Monday, July 27, 2015

Revenge of the plagiarist

Cover illustration by Derek Carlisle for Salt Lake City Weekly. Copyright © 2015 Salt Lake City Weekly

Rachel Nunes is a prolific and respected Latter-day Saints writer. She has published 48 novels, including Christian romance novels for LDS women. Her 1998 book, Love to the Highest Bidder, re-released as an e-book on re-titled A Bid for Love, was identified by a reviewer as being the basis for a plagiarized version called The Auction Deal by Sam Taylor Mullens. The Auction Deal was a review copy, still unpublished, when Nunes found out it ripped off her book. There are some slight differences: the plagiarized version is told in the first person, and there are a lot of hot sex scenes added. But basically what Mullens did was just retype Nunes' book. Nunes contacted Mullens, who promised not to publish the book.

But then Nunes became the target of a smear campaign, including bad reviews of her books by a variety of readers. and a furious program of disinformation and harassment aimed at her. According to Nunes and her lawyer, the attack was launched by the plagiarist. I don't have the room for all of the things that Nunes has claimed Mullens did to her using “sock puppets” (false identities), but you can read about them yourself in the original article from Salt Lake City Weekly, “Ripped and Ravaged” by Carolyn Campbell

After investigating, Nunes found out that “Sam Taylor Mullens” is really Tiffanie Rushton, who is — of all things — a third grade teacher. That immediately got my interest. I worked around teachers for over 30 years, and there are many for whom teaching moral and civic responsibility right along with the 3 R's is very important, but there are also teachers who can get in a whole lot of trouble for various reasons unrelated to the classroom. So while surprising, it is not the worst thing I have ever heard of a teacher doing.

But, why plagiarism? Why steal the words of someone else, unless you have absolutely no talent — or think you don’t — for slinging words together in some coherent and interesting way? And when caught, why would the accused cut loose with a dedicated program of revenge toward the victim, as if in some way the plagiarist had become the injured party? It defies logic, but then, I am not someone who would copy whole paragraphs, chapters or even whole books and claim them to be my own. I don't understand the mind that can.

I am careful to use attributions for quotations, but that is for my own legal protection. According to the article, plagiarism is not a crime. It is a civil offense. So, in order to punish a plagiarist, a lawsuit (costly) must be launched, and hopefully it will lead to a monetary settlement. That is why Nunes is suing Rushton for $130,000. According to Rushton's attorney, she offered an apology and to take the book off sale, but Nunes has proceeded with the suit. The revenge assault by the accused is just icing on the cake for Nunes’ lawyers. It shows malice, and also an ignorance of computers. Maybe Rushton did not know that any electronic communications sent from a computer can be tracked by its IP number. Those phony e-mails, Facebook postings and one-star reviews of Nunes’s other books were traced back to Rushton.

I have also been plagiarized. A couple of years ago another blogger warned me that some Chinese blog had stolen blog entries from both of us. Our names were taken off, but the rip-offs just copied and pasted our posts onto their blog. I was not as outraged as the person who contacted me, but I wasn't happy about it, either. But sue? How? My stuff is on the Internet, the greatest thieves’ market in the world. My blogs carry no copyright notices unless I am publishing fiction, which I have done a few times. Even then, who knows how much good that does?

Besides the plagiarisms in college theses, newspapers, and magazines, there have been some high profile cases of plagiarism that cost publishing companies both money and shame for being duped. There are ways of running passages through the Internet to check for plagiarism, and nowadays maybe that is what publishers are doing.

One plagiarism case involved a young woman, a Harvard sophomore whose debut novel was about to be published to much advance acclaim, when it was found out that she had taken chunks out of the works of other writers. Here is a quote from The College of St. Rose in Albany, New York, in an online article called “Famous Examples of Plagiarism and Cheating”:
. . . Sophomore Harvard University student Kaavya Viswanathan received much praise for her debut novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. However, not long after the young author began to collect royalties for her work, it was revealed that she had plagiarized. More specifically, she cut-and-pasted whole sections of text from Megan F. McCafferty's novels Sloppy Firsts (2001) and Second Helpings (2003), as well as authors Sophie Kinsella, Salman Rushdie, and Meg Cabot. Viswanathan apologized for her “internalization” of other authors’ language and the “inadvertent” copying which had occurred. As a result of her plagiarism, publisher Little Brown recalled the book and nixed plans to publish a sequel. Additional fallout from the scandal brought criticism of the publishing company, which was accused of bolstering the bright student’s ambitions.
Or how about spy novelist Q. R. Markham, who constructed his own book, Assassin of Secrets, from the works of other writers. The New Yorker wrote of it: "Q.R. Markham's Plagiarism Puzzle" by Macy Marker (New Yorker, Nov. 9, 2011. If you don't have the time to read the article I have cut and pasted a relevant part:
In a his 1902 essay, ‘The Psychology of Plagiarism,’ William Dean Howells wrote of a journalist who had recently been pilloried for lifting another journalist’s work, but had moved on to bigger city and a job where he wielded more influence. Plagiarizing doesn’t injure the writer, Howells thinks, “a jot in the hearts or heads of his readers,” which is fine with Howells, because he does not consider plagiarism a sin: “It seems to deprave no more than it dishonors.” The only real qualm Howells has with plagiarizing is that so many plagiarists seem to think they will not get caught. This, he writes, is illogical:

