Weekend stuff and pondering on plagiarism

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Title: Weekend stuff and pondering on plagiarism
Creator: rahirah
Date(s): August 8, 2006
Medium: online post
External Links: Weekend stuff and pondering on plagiarism; archive page 1, archive page 2
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Weekend stuff and pondering on plagiarism is a 2006 post by rahirah.

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts from the Post

I've been reading latest the exercise in fannish history over on Bad Penny, the folks who brought us the MsScribe saga. This one is an account of the Cassie Claire plagiarism scandal, and it's interesting to me because of the various grades of things which are labeled plagiarism. There's the blatant re-working of a scene from Pamela Dean's "The Hidden Land," of course, and many, many instances of whole sentences lifted word for word from various other fantasy novels. That's something which I'd consider clear and undisputed plagiarism under any circumstances, and it astounds me that anyone could defend it, no matter what kind of disclaimers are attached. (I'm also a little astounded that anyone who purports to take their writing seriously would do that in the first place, but people are odd.)

That alone is enough to condemn her. But there are other instances which I find myself wondering about, namely the complaints about CC using pop-culture quotes without attribution.

It's common practice in BtVS/AtS fandom to include scads of pop culture quotes, riffs, allusions, etc. in one's stories without attribution, because this is the way the characters talked in the TV shows. Joss isn't the first writer to work in this style by any means; for a somewhat more literary example, see Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter books. Her characters trade quotes like mad, and the reader is expected to be well-educated enough to recognize them. Another good example would be old Warner Brothers cartoons, though the allusions there are mainly visual.

This technique is not suitable for all types of fiction. One of its downsides is that it dates the story, roots it very firmly in a particular time, place, and culture. I don't think it would suit a Firefly fic at all, because I'd have trouble believing that much of our current culture would survive that long. I think I'd find it distracting and annoying in HP fic for the opposite reason: the HP books have a timeless air which makes little or no reference to real-world events or fads. To have Harry and Hermione trading references to Gilligan's Island and Al-Quaida would seriously break my brain.

When I use a reference or a quote in a story, I fully expect readers to realize that it is a reference or a quote. Not all readers will get every reference, but no matter how obscure it is, someone, somewhere, will notice Willow's comment on Jonathan's pseudonym in "My Baby Is A Centerfold" and go "Horatio Hellpop! Ha! That's Nexus's secret identity! What a geek!" It was one of my great sorrows when writing EQ fic that while I could make up quotes from elvish poetry or epics for my characters to use, no one would get them in the way that a reader would get a Shakespeare quote; they had no context, no history, no connotations.

Most Jossverse fic writers attribute substantial chunks of poetry or song lyrics when they use them, but otherwise, the reader is tossed into the pop culture stew to sink or swim as they will. This describes my own writing style to a T; I love references, quotes, and allusions of all kinds. It never occurred to me that people might find this questionable; that was the way everyone wrote fic in this fandom, and it seemed to me to be an outgrowth of an established literary tradition. I did, at one point, get feedback from a reader who suggested that I was being remiss in failing to fully annotate all my stories. I explained that this wasn't the custom in these here parts, and besides, it would be a Herculean task that I simply didn't have time to undertake, and thought no more of it.

Reading the Cassie Clare thing has made me re-ponder the question. At what point does allusion become plagiarism? A lengthy exchange of dialogue substantially reproducing a conversation from another source would seem to be a no-brainer: that's plagiarism. But where do we draw the line? One sentence? Two sentences? Three? What if the sentences are re-worked a bit for humorous or ironic impact?


Excerpts from Comments at the Post

I think some of this speaks to extent of use. If you toss in a few pop culture references, and folks email you, and you say "yea, I did that," and it happens once or twice in your fanfic career, no foul. But this woman committed clear plagiarism *in addition* to using the kinds of references which alone would not have been cause for censure. She also initially denied most of the charges, and only fessed up when confronted with overwhelming evidence. And even then, she never did come clean to the fact that what appears to be at least 1/3 of her stuff isn't, well, her stuff. She also used her online work, much of it plagiarized, to garner real world writing cred and eventually, a publishing gig. It's one thing to steal in the fandom world- not a good thing, mind. But it's a whole other ball of badness to translate even *questionable* ethics into the real life publishing world.

