment by tacky tramp
    "It seems a lot of people are adopting a zero-tolerance policy with respect to her -- she plagiarized once, so they'll never read anything of hers again, as a way of demonstrating their disapproval of her past actions and apparent unrepentance. That seems a not-unusual response to plagiarizers. It all comes down to how much you think lifting from Pamela Dean, et al., without adequately crediting, matters. If you find it a Huge Effing Deal, then CC is a Very Bad Person and you'll never touch anything she has sullied. I suspect, however, that many who are making such a show renouncing her and her forthcoming novels wouldn't have read them anyway."

  • comment by madlori
    "Yes, I think plagiarism matters in fanfiction. That being said, I don't think there's harm in borrowing the occasional line of dialogue or turn of phrase. I've done it. Pro writers do it all the time. However, there's a big difference between a line here and there and whole passages. There are exhaustive line-by-line comparisons in the Saga of Cassie's Misdeeds as posted on bad_penny. Some of the comparisons are, I admit, very close. But some of them are just ridiculous. In one example, where Cassie says "Try to hurry," the contention is made that that line is plagiarized from Zelazny's line "You'll have to sketch rapidly." The idea is the same, agreed, but you can't plagiarize ideas. In what way are those two phrases the same?"

  • comment by eiviiaru
    "I'm prepared to believe that much, if not most, of the Draco Trilogy was no more derivative than average for fanfic, but if so, it gets even more sloppy and thoughtless of Cassie. If she could have thought up plot developments and scenes as strong as what she copied, why copy, except to avoid effort and get chapters out faster? Why sully your primary fanwork, something that has given you acclaim and even inroads into the publishing industry, by lifting plot elements cheaply instead of taking a little more time and creating something truly your own? Even if it's not plagiarism, it's downright embarrassing."

  • comment by dragonscholar
    "Pretty much my feeling. Fanfic adopts ideas and concepts and characters - and acknowledges them. Plagarism takes chunks of other world and doesn't acknowledge the sources. In short, plagarism is a lie. Writing is writing. And having seen people get worked up about fanfiction, it definitely DOES matter to people. I've also seen people get worked up about fanfiction and fanart theft."

  • comment by Victoria wayne
    "I think plagarism in fanfic matters, definitely. It's not a monetary issue, because almost everything is being borrowed... I think of it as misbehaving in the sandbox, so to speak. We're all here to play, and even if it "doesn't really matter" in the long run, it makes things less fun, it makes people angry, and it makes the author feel hurt."

  • comment by millefiori
    "From what I'm seeing, the reactions to this are very polarized, so I feel I'm kind of in the minority. I totally think CC was wrong and that what she did was clearly plagiarism. And plagiarism is one of those things that will haunt a writer forever--in some ways it's 'once a plagiarist, always a plagiarist' even if later works are entirely original. But I also think that a whole lot of the fandom outrage over CC's plagiarism stems more from grudges, personal vendettas, and CC's own incredibly bad handling of the whole mess, than the crime itself. So while I don't support her, I honestly can't work up all that much moral outrage about it either. She was caught and outed, so she's not getting away with it. She didn't profit financially from it. The stigma of being a known plagiarist has followed her for years now, and will probably continue to do so as long as she's a known writer. As far as I'm concerned that's punishment enough. I totally agree that fanfic matters, and I think the CC supporters who are trying to minimize her crime by minimizing fanfic itself are being disingenuous at best. I've also seen it justified as CC playing an open game of 'spot the quote' with her fans, but...I read part of the DT way back in the day, before I ever heard about the plagiarism, and I've only watched one or two episodes of BtVS. Because I didn't recognize the true origin of the dialogue, I'm one of the readers who was duped into thinking that it was CC's own writing. To me the game argument only works if there's a clear acknowledgement that it's being done."

  • comment by tacky tramp
    "Depends on how you define "getting away with it" and "profiting financially." To this day, she has the biggest fanbase of any fanficcer I'm aware of, and she will always have lots of fans who have never seen the bad_penny report. She got her stolen laptop replaced by her fans. She's made money (I think?) off VSD merchandise. And if you think her built-in fandom fanbase didn't contribute to her getting that book deal, I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you. That said, I do agree that anti-CC and anti-BNF sentiment is involved in some of the reactions to the tale. We always love to see someone famous disgraced, especially if one doesn't think said person's fame is deserved."

