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 The Auction Deal was a review copy, still unpublished, when Nunes found out it ripped off her book.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.

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