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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Tags: Writing
Posted by Fahim at 6:28 am   Comments (0)