Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Plagiarism At Its Finest

Plagiarism must be in the air. Or at least talk of plagiarism. There were, of course, accusations against Dan Brown (several times over). And what did we learn? Well, first that you can't plagiarize ideas, which Brown pillaged from. And second, you especially can't plagiarize ideas that have been around for literally almost two millenia.

Then, we have the case of Kaavya Viswanathan, who is accused of plagiarizing the work of Megan F. McCafferty.

It is kind of sad. And scary. As a author-to-be-hopeful, I look at my words, first through excited eyes, certain I've created an entirely original story. Then I read other books, and start finding out that there are certain bits that others have done before me. That happened to me not long ago while reading a rather popular YA book. And while the stories are completely different, the setting completely different, and even the characters completely different, I couldn't help but latch onto the few places that this famous author clearly copied ideas from me. Eh-hem. (Like, for example, I have a character who can get into the minds of mice, whereas she has a character who can talk to mice.)

Of course, the real revelation that comes from this is that there truly are no completely new ideas out there. Just variations of a great many old ideas. I suppose these ideas evolve and build upon one another. I mean, if one were to have read Ender's Game two hundred years ago, I suppose it could have seemed quite original. Today,'s still fairly original. But it also builds upon a lot of its predecessors in the genre of science fiction. (An absolutely fabulous book, by the way, if you haven't read it. Probably one of the best I've ever read!)

It has been said that the really good authors know how to steal ideas from others and improve upon them. Actually, no, that's not true. It has been said that really good software engineers know how to steal ideas from other software engineers and improve upon them. But I think the principle can be applied to authors. After all, the best way an author can learn their craft is by reading.

As for me? I'll never plagiarize anyone. At least, not intentionally.

There was this one time, however, where I did plagiarize and didn't even know it. It wasn't in writing, however. It was in music.

I've been a musician all my life. I love singing, playing the piano, and composing. Back in my junior high and high school days, I wrote a great many songs. None were all that spectacular, but I had fun doing it. (If you visit my website, and look at the March Story of the Month, you can hear one of my experimental compositions from a few years ago.)

So, this one day, I sat down, truly inspired. In a matter of a couple hours, I had written one of the better songs of my life. I was so proud of this song, plunking away at the piano keys until it was done.

Later that evening, I proudly gathered up my mother as an audience for my new creation. About two measures into the piece, my mother said, "Oh, I know that song!"

Know it? How could she know it? I just wrote it!

"No you didn't," she informed me. "That song was popular when I was a kid."

Then she began to sing my song, including lyrics that I hadn't yet written, from beginning to end.

I was dismayed, because it was my idea first. I'm sure of it. But then my mother pulled out an old record (yes, in vinyl LP) and played it for me. Oh, right. Now I recognized it.

So, was a moment of plagiarism at its finest...when I copied the brilliance of another, truly believing it to be my own. But, of course, it was just that...the brilliance of another.

And so it is with plagiarism. You take the ideas of another, and claim them as your own. But you are only lying to yourself. The fact is, as brilliant as you may or may not be, copying the work of another isn't brilliant. It is stupidity.

Or ignorance.

Either way, you'll get your pants sued off you. So, whether Viswanathan intentionally swiped McCafferty's words or not, she has no one to blame but herself.

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