Lean Books

They lard their lean books with the fat of others’ works.

Robert Burton

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Recently, there has been a bit of a Twitter hoo-ha about a journalist allegedly plagiarising quotes and passing them off as actual interviews. I am not particularly au fait with the ins and outs of this case and so am not in a position to comment on it.

Having been the victim, along with many of my friends and colleagues, of plagiarism on more than one occasion, I am in a position to comment on how it feels to have elements of one’s work passed off as someone else’s.

I am aware that ideas cannot be copyrighted, and that plagiarism is a nebulous term, and is not the same as copyright infringement. It falls loosely into the grey area covering fair use and parody. Where it differs is that plagiarism is always covert. With fair use, parody, or ‘inspired by’ works, the source material is always obvious and sometimes credited, albeit often with no acknowledgement of any actual infringement.

The plagiarist, like the shoplifter, has a sense of entitlement. They see something they want, and slip it inside their coat, book, music, without so much as a passing thought about who may suffer as a result. But the fact that they obtained that ‘something’ by stealth speaks volumes about their understanding of the wrongness of their actions.

My first experience of this was in my late teens, back in the day when bands had to send demo tapes to record companies rather than release their music themselves. Some time after one particular hit of several record companies, music publishers, agencies, etc. I was watching TV when a washing powder ad came on. The music in the background of the ad was oddly familiar. It was quite low in the overall sound mix, so virtually impossible to tell whether it was an actual sample, or an ideas rip-off.

The ideas rip-off, by the way, is extremely common. Many musicians I know have had it done to them, and it’s happened to me on quite a few pitches I’ve provided vocals for. What happens is this: you’re asked to pitch for a project, usually an advert; film/TV score; song for another artist. You submit something in line with the brief and then wait to hear back. And you wait, and you wait, and you wait. Sometimes, while you are waiting, this happens: quite by chance, you’ll come across the completed project. More often than not, the piece they went for bears no relation to what you submitted. It’s not better or worse, just different. But sometimes, the finished article is almost identical to what you pitched. So much so, that I recently called my colleague to ask about invoice details as I’d just seen our ad on TV. Turned out it wasn’t our ad, but it sure as hell sounded enough like us for me to think I was hearing my own vocal. And that’s never happened before.

There was no apparent reason why we lost that particular pitch and as it was a cover of a popular song, there was nothing we could do about it. In fact, there is never anything you can do about it, even if your original piece is used as ‘inspiration’ for the finished work as ideas cannot be copyrighted.

And it is this knowledge that benefits the plagiarist most.

A stupid plagiarist will infringe copyright by stealing directly, be it whole paragraphs of a book or samples from another recording, and therefore be easily caught. A clever plagiarist is far more insidious. They will take elements of your work and twist them just enough so that you know full well ‘where they got their ideas’, but not enough that you have a legal leg to stand on.

Years ago, I had a project under consideration with a major company. It went back and forth over the course of about eighteen months. I made all the suggested changes, and for a moment, it looked as if it was going to fly, then they decided not to go with it. This happens. It’s a disappointment, but ultimately it’s not a big deal.

Then something happened that most certainly was a big deal. The person I worked with on my project decided that instead of being someone who helps shape creative works, they wanted to have a crack at producing the creative works themselves.

This was all fine and dandy. I congratulated the person on their career change, as I had assumed we were friends as well as possible business associates.

Then the work came out. There were many similarities. Enough, I believe, to state that substantial elements of the work probably would not be there had it not been for the creator’s prior access to my own work.

This had a strange effect on me. Initially, I picked my way through the work, listing everything I thought had ‘taken its inspiration’ (she said charitably) from my own, with the intention of seeking legal advice. But there was just so much, it was too soul-destroying to continue to pore over it.

So I stopped working. For about two years I had no creative output whatsoever. After all, what could possible be the point, if you could work so hard and for so long on something only to have it snatched away by the very person who was supposed to be helping it see the light of day?

It was a very dark time. I felt violated, unsafe, mistrustful. My only small consolation was that the plagiarist’s execution of their work was ham-fisted, overblown, and lacking in technique and finesse, but they were getting paid for it while I starved up on my high horse.

I’m deliberately not specifying what kind of creative work I refer to here, because of the Golden Rule: Them that has the gold makes the rules.

It’s often pointless trying to pursue cases through the courts unless you’re a multi-millionaire.

It is said that to protect one’s work before sending it out for consideration is the mark of an amateur, as reputable companies wouldn’t steal ideas or rip-off unknowns. They would and they do. All the time.  Although in fairness, it’s more likely to be one unscrupulous individual taking a chance at not getting caught than company policy.

Sometimes it’s about money; usually it’s about ego. In my case, I’m pretty sure the individual involved thought they could make better use of my ideas than I could. This may have been the case commercially, but it certainly wasn’t artistically.

But then what would art matter to these people? If they had one artistic bone in their bodies they’d have their own ideas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By SJB

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