liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,

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What part of the definition of "plagiarism" don't you understand?

So, I finally got around to reading about the whole Cassie Claire plagiarism fiasco.

Now, I've stayed far away from HP online fandom because TEH KARAZEE is strong there, although I have a very nice link to a Harry Potter Genfic Masterlist with some delicious stories that seem to be KARAZEE-free.

But the Cassie Claire plagiarism fiasco is...words fail. It's not just her, but it seems some of the BNFs in her circle seem to suffer from the same massive case of kleptomania.

Not one of these people would last five minutes with stop_plagiarism on the case. I'm very sure that people on that comm (of which I'm a member) would've kicked up one hell of a shitstorm for the ages over the issue if they had ever been involved.

I'm not saying I agree with 100% of the plagiarism charges in Cassie Claire's case (I think some the "sources" cited are kind of shaky), but the fact of the matter is that all it really takes is one extensively quoted passage from a book, magazine article, or a television show that's not properly cited either in-text or in footnotes somewhere to get you justifiably tagged for it.

Let's be blunt here:

There's waaaaay more than just one example — not just in Cassie Claire's case, but with several others of her acquaintance that wrote fanfiction — of extensively quoted passages or ideas lifted wholesale from pro authors. There's certainly enough there that, had any of these people been working in the real world and not in the shadowy world of fanfiction, they would've faced some serious, serious consequences. The sheer number of unreferenced word-for-word lifts, direct quotations from television shows, and "borrowing" of unique concepts and ideas from pro authors is simply staggering.

Say it with me: Cassie Claire is a plagiarist. Full stop. There's not even a question in my mind that she is guilty as charged. There's not even a question in my mind that several BNFs of her aquaintance are also guilty as charged.

What boggles my mind is that this fact was not just known, but was common knowledge. The surprise is the extent of the plagiarism, not that any of these people, and Cassie Claire in particular, had plagiarized.

Yet, Cassie Claire and her people were at the top of the BNF pyramid for Harry Potter fandom. When Cassie Claire started reaping what she had sown for her plagiarism by getting banned from the Pit of Voles, her friends gave her a new online home to showcase her work. Other BNFs and Cassie Claire fanpoodles defended her plagiarism by either lying about it or changing the definition of plagiarism. People were threatened with libel and slander. People were driven out of fandom by bullying over this.

And finally, the top of the heap of all this: Cassie Claire even got a book deal based on her popularity in fandom.

Words. Fail.

I look at all of this with wide eyes and wonder how the hell did this happen? How did Cassie Claire and company manage to get away with it? How did Cassie Claire and company profit from bahaviors that would've gotten them drubbed out of any other fandom? How did they manage to become BNFs in Harry Potter fandom when I'm pretty sure that any other fandom would've looked on their names like poison?

I have to be honest. Most of the plagiarism cases that I've seen on stop_plagiarism haven't involved BNFs. The plagiarists usually are young fans who may or may not know better with a very tiny readership copying and pasting stories from better known fanfic writers. They generally do a word search-and-replace, and then slap their names at the top.

The really smart plagiarists will go after lesser-known writers or writers that focus on unusual 'ships or stories and appropriate those. But, in general, both the plagiarist or the plagiarized are not generally well-known outside of their corner of fandom or their patch on the Internet.

There've been a few exceptions, I grant you, that I've seen. I nailed one person several years ago for plagiarizing a Buffy fanfic. I forget the name of the plagiarist, but it was plagiarizing of the stupid sort.

Someone took There's Blood Between Us by Jason Tompson, who was once a BNF Xander-centric writer. However, all she did was copy the whole story word for word, slapped her name at the top, and posted it to the Pit. She even included the Tara/Xander pairing (which is not a common pairing) as well as a newly souled Vamp Willow delivering peace offering (in one story it was beer, in the other it was pizzas).

Thankfully, in Jason's case, his premise was so unusual and his name well known enough (at least at the time) that a few people spotted it right away. After several of us confronted the plagiarist and told her to take it down, she insisted that she did not plagiarize. Then she claimed she had permission to continue the story. Then she changed her story again to "it was a mistake."