  • comment by millefiori
    "To me, profitting financially means making money from the work that was plagiarized. Because the DT is fanfic, she'll never profit directly from it, though I totally agree that her book deal is a result of her fandom popularity. It's a gray area. As for getting away with it, I guess it's possible some of her fans don't know about/may never see the plagiarism accusations, but I think the vast majority eventually learn something about it, simply because it's dogged her *so* persistently that anyone who follows her writing will eventually run into some mention of it somewhere. More importantly IMO, her publishers know, and if she's lucky enough to gain any kind of professional fame, reporters will root out the scandal and make sure the public knows as well. I just don't think a laptop and a bunch of fans outweighs having the black mark of plagiarism forever associated with her writing career."

  • comment by windtear
    "At least one person who has read the account has stated in the comments to it that they have telephoned the company under their real name and asked the company to get the editor to verify that the novel isn't plagiarised before publishing. Others have said that they were going to write to the company to do the same. How do you stand on a request to the publisher, not to prevent publishing, but to make sure that their own arses are covered?"

  • comment by tacky tramp
    "Oh, dear -- I hadn't even thought of someone writing to try to prevent publication. That would definitely scan as cruel and petty to me. "ZOMG DON'T PUBLISH CC'S A BEEOTCH!!!!" :-P I do think the publishers deserve to know that they have a writer on their hands who has a history of plagiarism—plagiarism that she has, at times, argued was the unintended consequence of poor note-taking or eidetic memory, and so she may not even be able to prevent herself. And, of course, that she has never been willing to make adequate recompense for. I just don't know if it's a particularly nice thing to actually do the "snitching," you know?"

  • comment by phoenixw
    "I'm not convinced that plagiarism matters in fanfiction, in the sense that it would be very difficult to prove monetary losses due to infringement via fanfiction. So if no harm is being done, what's the problem? I'm deeply disturbed by what it says to writers - especially new writers - about the process of writing. I'm totally turned off by writers who take other people's words and put them in the mouths of their characters. It says something very painful and sad about the writer's abilies and self-confidence. It also shakes my confidence in the writer: which of these are, in fact, their words? That really clever bit that I laughed at a minute ago? Maybe it was originally written by someone else. Why does the writer deserve accolades for that text? The answer is, of course, they don't. Suggesting that pro writers do it simply doesn't wash: pro writers may have a character reference a common phrase by speaking it, the same way we do when we're talking and we use a quote from Star Trek or the African Queen. That's not plagiarism, that's dialog the way it happens in real life. Pro writers rely on their own words to carry the story, good or bad. Applying a lesser standard to fanfiction does no one any favors and encourages indiscriminate reading (and writing) habits. And it's demoralizing. Please, write your own words. They really are good enough."

  • comment by tacky tramp
    "Perhaps because part of the joy in good literature is its freshness, and that's obliterated by the discovery that it's not fresh at all but flat-out ripped off?"

  • comment by after the rain
    "there is a weird sort of literary intimacy there. People get attached to characters and stories and love them as much as they love any other body of work. I know that I love the Silmarillian a lot and kinda take a little bit of offense when people say they don't like it. No one likes to feel betrayed either. Its hard for me to watch Buffy now without thinking of how many of Draco's witty lines were Buffy or Willow or Giles, and wishing that I had watched Buffy first and not read DT.... I think plagerism is wrong. Yes, people lift a quote or two all the time, that I don't have a problem with, because generally is so easily recognizable that no one thinks anything of it. What I do have a problem with is the long passages that are yoinked. Some of the quotes on the list are a little shaky as far as being related goes. The DT is a huge body of work, and for actually completing that, I applaud CC. For plagerizing, I give her two thumbs down. I probably won't read her books when they come out, unless I've got a friend who picks them up."

  • comment by ignazwisdom
    "I can't believe we even have to ask whether "plagiarism matters." I'm sort of nauseated by the attempts to defend this. I really tried to keep an open mind—different people have different sets of ethics, et cetera—but I really can't."

  • comment by tacky tramp
    "it's not just that her works were popular, it's that she was/is popular in a way that I don't know if mainstream authors ever are. I mean, does Stephen King have rabid fanpoodles? It might be one of those quirks of fandom that big-name fanfic writers are simultaneously distant public figures and highly accessible potential friends. That's bound to intensify the connection people feel to their fave authors."

