October 29, 2008

Of Profiteering, Plagiarism, and Parody

When I talked about Cassandra Clare yesterday, I believe I mentioned that one thing that didn’t sit well with me was the whole plagiarism thing. Now don’t get me wrong, I think she’s plagiarised stuff (in my opinion, which is not that of a lawyer, of course) but I also think that some of the people who go on and on about the whole plagiarism thing don’t really understand what is going on either :)

In one corner, we have one of Cassandra Clare’s staunchest defenders, Heidi. Apparently, Heidi is an intellectual property attorney and she has been quoted on several websites saying stuff to the effect (if memory serves me right) that Cassandra Clare did not plagiarise and that her "lifting" from other authors was merely practicing :p She’s also said, if I am not mistaken, that if Cassandra had copied 299 pages of material in a 300 page novel from other authors and then had used that one remaining page to connect all the other 299 pages, that Cassandra wouldn’t be plagiarising.

On the other corner, we have those who say that as long as Cassandra does not acknowledge all her sources in citations (or almost all), she is guilty of plagiarism. And note that this seems to include quotes from TV shows, movies, books etc. as well. Supposedly, all of these quotes need to be cited in order for you to not be guilty of plagiarism.

And therein lies my own ambivalence in the matter – I don’t think either party is right :) (OK, maybe there’s no ambivalence there about both parties being wrong :p) A long time ago, when I contacted Terry Pratchett about writing a parody of his Discworld series for a local print publication, he told me, and I quote, "Do not be Afraid.  If permission were needed to parody, I’d be out of a job!" :)

Of course, PTerry and I were both talking about parody. When you quote a memorable line from a movie or a book, are you parodying it? Or are you just trying to hook the reader with something they are familiar with? If that is your intention, and not just take somebody else’s words and put them in the mouth of your character just because you want to appear as a better writer, then I don’t believe you are plagiarizing.

And this isn’t just about quotes. Let me take PTerry again, not just because he’s my favourite writer and I admire his writing, but also because he is a good example in this case :) His plots, his characters, his situations, and even some of the dialogue comes from parodying things we are familiar with. I can quote so many instances where he has used material from sources such as The Blues Brothers or Shakespeare. And he does not cite any of these sources in his books! So is anybody going to call PTerry a plagiarist? Of course, not! (And to be honest, I do this too, in my own books …)

On the other hand, Cassandra uses paragraphs of material written by other authors and passes them off as her own. This does not appear to be a homage or even a parody to me. In fact, there is one instance where she copies word for word a description of a sword fight from one of Roger Zelazny’s books. Given that the sentence in question contains the phrase "involved a beat, a feint in quarte, a feint in sixte, and a lunge veering off into an attack on his wrist." and the phrase was reproduced in full in Cassandra’s own work, you can’t really say that wasn’t direct copying?

And it’s sloppy writing too because you can’t be bothered to do some research and come up with your own set of fencing moves. You just copy somebody else’s words and hope that they did the research!

So yes, I still believe that Cassandra Clare was guilty of plagiarism. And to be honest, I don’t think even citing her sources would have really made it any better because in this particular instance, she was using a mishmash of other people’s words to create a story. How can anybody argue that is original or that that’s how the process of writing works?

Saddest of all is the fact that she is being rewarded for what she did. She has received a contract to be a published author because of her infamy. But in a world where money talks louder than integrity, I guess one cannot expect anything less …

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Posted by Fahim at 6:28 am  |  No Comments

October 28, 2008

The Multiple-life Syndrome and Other Stories

I’ve been on the Internet a long time and all this time, I’ve never (except during the early stages and even then only sporadically) used a handle, pseudonym, nickname or what have you. I’ve always been Fahim and it’s been easier to do things that way. I didn’t really want to have a whole second life on the Internet – I just considered the Net an extension of my existing life.

So it always amazes me when I hear stories about people who create a completely fictional life online just for their own jollies. Or in some cases, to make profit or to harass people. It gets even weirder when people create multiple lives for themselves online. I read about a couple of instances which truly boggled my mind yesterday and so I just had to comment on them :)

I came across the name Cassandra Clare because Laurie was reading this long thread which had something about her and a plagiarism brouhaha (more about that later …). So I became curious and began reading about Cassandra Clare (or Claire, as she apparently also spells here name).

Basically, she had first shot to fame with a parody of The Lord of the Rings called The Very Secret Diary, written in the vein of Bridget Jones’ Diary. (There’s something interesting there too – according to some, she stopped writing The Very Secrete Diary herself but was incensed at others continuing her work. That sounded very strange to me but I guess I’ll have to get back to that later in my discussion about plagiarism …) Anyway, Cassandra had then moved on to Harry Potter fandom and wrote quite a bit of fan fiction set in the Harry Potter universe and this apparently made her even more famous. So famous, that she became a BNF (Big Name Fan) and apparently everybody wanted to be her friend.

And it was at this point that we have the second player in the drama, Msscribe, makes her entrance. Apparently Msscribe wanted so much to be a friend of Cassandra, that she created other personas (sometimes known as "sock puppets" on the web :p) to talk up Msscribe and to link her to Cassandra (and her circle of friends) at any and every opportunity.

The complete story is so bizarre that I don’t think I can do justice to it in a brief fashion. But suffice it to say that she had not one or two, but at least half a dozen (probably more than a dozen according to the truly wacky story that unfolds if you do some research) different identities either supporting her or attacking her. And all this to gain the friendship (and the reflected status) of somebody who was supposed to be a BNF.