Needless to say I (and a few others) reported her ass. The story was taken down within days.

Then there was the "smart plagiarist" Ozymadius (I mentioned him in my Sekrit Rools of Plagiarism) who actually was a BNF in the Buffy/Xander fanfiction wing. He went out and stole from people writing in other fandoms and plopped the stuff in his own stories, only he'd use the search-and-replace function to substitute names. It was the cut-and-paste job that actually did him in, since some of his readers remembered seeing the writing elsewhere and tracked it down.

Like in the case of Cassie Claire, Ozymadius actually had people either defending what he did, or simply saying that they didn't care. These people thought that the plagiarized writers were getting their panties in a wad over nothing. Trying to explain that what he did was wrong and why he was wrong to these people was a lot like beating your head against a brick wall. They didn't get it, and what's more, they didn't want to get it.

I wonder how many of these people would look upon Cassie Claire like the thief she is? I venture to say that at least some of them would be throwing some stones.

So, a plagiarist with a little B in his or her N and F is more likely to have defenders who'll insist that it's not a big deal or "it's just fanfiction." This is more likely to happen if the BNF in question is writing stories that are popular or writes in a ship or for a character that is popular.

There's a psychological paper in this somewhere, I just know it.

Now Cassie Claire, I have to say, is a brilliant plagiarist.

She stole from multiple sources and when she got caught out, she or her agents denied, denied, denied. When the charges didn't go away, they changed the definition of "plagiarism," and called her stories "pastiche." They even made a little game of "spot the quote" for awhile and tried to retroactively get permission from one of the pro authors who was plagiarized.

The waters were so muddied by this impressive Chewbacca Defense, that everyone lost sight of one important fact:

Cassie Claire plagiarized and claimed the words of other people as her own. On top of that, even after she was called on it, she refused to acknowledge that she had done anything wrong. And to my knowledge, at least according to the Bad Penny report, she and her friends still haven't.

All of this despite the fact that there was a portion of Harry Potter fandom that repeatedly kept pointing out the inconvenient truth in the same way some people point out that Han shot first. And just like George Lucas, who keeps re-writing history over and over in an effort to erase that fact, this cabal of BNFs in Harry Potter fandom kept re-writing history over and over in an effort to erase the fact that Cassie Claire used words and concepts that weren't original to her.

Can you say poison fruit, boys and girls? I'm sure you can.

Sooner or later, this will catch up with her. Give it a little time. Only with the way she's going, she'll get caught out in the professional sphere. That's when all the chickens will come home to roost.

What really gets me is that CC has no excuse. None. She claims that she used to be a reporter (like me) and she claims that she knows the definition of plagiarism and that she didn't do it (which means she either doesn't know the definition, or she's lying through her teeth).

Yet another reason why I don't want to admit to having a journalism degree. If the J-schools churning out graduates this stupid, I don't want to carry that kind of taint.

There's a difference, a big honking difference, between appropriation of other people's ideas and lifting word-for-word someone else's writing and claiming it as your own.

There's an ocean of difference if the person doing the appropriating slaps disclaimers all over their work, points to the original source, and doesn't make any money off of it and plagiarism.

Even legally there's a huge difference. A fanfic writer who at least uses his or her own concepts and words isn't going to get slapped with a lawsuit charging plagiarism. They'll get slapped with copyright infringement, sure, but plagiarism won't be on the menu. And they'll only get slapped with a lawsuit if the copyright owners deem it worth the effort or are hyper-protective of the copyright. Even then it would be a very iffy thing that a suit will ever be filed provided the target follows orders spelled out in the opening salvo of a cease-and-decist letter.

As it so happens, JK Rowling is perfectly okay with fanfiction and, to an extent, even sanctions it. Joss Whedon is perfectly okay with fanfiction for his creations and sanctions it with a wink-and-a-smile. Ron Moore has come right out and said that fanficcers should go to town, provided they don't make money off the deal. So, in that sense, the fanficcers working in these fandoms can't really steal the car. We've been given permission to borrow the car (so to speak), provided we don't try to cash in while we're borrowing it.

