Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Plagiarism and Axolotl Roadkill

Why do authors plagiarise?

Traditionally, there were two reasons:

1. They couldn't write but had a fantasy of being an author, and

2. They could write but writing is hard work and it is far easier, and quicker if you are chasing a deadline, to copy someone else's work.

Sometimes both reasons apply.


hen a few years ago in 2006, a new phenomena emerged. It started with a teen chick-lite book, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life".

This was written by
Kaavya Viswanathan, a daughter in a high-achieving Indian family. She was pushed very hard to go to an Ivy League University, attending various booster courses for gifted children, eventually ending up with IvyWise who apparently process children to get them into the aforesaid Ivy League. Ivywise passed her on to a book packager, Alloy Entertainment who helped her 'conceptualise' her novel in return for a 50% cut.

It was duly published but within three weeks accusations of plagiarism surfaced. Chunks were lifted from the work of Megan McCafferty, Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, TD Hidier, and even Salman Rushdie.

Kaavya's book was a composite. This has become increasingly a problem in the academic world. The cut and paste generation seems to have trouble understanding that a quote must be a quote, not just lifted and incorporated in one's own work. The question arises whether Kaavya really understood what she was doing.

A similar situation has just arisen in Europe. Helene Hegemann, 17, has just published a novel, Axolotl Roadkill, about the debauchery of the Berlin club scene. And a cracking good read it is, resulting in it being shortlisted for the Leipzig Book Fair. Like Kaavya, Helene come from a high-achieving family - her father is professor of Dramaturgy (wot us plebs call playwriting) at, wait for it, Leipzig.

The problem is that chunks of the novel turn out to have been lifted without credit from a novel called Strobo.

Helene has an interesting new defence against a plagiarism charge. She was not plagiarising but 'mixing', 'entering into a dialogue with the original author', indulging in 'intertexuality' - after all, says Helene, there is no such thing as originality.

Strabos publishers disagree, as do their lawyers, who have extracted a fee.

However, the book is selling and she is still up for the Leipzig literary award, who apparently know all about the copying but discount it as a modern art form. In contrast, Kyaava's book was withdrawn - the poor girl has been forced to retrain as a lawyer.

Is this what the ancient Leipzig University (founded 1409) teaches its students? Is the East German rot that deep?

Am I a dinosaur? Is it just me or is this just plain wrong?


C Kelsey said...

It is just plain wrong.

John Scalzi made a comment a while ago in regard to quoting other works or comments. I don't recall it exactly, but it had something to do with how people seem to think it's okay to take someone else's work without proper attribution, but they can attribute correctly very easily on facebook and twitter posts.
There is a literary disconnect out there now. I've no idea what brought it on.

Anonymous said...

And then there's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Where's the dividing line? At the Copyright expiration, or at concealing the plagerism?

"It's Satire" "It's Humor" "It's Intertextualating"

A related problem is Fan Fic. Does ignoring it amount to release of copyright? Should it be possible for the Fan Fic Writer to not just earn money on sales, but sue the original author if elements of the fan fic story show up in the original author's work?

I'm solidly on the side of the original author, with ownership of the characters and fictional elements of the setting the property of the owner. Only with the permission of the copyright holder should any of the material be used.

I'm even a bit bothered at the P&P&Z level, with the author long dead and copyright expired and gone as well.

Anonymous said...

I also believe it is plain wrong. These young "authors" know it's wrong also. There's no 'mixing' here. They were just too lazy to go write their own stories. And their parents ought to be charged with stealing as well. They are enabling their children to steal and be okay with it.

Okay, in fairness, maybe these young folks felt the pressure of their parents' high expectations and took the easy way out. That's no excuse. Maybe the young person down the block felt the pressure of society's expectations of earning a living, so he decided to rob a convenience store as the easy way out.

To me, there's no difference in cheating on a test and plagiarism. You are stealing someone else's efforts. And as for there being no true originality left, maybe. Originality is a concept however while words and their arrangement as representation of a story are concrete.

I'm pretty hardline on this belief and accept no excuses. I suspect we all, in this group, feel the same way, but if there is someone who disagrees, I'd be happy to hear their reasoning. And not that I'm the be all and end all of what is right in the world, but people have to decide what they believe so that they can live their lives with meaning and raise their children to do the same.


Anonymous said...


Fan fic is a sticky wicket. As long as one admits it's fan fic and doesn't make any money at, go have fun, as far as I'm concerned. I can see though how an author could be offended.

With traditional publishers, there is someone to guard the gate, and they should be the ones to ultimately answer for the publishing of the work. With fan fic free-for-alls, like websites and whatnot, the authors aren't pretending the universes are their own creation. They are the wannabes while the author is still the creator and the one to make money off of the universes they created.