It astonishes me that people would ever mistake references/quotes/allusions for plagiarism. I think it shows a hideous deficit in education, to be honest. They don't know what plagiarism *is*, if they think that, and need to read up on the definition.

What I recall from the Wimsey novels is that it was always made clear in the text when the character was quoting something literary - but it wasn't annotated.

Lots of times it's clear to me someone's making a reference or quoting even if I don't know what the source is. I'd never consider that plagiarism. I love pop culture allusions whether or not I always catch 'em.

I better go finish reading that bad_penny thing. I almost forgot I had the screen up ...

It astonishes me that people would ever mistake references/quotes/allusions for plagiarism. I think it shows a hideous deficit in education, to be honest. They don't know what plagiarism *is*, if they think that, and need to read up on the definition.

Exactly. Often I see fannish discussions where people will say something along the lines of "I think x is plagiarism/copyright infringement," as if the definition were up for debate. It's ignorant, and sometimes I feel that it smacks of a sense of entitlement.

Writers have made allusions and cultural references for almost as long as there's been writing. They're are part of the form. They can provide a cultural context, color, commentary, and a verisimilitude of reality. What they don't do is plagiarize.
Well, as [the person who asked me to annotate my fic is] someone I like and respect a great deal, I think I'll pass. But I think it's just a different tradition. Half the point of Tolkien is the footnotes!
It has never occurred to me that one should footnote a quotation or allusion to counter the charge of plagiarism, I'd always assumed it was just for reader info in case they were interested. I reckon as regards plagiarism I know it when I see it. If it's a case where people aren't sure then it isn't worth worrying about because nobody will ever prove incontrovertibly that that was what it was.
[st salieri]:

Given the fact that Joss Himself and the rest of the BtVS writers throw around pop references with abandon, and that they have no problem admitting to homages to other shows/movies on the DVD commentaries, I'm inclined to be a bit lenient on the matter of pop references. And after all, they're a useful thing in fixing the characters in a particular time and setting


The only way you can get away with it, I think, is if it's appropriate to the story. Willow geeking out with a particularly nerdy pop reference? Perfect for her character, and something she would have done on the show. Draco using very Jossian language and turns of phrase? Er, no. Not at all. And the reason why it's so, so wrong is because the Potterverse characters presumably aren't familiar with the Buffyverse at all. The only way it would work would be if he was deliberately quoting Buffy (for instance, the "I may be dead, but I'm still pretty," line) to make a point, but...he's clearly not. That line is supposed to be organic to him. He's not referencing anything the same way that Willow is, and so it doesn't work. Quite a few commenters have mentioned being frustrated with CC's stories because the extensive quoting and paraphrasing and referencing completely inhibits the flow of the writing.

I'm not a big fan of "find the quote!" writing unless it's stated in large, bold print at the top of each chapter that this is what the author is doing. When you have fangirls out there, as CC does, who still attribute certain borrowed quotes to her wit and writing talent, something's wrong.

Draco using very Jossian language and turns of phrase? Er, no. Not at all. And the reason why it's so, so wrong is because the Potterverse characters presumably aren't familiar with the Buffyverse at all. The only way it would work would be if he was deliberately quoting Buffy (for instance, the "I may be dead, but I'm still pretty," line) to make a point, but...he's clearly not. That line is supposed to be organic to him.

Yes, exactly. The quotes simply do not fit the characters (many quotes are very American or at the very least very Muggle) and furthermore, they're not meant to be the characters quoting things, but as you said, organic to the characters.

If I write a fic in which someone geeky like Elijah Wood says "All your X are belong to us." that works. If Draco quotes it, it makes no sense because how would he know about All Your Base? He's not familiar with Muggle technology, and furthermore, the books are set before the AYB phenomenon. If I had Draco saying "all your X are belong to us" completely unironically and expected my audience to believe it was his own words, that's just bizarre, yet that's essentially what Cassie has done.