So, I think in the cases where the creators give express permission to let people borrow their toys, fanfic writers are on somewhat firm (if legally shaky) ground.

The really big grey area is where the creators have come right out and said, "No. I don't like it, I don't sanction it, and I don't want you to do it." Ethically speaking, I think it would be wise to steer clear in that case. The owner of the car has told you that you can't have the keys, so leave the car alone, says I. Not everyone agrees, obviously, but it's a line that I won't cross.

And yes, if Joss came out tomorrow and said, "All fanfiction must stop now," I would not only drop every story like a hot potato, I would do my best to wipe everything I wrote off the Internet. As the creator, he gets the last word. Period and amen.

The fact is, most people who write fanfiction work very hard to bring something new and interesting to the table, be it a twist in the plot, a take on a character, or just a new concept. Whether they pull it off is another matter, and a completely separate issue that more often than not comes down to personal taste than any objective measurement.

I know that I've sat for hours and walked through different concepts I've wanted to try and looked at the potential impact from all angles. I've attempted to determine if those concepts could conceivably fit into Buffy-verse canon and whether it made sense for the characters involved.

For example, I make no bones about the fact that there isn't a single concept in something like Facing the Heart in Darkness that isn't rooted in in Whedon's canon (such as it is). The First Evil's plan, the Guardians, the Sunnydale issues, even Eva Swithin herself are ideas that started with the source material and wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for that same source material. That is not my creativity at work.

However, I'd like to think that I put an original twist on all of those ideas and made them somewhat interesting to look at for some people. That's where my creativity comes in.

The above is the definition of appropriation, in case you're wondering.

The case of Cassie Claire is another matter separately, as you can see. Lifting entire passages and quotes from multiple sources, and slotting it almost word-for-word in your stories without a cite or a footnote or any hint that it isn't your creativity at work is plagiarism, and not appropriation for the sake of a pastiche. When you take concepts wholesale from other writers and don't even so much as put a different spin on it, this is also plagiarism (although this is where the charge gets murky).

What blows me away is the sheer number of sources that were lifted. It wasn't just one book or one television show. It was several books and several television shows. Even worse, the television shows in question are cult television shows with fanatical followings who'd damn well would recognize a quote when they saw it. Some of the books that were borrowed from were not well-known, sure, but some were very well known to fantasy readers.

However, because people can't read everything or watch everything, people tended to focus on those one or two items that rang a bell. They were utterly unaware of the other "borrowings" from other sources. In that way, the report has served an important purpose. It catalogs the extent of Cassie Claire's (and other's) theft and the number of sources that were involved. What's more, it's expanded the audience even beyond Harry Potter fandom and now people who've never read these stories are going over them with a fine-toothed comb and finding even more instances of plagiarism.

Just when you think they've found everything, they find even more.

However, the thing that really throws me is that it seems like so much bloody work. By the time you're done finding just the right quote or just the right passage to purloin, type it up, and then work it into your fanfic, it might've been easier just to come up with something on your own. This isn't plagiarism as a lazy man's shortcut. This is plagiarism as hard work.

What I'm still left with is the question of "Why?" Why bother? If you're going to work that hard, what's the point? So people can coo about how clever you are? So people can think you're a great wit? To get brownie points for being so cool? What am I missing? What's the payback for this? What is the plagiarist getting out of it that's worth that much sweat and blood? I've got to tell you that I'm at a complete loss on this point.

The easiest way to get around this, it seems to me, is to simply not do it.

However, I can see where "pop culture homages" slotted into fanfic would not only be appropriate, but also desirable, especially if you work in Buffy fandom that is full of pop culture references.

For example, in the next part of Facing the Heart in Darkness, I have Xander reference Pinky and the Brain. He does it in text. He tells you right out that he is. He then even goes into a Pink and the Brain-like joke, a signature one for that show. You know the one. It starts with, "Are you pondering what I'm pondering?" and ends the punchline that's a complete nonsequitor that has nothing to do with the issue at hand.