  • comment by dragonscholar
    "I doubt many people who would forgive plagarism for someone they know would forgive it if it happened to their work.. My thoughts, besides those responses I posted, is simply this: plagarism is lying... Plagarism is taking something other people did and not giving them credit. It's claiming a work as your own. I'm not sure I can call it theft (on something easily duplicable like information, I debate the word theft), but I can call it deception. You're asking for credit for something you didn't do. Fanfiction itself isn't theft - the sources are (or should be) clearly acknowledged. The work doesn't attempt to replace the original work, it builds onto it. The fanfiction does not masquerade as something else."

  • comment by eveningblue
    "What I'm getting from the comments over on bad_penny is that while a lot of people knew she either was a plagiarist or had been accused of being a plagiarist, lots of people are surprised at the extent to which she lifted whole scenes directly from previously published works. Now that white_serpent has documented the whole thing, more people will be convinced. She may have a book contract now, but how long will that last? Once people see that "her" writing was really the writing of other authors, I wonder how many will be rushing to buy her books."

  • comment by tacky tramp
    "I wonder if some of the perhaps-unconscious motivation behind these confessions and tell-alls in HP is the spreading sense that the fandom is waning. Yeah, there will still be people ficcing and metaing and such once Book 7 is out, but it won't be the same. This is the last chapter. Time to come clean about things, or expose things to the light. I'm interested to see if this spreads to other fandoms. Not that any other fandoms are quite so wanktastic as HP ..."

  • comment by starwatcher307
    "When someone is exposed as a plagiarist, it casts a shadow of distrust over the entire genre of fanfiction and fandom itself. If we can't trust our fellow fans, who can we trust? This person used somebody else's words; can we trust that other authors didn't do the same? This person stole the time and work that another person expended; might my time and work also be stolen? If TPTB have reason to believe that their official works might be plagiarized, might they try to crack down on the production of fanfc? I'm think maybe I'm being too esoteric here. But my gut feeling is that plagiarism in fanfic matters because it undermines the foundations of trust that holds fandom together. Many of us use fandom as an escape from real life; we expect fandom to be "better" than RL, less stressful. Of course that's not always true, but plagiarism strikes at that belief much more deeply that other kerfuffles. I may prefer this pairing, she may perfer that; we can agree to disagree. But NObody likes a plagiarist."

  • comment by tacky tramp
    "Cassie could reasonably expect that her audience would recognize the lines in question as being lifted directly from JKR's text; she wouldn't be passing it off as her own writing, so there would be no dishonest appropriation of someone else's work. This is why the unattributed Buffy quotes don't bother me all that much. CC could possibly believe that Buffy is widely enough known that it isn't necessary for her to cite them all. (I think she's wrong about that, but it's a legitimate belief.) But Pamela Dean? Please. She had to know no one would recognize it. If not for Avocado's taste for obscure, out of print fantasy, we'd never know that some of the best prose in DT isn't Cassie's at all."

  • comment by Victoria wayne
    "...fanfic is community-based work done purely for enjoyment of the author and readers. No money, very small possibilities for fame, just fun and sometimes, even meaningful. Even though I have no connexion to the HP fandom, other than having read most of the books, I still got angry about this. I used the sandbox metaphor before. She wasn't just hogging the toys. She was pissing in the corner and hoping nobody would notice. And that's just icky."

  • comment by shawan 7
    "What I find interesting is the cultural change towards plagerism. In the late 90s, I remember having a discussion with some Net fans and being upset that printed works and posted stories could be so easily plagerised into other fandoms, and the authors would never find out. Neither of the people I talked with, cared -- they saw no problem with it. But now I'm seeing that it's being responded to very negatively. I'm glad to see it. Because it is theft. There is unconscious lifting -- you read the book 30 years ago, and the motief comes up from your unconscious, but from reading through the CC saga, that's not the case here. It's wrong."

  • comment by Icarus
    "This is fascinating because Cassandra Claire's Draco Sinister and the plagiarized stories of two other major fanfiction authors were all written in 2000-2001. I'm wondering if we're seeing a retroactive reaction to something that was a common practice, and the reaction to is what created our present standard."