To make it worse, she's consistently praised for her witty dialogue and banter, none of which is hers! And there are no attempts made to correct this assumption. Obviously someone as popular as she is isn't going to know every time someone posts a "favorite Draco Trilogy quotes" page and attributes all these Joss and Red Dwarf lines to Cassie, but she has surely seen them around and has surely seen people specifically quoting them back to her in feedback. Her LJ is very widely read. She could simply make a post saying "hey, guys, I've noticed a lot of you saying you like X and Y and Z lines, but they're actually from Buffy" instead of just sitting back and basking in the praise.

That's what makes it wrong on top of just being bad writing.

Reading the first few parts of the Cassie Claire thing, it seems a little similar to those 'rewrites' of famous films/books etc. with another cast - and I decided a while ago that stop_plagiarism was going to try and steer clear of those, because they are such a dodgy area. I think that if people want to write Star Wars substituting the Buffy characters, and it's pretty clear that's what they're doing, their work isn't being misrepresented because the audience understands what it is.

Of course, in most cases, what you expect is a not very well executed prose summary of Star Wars with the Buffy characters and some changed dialogue (at least I think you still do, I haven't read one in a while). In a rewrite of a book, though, like Harry Potter for example, I wouldn't expect someone to just sit there typing up passages of Harry Potter and substututing the names. I would argue that could be still a little dodgy though, especially with just dialogue, because presumably people reading a Buffy=Harry Potter fic will have read Harry Potter and so might be aware en masse. Officially, yes, copying a passage's worth of dialogue to be the main dialogue of the fic would be plagiarism, but in the informal world of fanfic I think the factor of an audience's perception has to be taken into account - just like when someone says at the top of the fic that some lines are taken from an episode, and they then start their fic with an exchange of dialogue from the show. They don't annotate specifically because the general readership is aware of what is what.

The problem comes, in my opinion, when people start trying to do it in a fic that is not explicitly a 'rewrite' fic, because you end up with a lot of people who don't have the same knowledge as the author and so believe that passages are the author's just because the 'reference' goes straight over their heads. stop_plagiarism had a case once where someone changed some anime fanfic to Spander, but said clearly in their disclaimer who the original fic was by and gave links to it. The problem was that mostly people did not read the links and so had no idea what was the author's work and what wasn't.

I think, in general, quotes of or in dialogue, if they aren't the main thrust of the story, are OK, because they're usually apparent, no matter whether you know the source or not. Obviously-quoted exchanges are also usually pretty clear (like the Star Wars one between Andrew and First!Warren in CWDP). Personally, though, I would frown on 'prose quotes' - if Buffy were to come across a wall that led to a secret alley of wacky shops, for example, I would be all right with Giles pulling out a pink umbrella, and wouldn't necessarily raise a flag if he were to tap the third brick up, fourth on the right (or whatever it is). I'd probably expect someone to comment on it or it to be written about with at least a hint of irony. I definitely wouldn't be happy though if someone had just copied JKR's description of Diagon Alley without real alteration. I myself wouldn't recognise it if the author were to describe the wall with the same words as JKR, so I would see that as a rip-off rather than an allusion. (Obviously, that meaning a description in the sense of 'crumbly like shortbread' or something. I wouldn't quibble about 'made of bricks'.)

Basically, I would say anything where the author has clearly reached for their source material and had it open as they typed is bad, and that the deciding factor should be how it comes across to the reader.
[sixth light]:

I'm all for allusion, but the difference with Cassie Claire is that she made her rep as a writer on being witty, and most of the wit wasn't hers. She just cherrypicked funny lines to make her writing look better (and even if she didn't, that's how it comes across.) That's not cool.