Of course, some of the reading (and summarizing) makes it seem so surreal because some of these created personalities change age/profession/location at various places. Guess when you’re actually going through all of this over a long period of time, it’s really hard to keep track of who does what. But still, when you see that somebody who is originally Msscribe’s new-found fan goes from being a 31-year old mother to an 18-year old student to being Msscribe’s live-in nanny, you know that you’re not in Kansas anymore :)

According to all the stuff online, Msscribe was finally shown to be a puppet-master extraordinaire and she also seems to have made some really bad choices in picking real enemies to attack (not just made up ones who were also her) and so became unpopular. Interestingly enough, it also appears that Cassandra herself provided some information which confirmed that Msscribe was the same person as some of her puppet personalities. And so ended the saga of Msscribe.

But back to Cassandra. It turns out that she had copied portions from a published author’s novel and used it in her fan fiction after changing just the names. Her excuse? She had written the paragraph(s) in question down in her writers’ notebook and came back to it months later and didn’t remember that it had been written by another author and thought that she’d done those. So the names in there was changed by the tooth fairy? Or did the Easter bunny have something to do with it?

The truly amazing thing here is that fan fiction is supposed to be a labour of love. Most writers would say that there is no money in fan fiction. But Cassandra had managed to make thousands of dollar (according to some accounts over ten thousand dollars) by writing fan fiction.

How? By preying on the generosity (and gullibility) of her readers. In this case, she played pretty much the same game as Msscribe, but without the sock puppets. She (or rather her friend) announced that Cassandra and her room-mate had had their computers stolen when their apartment was burgled. So this friend started a fund drive among the Cassandra Clare fans, purportedly to buy a new computer so that Cassandra could keep writing her fan fiction.

But once the amount collected went over what was needed to buy the stolen computers, other things got added to the list of stolen stuff and the fund drive continued on. And this is not counting the money that Cassandra Clare was making off of various CafePress stores that she’d created to sell items from her fan-fiction, which was itself based on copyrighted material belonging to someone else.

The biggest surprise of all? After doing all of this, Cassandra Clare has gotten a book deal with a well-known publisher and is now a published author! Surprising? In this day and age, I wouldn’t call it surprising. In fact, if I was a cynical person by nature, I’d say that she got the book deal because of her infamy rather than in spite of it. The publisher probably figured that she was well-known enough that she would sell whatever she wrote – I just hope they check the stuff before it’s published to make sure that she hasn’t accidentally copied something on to her new draft that was written by somebody else …

The other thing that struck me while reading the whole Casandra Clare affair was the whole copyright thing. Cassandra had apparently been in the habit of quoting things from well-known TV shows and movies in her works (in addition to taking stuff from other authors). Now it appears to be often said that she should have attributed all of these sources in her material or that she was in copyright violation and I’m not so certain about that. But that’s probably another entry for tomorrow …

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Posted by Fahim at 5:52 am  |  1 Comment

October 11, 2008

Customer Service – Sri Lankan Style

Sri Lanka, unfortunately, hasn’t yet caught up to the concept of customer service. Most businesses in Sri Lanka operate under something along the lines of "this is my/our business. You can purchase our service from us if you want and if you don’t go somewhere else. We don’t really care!" The customer certainly is not king over here 😀

Of course, things have started to change and in my opinion (which is somewhat limited), one of the best such examples is Sri Lanka Telecom. This is rather surprising given their government organization antecedents (it used to be a government operated body originally) and the fact that some people in Colombo had to wait years to get a telephone connection as short a time as about 10 years ago :)

On the other hand, there are organizations such as Dialog which proudly proclaims that their customer service is second to none and that they have won awards for customer service. But when you actually try to get anything done, you find that their customer service reps are untrained, clueless, and are usually afraid to go ahead and make a decision because: a) they are afraid to do so b) they have their boss looking over their shoulder and will censure them if they did actually take initiative.

I have had numerous dealings with Dialog and came away with each and every one of them vaguely unsatisfied. The best I got out of any such encounter was that they would "forward my feedback to management". However, I am not even sure that this feedback was actually sent anywhere (except to the wastepaper bin) because of something else that happened to me recently.

I finally got tired of the inefficiency and money grabbing practices of Dialog that I decided to disconnect my mobile connection with them. I’d had the connection for about six years and had not switched till then because everybody I knew had that mobile number. But enough was enough and I finally decided to switch. When I went to the Dialog arcade to get my connection terminated, the CSR (Customer Support Representative) who was assisting me asked me why I wanted to disconnect. I said, "I am not satisfied with your customer service" and I could see that he was put out by his expression :)

Before he could mark that on the disconnection form though (and there was a specific box was "Poor customer service" or something equivalent), he got called in by his boss who was sitting in a cubicle behind him. He is in there for a bit and then comes back out and I notice that the form does not have the "Poor customer service" box checked but instead says that I don’t use the connection anymore. I decided not to make a fuss because I knew that the CSR was simply following the orders of his boss.

Now I don’t know if this is standard Dialog policy or if the managers get reprimanded somehow if a customer disconnects due to dissatisfaction with the service they receive. If the latter is the case, I can understand why they don’t want to put that down. On the other hand, this particular manager might have been acting on his own believing that he was somehow acting in the best interests of the company by not sending negative comments on to the higher management.

Whatever the case maybe, I think that is a very shortsighted policy. If you don’t pass on what is wrong, it will never get rectified and you will continue to live on in your false glow of pride about everything being hunky dory. Of course, given that nobody in Dialog management reads my blog, I don’t think they’ll know about this in any case, or take any action to rectify such shortcomings. But I can at least write about this, especially since something else came up yesterday which made me want to say this :) But this other "something else" will have to wait for another day since this entry is already way too long ….

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Posted by Fahim at 9:12 am  |  No Comments