With the earlier young authors in question, they passed these books off as their own efforts, and that's where they crossed the line IMO.

There may be some factors with fan-fic that I haven't considered, as fan-fic isn't a form I've followed closely.

C Kelsey said...

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is interesting. I think with a work like that it is clearly satire. Just as clearly there's a huge market for that type of thing (they're making the movie for crying out loud).

This raises the question, is the a point below P&P&Z where it's clearly no longer satire? Has P&P&Z crossed that line?

Anonymous said...


Fan-fic is a sticky wicket. As long as the fan-fic writers don't receive any compensation and don't claim the universes to be their own, go have fun as far as I'm concerned. I can see though how an author could be offended and it would be his right to be offended. I just don't know that it would offend me.

Where the earlier authors in question crossed the line is that they claimed the arrangement of the words and the universes/characters to be their own. If an author wants to tell the same basic story as another author, fine. They should choose their own arrangement of words and create their own characters to do so.


Anonymous said...

Whoops, sorry guys. It didn't look like the first of the comments showed up, so I repeated. ::blush::


Anonymous said...

C Kelsey,

Satire and comedy are a whole 'nother venue. I think with something as well known as P&P, as long as the author is acknowledged, her estate is paid (assuming P&P isn't public property at this point...I really don't know without looking it up) and if there is an estate, the producers have permission from them, all is fine.


DK said...

It's also worth noting that the raw text of Pride & Prejudice, by virtue of being written a long time ago, is in the public domain (at least in the US). It's much easier to tweak things that aren't under active copyright, and Jane Austen is credited as the original author, just in case.

There's a huge difference between that and Kyaava and Helene have taking chunks of other people's writing without attribution/permission or making any attempts at parody or fair use. They just stole it and hoped they wouldn't get caught.

Francis Turner said...

This case reminds me a bit more of the ferret plagiarism by that romance writer. As far as I can tell (google led me to and the PDF from it) she plagiarized a handful of pages total out of what 200+? [ This English language blog puts it at less than 1% - ]

I think this is disgraceful none the less and that the book should be rejected from consideration for prizes etc. but unless there is more to be discovered the plagiarized bits are padding not key parts of the tale. In other words the book may still have merit despite the plagiarism.

But the whole thing seems to be mostly because of publisher hype. If the author weren't a 17yo professor's daughter it wouldn't have had anything like the coverage it got and probably no one would have noticed (or cared if they did).

I suspect another major problem is that publishers wouldn't have touched the book if she had said up front that she had "resampled" other writers. This is surely a problem because while I suspect in this case the whole lot is pretentious twaddle it need not be so. And the ability to reinterpret or resample other writers is something that we ought to be able to do.

And yes those other authors deserver getting some (small) payment for their work being recycled but - as (not) shown by the payments extorted for song extracts - not a lot because thee extracts are merely building ambiance and background.

Ori Pomerantz said...

I have no problem with resampling, as long as it is labeled as such. Without it, it's just false pretenses.

Anonymous said...

"Entering into a dialogue with the original author"??? Methinks I'll call bullshit on that one ;-) IMHO, "entering into a dialogue with the original author" is what I did when I sent Dave and Sarah e-mails telling them how much Dragon's Ring and Darkship Thieves rocked.

But you're dead-on, John. Call me a dinosaur too, but I believe the cardinal rule of writing is: Write Your Own Stuff. If cutting and pasting was all it took, all I'd have to do is take the Baen books on my hard-drive and make the ultimate SF/F e-book "mix-tape." I'd call it something like Lucy's Forlorn Darkship Freehold on Basilisk Station.

I'm sure Toni would just love to see something like that land on her desk... :-D

I know a lot of people say the music industry does the same thing all the time ("sampling"), but, IMO, there's a reason why so much of today's music sucks (actually, there are several reasons, but that's one of them). And as far as I'm concerned, there are two words that perfectly sum up the whole "sampling" thing: Vanilla. Ice.

Pastiche is fine. Homage is even better. "Filing the serial numbers off" is an old and honorable tradition.

But "sampling?"

No. In fact, hell no. Do stuff like that, and you deserve to get tagged with the nickname "The Vanilla Ice of Science Fiction." And who in their right mind would want to suffer a dreadful fate like that? Not me, that's for sure!

Chris McMahon said...

I find it both morally wrong and deeply offensive. If the lifted sections are not identified as being from another author, then that's just plain lying, isn't it?

I have to admit, I had the same violent reaction to rap artists who take classic music for remix. They are riding on the back of the original talent.

C Kelsey said...

Great, RJ. Now every time I see or hear the word "plagiarism", the only thing that will go through my head is, "Ice, Ice Baby". I really didn't need that. :)

Ellyll said...