On top of that, the characterisation and canonicity of her characters is completely sacrificed in favour of jamming in quotes. That's plain bad writing.
[thalia seawood]:

Word! I, for example, did not know "Buffy" at the time nor most of the other material she liberally used in her own work. I thought Cassie Claire was brilliant and that "Draco Dormiens" was a great story.

When she was charged with plagiarism, I did not get the extent of what she did. I was no longer that active in HP at the time, didn't have a livejournal and missed half of the discussion. I found it kind of unfair when she was banned from fanfiction.net, but wasn't all that upset.

However, now that I know "Buffy" and other TV shows she "borrowed" from I'm mightily pissed off. She really stole her brilliance from others and pretended it was her own.

I read most, if not all, of |the CC saga, and wondered how she is going to cope writing in the outside world. As well thinking how unfair that she gets a publishing deal when so many truly original writers don't!

I have no problem with pop-culture quotes and allusions at all where they are right for the character. I reckon that as Willow, Jonothan etc. don't credit them as they go along in the show, they don't need to be creditted when the same characters use the same speech style in fanfic. Some phrases have become so much part of everyday speech that we almost forget that they are quotes, and that is normal.

Writing a story trying to get in as many quotes and allusions as possible as a genre in itself is also fine IMHO, my husband (speakr2customrs) can be something of a past-master at that, but it should be very clear to the passing reader that this is what the piece is all about. In that sort of exercise individual quotes are better not referenced as part of the fun is spotting them.

But although CC insisted that that was all she was doing, and 'all her friends KNEW this was the case', she did not seem to make it clear to any readers who weren't her 'friends in the know'. This was getting to borderline acceptable at least - especially if someone compliments her on a nice phrase, and instead of saying 'thanks - that is a quote from Terry Pratchett/Oscar Wild/Nancy Mitford/whoever', she just preens and says 'how lovely of you to like the way I write'.

But copying whole scenes as she also did is clearly plagiarism, it is not 'inspired by', or 'in the style of' - it is clearly 'copied from' - and even with a disclaimer it is still plagiarism.

I loved all the pop culture references on BtVS; they made the writing sharp and smart, and grounded the fantastical subject matter firmly in our own familiar world. They made it easier to relate to the characters and accept the unfamiliar and unreal in their 'verse.

I love pop cultural references in fic and fiction for the same reason - so long as they're character appropriate. As you pointed out, their use is consistent with canon. I can't imagine that enclosing them with quotes or attributing them in authors notes or footnotes or some such would be necessary or desirable. The nice thing about pop-culture references is the way they blend into the dialog or the text - getting them, or getting them all, isn't necessary to getting the story but they do enhance it. Marking them out would spoil the fun.

Terry Pratchett never does.

I think it's more a question of percentages. If the majority of your humor comes from other sources then there's a problem. In CC's case it *looks* like she didn't have an original idea in her head.

I agree, it's a sticky quastion. I'm really glad I've never been into HP fandom of I'd be feeling pretty dissallusioned by now.
I didn't start watching Buffy until well after I'd stopped reading the Draco Trilogy, but there was one thing that stuck in my mind. That was the scene in the second one where Draco emerges into the kitchen at breakfast just as someone (Ron?) is calling him a "vicious, cold-blooded -- piece of toast?" Around that time, I was on some board where someone was trying to come up with a "famous" scene in HP fanfic; some scene that most of the fandom would instantly recognize. That scene was the primary nominee, and everyone agreed that it was very well-known, and a hilarious bit of Cassie's writing. *No one* seemed to have any clue that it was a reference to Buffy. I can't remember if Cassie was on that board, but it wasn't a small board, so it seems like it would have gotten back to her. Once I started watching Buffy a few years later, I got to that episode, saw Willow refer to Oz as a cold-blooded jelly doughnut, and just sat up straight in shock, because there was really no mistaking the scene. The breakfast food was changed, but it was otherwise pretty much identical, and years later, I'd remembered it.

I still think it's the other part of my argument that makes me uncomfortable. Draco wouldn't love Buffy to the point of quoting it, if anything he'd watch it to mock the stupid muggles for getting magic so horribly wrong. And he definitely wouldn't pay homage to it by quoting it.