“You cannot escape discovery. The world is full of idle people reading books, and they are only too glad to act as detectives; they please their miserable vanity by showing their alertness, and are proud to hear witness against you in the court of parallel columns. You have no safety in the obscurity of the author from whom you take your own; there is always that most terrible reader, the reader of one book, who knows that very author, and will the more indecently hasten to bring you to the bar because he knows no other, and wishes to display his erudition. [Emphasis mine.]
Therein lies my case for never committing plagiarism on the scale these writers are accused of. Someone, somewhere, will have read the plagiarized book. If I plagiarized a whole work and it was published, I would spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, wondering if at any minute I was going to be served a summons for a lawsuit.

There seems to be one whole step that is skipped by writers who succumb to the lure of plagiarizing the works of others. The fact that they could get caught. And if caught, then what? A lot of embarrassment, and potential financial misery, that’s what.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

1969: One week's dead in Vietnam

I was discharged from the U.S. Army in November, 1968, after spending two years as a draftee, serving in Germany. I did not have it so tough, not as tough as some of the men I later worked with, who had served in Vietnam. One of my supervisors had been an infantryman. He went on search and destroy missions, taking fire and firing back. In comparison, my time at a desk plunking a typewriter, seems very tame. In the end, as we were often reminded, every soldier is an infantryman, can be handed a rifle and be expected to use it. I was just lucky it didn’t happen to me.

But both the combat soldiers and officer personnel were parts of the overall organization. Had I been sent to Vietnam, who knows? I might have been killed, like thousands of other men. Draftees or career soldiers, rifleman or clerk, when a bullet or a bomb gets you, you are just as dead. When I got back from the Army I immediately went into civilian mode. I wanted to forget the whole experience, and I did not want to think about the thousands of men who were sent to fight “that crazy Asian war,” as the song put it. I did not want to think about my friends from high school, or those I served with before we got our overseas orders, who did not make it back from Vietnam.

In June 1969 Life published this article, “One Week’s Dead” — and I’m sure the people who saw it were as profoundly moved as I was. We can shrug off statistics, but to see faces reminds us that soldiers are humans who come in all sizes, shapes, colors. They could be someone we knew. The main things these dead had in common was dying in a war, and being young.

I didn’t think like that then, but I think about things like that now when I look at my visiting grandchildren, or at my son or his wife. Finding this article again after 46 years brought back a lot of feelings, but my feelings are heightened by the knowledge that these men, some of them just boys, never got a chance to grow old. Their government sent them into the middle of another country’s civil war, and now they are memories, not a grandparent like me. Had they lived these young men would have been in their sixties by now. The loss of potential is devastating. Who among those boys was the scientist who would discover a cure for cancer, or win a Nobel Peace Prize, or be a writer or artist, or a policeman, fireman, factory worker, going to work every day to support his family?

One week’s dead. Multiply that week by all the weeks we spent in Vietnam.

Copyright © 1969 Time Inc.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

TV Jibes — the early 1970s

In seven decades television has continued to evolve technically. From the time it was introduced and accepted by the public, it has been a major part of our lives. Nowadays I watch television on a widescreen Sony HDTV. I watch Mad Men, which takes place in the sixties, and realistically shows television as the crude device it was, a flickering, rolling picture, antenna adjusting nuisance. I don’t know how we stood for it.

And only three networks. Good lord. Back then we had fewer choices in programming, and most of it was crap. Now I have almost 200 channels and it is still mostly crap. That part of television has never changed.

In 1970 I bought my first color television: A Sharp 19", with mechanical tuners, rabbit ears and a need for constant adjustments.

At about the same time, TV Guide magazine, which was the best-selling weekly magazine in the country, included a 16-page supplement called TV Jibes. It was all cartoons about TV, drawn by some of the most popular cartoonists of the day. I found the booklet recently in an antiques mall, and paid a dollar. I looked for it online and saw there are some copies from Amazon sellers asking for almost $20.00. Since TV Guide distributed millions of copies it can’t really be rare, can it? Anyway, rare or not, I am offering it to you for free. Step back in time to the days of Hee Haw and Hogan’s Heroes, Hawaii Five-O (the original), and Ironside.

Copyright © Triangle Publications, Inc.