I actually beat my brains against the wall to come up with a punchline. I thought I got a good one, tracked down a Pinky and the Brain Website to make sure that it handn't been used and, to my horror, something very close to it had been used. Back to the drawing board to come up with an original punchline and yet another check to make sure that it hadn't been used on Pinky and the Brain.

You don't even want to know how long it took me to come up with a punchline that couldn't in any way, shape, or form look like one of the answers uttered by Pinky on the show.

Once again: this illustrates the difference between appropriation and plagiarism.

Appropriation: I do a Pinky and the Brain "Are you pondering what I'm pondering" joke. I cite in text in a round-about way that it's a Pinky and the Brain joke. The joke and the format of the joke would not even exist if it were not for Pinky and the Brain. I make no secret of this. However, Eva's complete confusion and reaction to it is original to me. The punchline is original to me. What I'm aiming for is for the reader to laugh, nod in recognition at the pop culture reference, say, "That's such a Xander thing to say," and think that the punch line was pretty funny, if groan-worthy.

Plagiarism: I do a Pinky and the Brain "Are you pondering what I'm pondering" joke. I fail to reference the source material in any way, shape, or form. I just plop it in the middle of this conversation word-for-word with minimal set-up. Xander starts the joke, "Pinky, are you pondering what I'm pondering" and Eva (who has never seen Pinky and the Brain in her entire life), jumps in with "Gee, Brain, I think so, but..." What's more, the punchline is lifted word-for-word from a Pinky and the Brain Web site that has all the punchlines listed for posterity. Not only have I plagiarized, I've twisted the characters (well, at least one character) so far out of character that they fit the joke instead of the other way around. The context is completely wrong. Not only that, by doing the entire joke without referencing in any way the source, I'm claiming the idea and the words of that joke as my own.

See the difference?

I have to admit that plagiarism in fanfiction is an endless source of fascination for me. From an objective viewpoint, the motivations for it make almost no sense. Money (usually) isn't involved and the plagiarist (usually) doesn't have a good reputation or any reputation at all. I can't suss out what's to be gained by doing it.

The only plagiarist (to give him props) who ever tried to explain himself was Ozymadius. What it boiled down to was that he was having a hard time writing smut, so he "borrowed" from someone else. Eventually, as he became known more and more for his PWP stories, the (self-induced) pressure to produce more of the same led to more and more "borrowing" to the point that it just got away from him.

Yet, it still doesn't quite tell me what he hoped to gain out of it. Or maybe it's because his explanation still doesn't make sense to me.

What makes the Cassie Claire case so interesting, aside from the sheer scope of the theft, is that she did gain tangible things out of her time as a BNF. Her fans chipped in and got her an IPod. When her laptop was stolen, her fans chipped in and bought her a new one. Rumor has it that she was so popular within Harry Potter fandom that it was one of the factors that won her a book contract.

It's only a coincidence that she's using a slight variation of her nom de fanfic for her pro novels. I don't fault her on this part, by the way. If you can "market" the fanfic name, go ahead. But her nom de fanfic name strikes me as a loaded gun aimed right at her future career. Even if I landed a book contract tomorrow (not likely, but just say), I'd think long and hard about using "Lizbeth Marcs" on the cover and would be consulting very extensively with my agent, my publisher, and an entertainment lawyer over the issue.

This even though I can catagorily state that there isn't a wiff of plagiarism anywhere in my general vicinity, from either pro authors or other fanfic writers.

And if you think the plagiarism charges won't dog Cassie Claire into the real world, think again. The comments on the Bad Penny report from people who know about her upcoming novel, not to metnion this description here, has me wondering if this isn't the last we've heard Cassie Claire and plagiarism tied together.

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    Sorry for disappearing off everyone's radar this week. I got whammed with the flu pretty hard and couldn't even sit upright for extended periods of…

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