I guess that mostly makes CC a terrible writer if one chooses to believe that her Draco actually watches Buffy. And if he doesn't, then we're right back at the beginning where it feels like stealing because the only one who knows that the words coming out of Draco's mouth actually belong to a BtVS staff writer is CC herself.

I've unattributedly quoted it before and I'll unattributedly quote it again:

"Originality is like porn. I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."

What you do, is reference other people's shit. What Cassie Claire did, was rip off other people's shit. Definitions schmefinitions.

I don't know what CC's fans were all smoking, because it's screamingly obvious to me. Didn't any of these these people ever have to write annotated papers in high school/college? Sheesh.

I can see why people look at her funny, especially since rampant pop-culture quotes just aren't a part of Harry Potter canon the way they are a part of Buffy canon. If someone called her on it, she'd admit that she'd taken the lines from elsewhere, but...it was all kind of iffy.

Then someone found out that she'd essentially copied a whole scene from The Hidden Land, which was pretty much beyond the pale. I can't believe she had so many people defending that. Even if it was an accident, as she claims, if someone caught me in that kind of 'accident' I'd put a bag over my head and leave fandom in shame.
Allusions are fun, but they're by definition an in-joke meant to be shared with the reader. Apparently, Cassie Claire was feeding them to an audience that thought she was coming up with all those snappy one-liners herself. That's not playing the game fairly.

I've been thinking about this off and on today. The difference between reference/allusion and plagiarism seems so clear to me, but it's not the easiest thing to put into words. I've been thinking of reference-heavy writers like Pratchett, Sayers, Wodehouse, Connie Willis, etc. to try to formulate what they do that makes it so clear that they're referencing, not stealing.

The biggest thing is that when you're referencing, your work is better if the reader gets the reference. They might laugh or gain new insight into your characters or make a connection you're trying to get across. Somehow, it adds a second meaning. If you're plagiarizing, it's better if they don't realize that what they're reading comes from somewhere else, because you're using someone else's words to make the first, most basic meaning of the text. It's the words you're stealing, whereas in reference you're pulling in the whole context. And, often, the context for the original quote is a poor fit, anyway.

Writers who do a lot of referencing have some pretty definite techniques they use to cue the reader in to look for the references. Like Pratchett will select a "theme" -- maybe "Phantom of the Opera" or American rock music -- and there will be a pattern of references to that all through the work. You'll know to expect them and look for them. Of course, he also provides extensive annotations outside his text. Sayers, as someone said above, has the characters say or think that they're quoting something, and she often cleverly works the attribution somewhere into the dialogue (though it took me AGES to find the "shabby tigers" in the pre-internet era!). Wodehouse will have Jeeves and Bertie discuss (attribute) the quote the first time they use it, and then he'll use it more freely after that. Some quotes signal themselves, as in "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The name "Horatio" is a big clue that there's some quoting going on, unless you've named a character Horatio. Or archaic language can do it, or setting the quotation off in italics, or suddenly falling into rhymes.

Somehow or another, writers successfully signal their references, because you'll often find people asking "okay, what is this a reference to?" Plagiarists hide theirs. References make you feel all smart and illuminated when you find them. Plagiarism makes you feel disgusted and indignant.
[sl walker]:

Another fandom that everyone seems to be overlooking in the allusion vs. plagiarism debate is the Mystery Science Theater 3000 group. In canon, many of the riffs are pop culture references; they never cite their source because the show is specifically geared towards an audience where, at least, some person somewhere will get the reference and find it funny.

My own two cents, though it's on the late side and already stated, is that Cassie Claire outright stole whole paragraphs of prose, and it was very obviously NOT in the spirit of allusion or parody. She took them and passed them off as her own, without so much as a hint that they belong to someone else. And unlike MST3K, where people know the almost the entire show is based on allusion, observation and the spirit of parody, she went about her theft with dead-serious intent.

And that makes all the difference.