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About Writing Right: The Blog


Someone asked this question on-line the other day, and you wouldn't believe the ridiculous answers people sent in. Here's how I responded.

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There are lots of problems with several of the answers you received, beginning, of course, with the Queen of Wrong, who said incorrectly that "the very best outcome you can expect is a cease and desist letter, being banned from every possible platform you published on, and having your name known in the publishing industry as poison." Dead wrong. The very best outcome you can expect is to have no one notice your plagiarized material; so, you walk away thinking you outsmarted the world. All of the things Queenie mentioned as the "best" are actually varying degrees of the worst you can expect—just the opposite of what she said.


Now, add to the list of worst things a plagiarizer may experience are a criminal complaint, a court injunction against the plagiarizing author, and—yes, let's dig deeper into the well—a legal finding for the plaintiff in a court of law. That could indeed leave the plagiarizer paying a hefty fine, all court costs for both sides of the action, and punitive damages. How likely is that to break the financial back of the plagiarizer? That depends upon the severity of the infraction, but in the case of an entire book, for example, the total could run into the millions of dollars.


Unfortunately, Queenie wasn't alone on this one in her woefully inadequate and outright incorrect response. Someone who identifies herself as an "educator" actually drew a distinction between plagiarizing today and plagiarizing of yesteryear, saying "The present emphasis on plagiarism focuses on uncited sentences and papers written entirely - [sic] by someone other than the student handing it in." She went on to claim that, in the past, the focus of plagiarism was on the "theft of ideas." We can only hope Ms. Educator never sets out to become a writer. Without free access to ideas, she's going to find very little indeed about which to write.


Let's be clear here. Ideas cannot by copyrighted nor protected from other people's use. Got that? It's called civilization or how people grow. Imagine where we'd all be today if no one could have tampered with DaVinci's concept of a "flying machine" if his ideas were protected under copyright. Nor with "electricity." Nor "automobiles." Nor even "refrigerators."


The only things that can be copyrighted are exact expressions of an idea. And even that protection is limited. You can't write "the green grass" and copyright the phrase so that no one else can use it. And you can't copyright a name such as "Bob" so that everyone else would have to spell his name "Bobb" or "Bobbe" or even "Boob." No, only the exact expression of completely unique sentences or thoughts can be copyright protected, preventing others from using that same verbiage word for word. That's the way the law reads today; that's the way the law read when Ms. Educator was teaching her classes incorrect information, and that's the way it's been throughout the history of modern man.


So, with all that said, here are the best reasons for not plagiarizing someone else's hard work.

  1. It's theft, which makes plagiarism immoral.
  2. It's unethical, which also makes plagiarism immoral
  3. It's unlawful, which makes plagiarism costly.
  4. It's self-defeating (for many reasons, not the least of which is robbing yourself of the opportunity to express thoughts in your own words instead of in those of someone else, thus diminishing your chances for personal and professional growth). And, while this is actually far rarer than Queenie espoused, a history of committing plagiarism and getting caught or of committing plagiarism on a large scale could generate enough publicity to turn the world against you. And, if you're a professional writer hoping to earn a living from the craft, that means financial suicide, pure and simple.

Now, don't you feel silly for asking the question? Well, you shouldn't—not if you were seriously interested in learning. The people who should feel silly, if not outright humiliated, are those who once again shot from the lip and gave you all that wrong, misleading, and potentially harmful "information." For shame.


Smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," which runs at Substack.com weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, I do my best!)

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