Sins of Literature 3: Plagiarism

The Sins of Literature series continues on R4. The second episode last week didn’t hold my interest as much as the first and I approached today’s with a feeling of ‘should I bother?’ I could be writing something after all. I stuck with it though. Did this turn out to be the right decision?

I think so. It concerned plagiarism. The party line being sold was that perhaps there is no such thing as plagiarism. We all borrow, reinvent and are inspired by past writing. There were some caveats that perhaps where the homage is too close to the original and attempting to achieve the same aim then it might be stealing and this is wrong. Some thought that even this was acceptable; words, ideas are not they claimed, like physical property. If you steal my watch I don’t have a watch; steal my words then I still have them, it’s just that a lot of others have them as well. Which is okay but misses the point about the associated money. If you are a successful, comfortably off author reminiscing and pontificating about art then you can be relatively laid back about people using your words. It can be an homage, flattery. The more so if it is only a few words taken from one genre or model of writing and transposed to another. The playgoer hearing the words taken from a non-fiction work and placed in a character’s mouth are unlikely to be depriving the non-fiction author of any sales. Transposed from one non-fiction book to another however or half a novel or a whole plot being ‘borrowed’ is another matter.

The electronic era is altering perceptions of course and possibly realities. Will Self believed that the publishing world is still not aware that its death knell has been sounded. Whilst this may be true the concept of IP, intellectual property, rights has hardly gone away. The salient point being perhaps that the money and therefore the legal effort is no longer attached to writing as we recognise it. Games, film still, and computer programmes are where the assault on the concept of copyright is being defended. It doesn’t look as if those who make money from the concept in those forms are willing to surrender the idea soon.

Where this leaves the writer as author of fiction is debatable. Generally the attack on making money from writing at the moment is coming from people scanning and disseminating in copyright works over the internet. It may move to copying e-books electronically – despite the efforts of DRM techniques but if the techniques of protection are incapable of preventing widespread copyright breaches how do authors get paid? And if authors don’t get paid how many will put in the hours, the talent and mental effort to write good books, never mind brilliant ones. You can argue that those driven to write will do so anyway and we can just shrug our shoulders and accept that they will have to toil in other fields to live. On the other hand as Dr. Johnson may have said ‘only a fool writes for anything but money’.

This segued away from plagiarism to copyright protection and the concept of intellectual property rights in general. Is the era of copyright over? Probably not where the big bucks are. Does this include the novel? At the top end probably just about – a smaller number of products to protect and big money to be protected. For everyone else? Possibly not. A good thing? Access to writing, the removal of the gatekeepers, a flourishing of creativity? A bad thing? No rewards for talent, the removal of gatekeepers and a proliferation of rubbish swamping the field. How do you find the good, never mind the best amongst the plethora of rubbish?

Sins of Literature didn’t provide an answer and I don’t expect I can do any better.

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