Resampling sounds like a fancy way of saying "stealing" to me. As for "entering into a dialogue with the original author" - I think this kid has a bright future in politics.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. So wrong it makes my fists clench. Because it aggravates me to no end when people do things they know are wrong, and justify it with BS.

I'm sure the parents tell them they're misunderstood geniuses... Sigh.

Anonymous said...


(Yes, I am evil... but you folks already knew that.)

Amanda Green said...

John, I have to agree with everyone else. isn't anything more than the theft of another author's work. I guess what gets me is how often this sort of thing seems to get by the publishers. Maybe they need to talk to high school librarians and teachers. They all have software they run student papers through to catch plagiarism. You'd think big time publishers would as well. As for why this one young woman is still up for the award, can you say, "daddy is on the faculty"?

You can't have a "dialogue" with another author unless you identify that said dialogue is taking place and that author has a chance to respond. Dialogue is, to me, like a contract. It takes at least two parties offering something and receiving something in return. But then, I guess I'm old-fashioned too.

Stephen Simmons said...

"Remember why the Good Lord made your eyes, so don't shade your eyes, just plagiarize! ... But please, always call it 'research'." - Tom Lehrer

I think it's part and parcel of the modern "want-ocracy" mindset, unfortunately. As much a symptom of modern society as reality television. People who have unfailingly been told how "special" and "wonderful" they are since birth, whether such descriptors were ever actually merited or not, come of age indoctrinated in the belief that they deserve success and recognition merely because they want it a whole lot. Actual acchievement isn't seen as necessary.

Dave Freer said...

To play devil's advocate here - when is plagiarism plagiarsm? Now, Wotsisname Brown squirmed out of cribbing the plot of his multimillion dollar bestseller (no I am afraid I disagreed with the court). On the other hand exactly where is the line? Exact words? Two 1970's era authors used the same very unusual Indian name for a character. The stories had no other similarity whatsoever. I very much doubt there was an iota of intentional plagiarsm - it was the sort of name hat stuck in your head, even if the story didn't. I've found the same with turns or phrase, expressions and word choices in my own books (I've just been proofing MUCH FALL OF BLOOD - and I read a phrase... and said 'pure Heyer'. It is. Was it deliberate - no. I was surprised to see it there myself. But I can quote quite a lot of her work.) So just what is plagiarism?

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I wasn't aware of the Stephen E. Ambrose example that you reference John; as a historian, I find it utterly indefensible. I expand this into all writing - making references to others people's work is fine, provided that you flag that you have done so. Any author who engages knowingly in plagiarism forfeits any accolades he who she may gain, since it isn't their work they are being credited for. A hard and fast rule that really is not difficult to obey.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


that kind of unconscious 'plagiarism' is something you can't so anything about. It is not deliberate theft. It just means that you've read a lot of Heyer and her turns of phrase have stuck in your mind. It is impossible to avoid when you are a mimic.

And I think writers are good mimics because they pick up the rhythms of speech which helps them write dialogue. But this mean they can pick up the rhythms of other people's writing, too.


At the college where I teach, we warn the kids about plagiarism, so they can't say they didn't know.

Kate said...

Tributes are fine. Echoing someone's style is fine. Passing off someone else's work as your own is not.

P&P&Z is a tribute as well as fanfic and humor.

Interpolating sections from another author, if acknowledged as such and used as a tribute, is also okay.

Of course, the assumption here is that the culprits have any kind of ethical framework, which, frankly, doesn't seem to be the case. Generation "if it feels good it must be good" has for the most part (and yes, the people of that generation here are among the relatively rare exceptions) left their children to rear themselves, with the result that the majority of *that* generation have no idea that there are things you just don't do.

John Lambshead said...

I have been following these comments with interest. My personal view is that we have raised the 'because I'm worth it generation' who suffer from entitlement issues. They expect fame and fortune without the commensurate graft. Anti-competitive policy in education gives the impression that everyone is somehow special and deserving of praise. I have noticed it in the students coming through the university system and I am not the only one.

Anonymous said...

Very true, John. Too many younger folks out there forget the wise words of Ringo Starr: "Got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues, and you know it don't come easy." (Or was it: "No, no, no, no, I don't smoke it no more. I'm tired of waking up on the floor"? I forget.)

DK said...

We are also leaving out the human element here - both girls came from high-achieving families who pushed them into book deals with a lot at stake. I don't think either one demonstrated "entitlement" as much as they collapsed under deadline pressure and cheated.

Which is still wrong and shouldn't be tolerated, of course, but I think all the "entitlement" stuff in this discussion is misplaced. I hear that said about my generation a lot, and it's usually bitter Boomer code for "won't do anything we tell them without question anymore."

Anonymous said...

In the category of "better late than never" one of these young women is hopefully learning that plagiarism is wrong. The other seems to be being told that only a little bit pregnant isn't a moral dilemma.