The Movie Junkies and Plagiarism: Follow Up

The Movie Junkies site, which featured scads of movie reviews plagiarized from other movie critics, is at least temporarily down; right now if you go there you get the notice you see above, “Maintenance Mode,” apparently being a polite, or at least shorter, version of the more accurate description “Oh CRAP I Have So Much Plagiarized Material Here That I Can’t Get Rid of It All In One Panicked Burst Mode.” Given that the site appeared so rife with plagiarism that it might be more efficient to ask which reviews weren’t cut and pasted from elsewhere, the site might be down for a while. The Movie Junkies’ Twitter feed is also down; so is its Facebook page.

Film writer Eric D. Snider writes about his own interaction with The Movie Junkies’ proprietor Michele Schalin, in which Ms. Schalin attempts to call a wholesale plagiarism of one of his reviews an “error,” rewrites the review so it still contains substantial amounts of plagiarized material, and then when he calls her on it, gets snippy with him and suggests that just because she just happens to use words in sentences almost exactly as he has, it doesn’t mean it’s actually plagiarism. This assertion, may I suggest, works better when one hasn’t already been caught plagiarizing. Elsewhere, Ms. Schalin attempted the Griggs Maneuver, i.e., blaming the problem on “staff”. Oh, well, staff. We all know how that is. Good help is hard to find.

In the real world, Ms. Schalin and The Movie Junkies multiply plagiarizing multiple writers was definitely an error, but, I rather strongly suspect, not in the way Ms. Schalin was trying to suggest. Her use of “error” implied that this plagiarism was all a mistake and misunderstanding, whoops, let’s fix that. It’s evident, however, that the error here was having a Web site whose business model was predicated on taking the work other people did without their permission and passing it off as one’s own. There’s a lot of ground between the first definition of “error” and the second.

Hopefully Ms. Schalin has learned something from this, other than “The Internet is mean when you plagiarize other people’s work.” Well, yes. Yes, it is. But there’s a reason for that, you know. Figure out why that is, Ms. Schalin, and you’ll be better off.

Dear The Movie Junkies: Plagiarism is Still Not Cool

My pal Maryann Johanson wrote a review of the movie Shame on her site The Flick Filosopher on January 16. Here’s an excerpt of what she wrote:

What is shocking about Shame is the male vulnerability, the male weakness, the abject male misery we see onscreen. Movies simply don’t do this. Movies protect the male ego, even to the point of — at least in the United States, thanks to the MPAA’s retrograde puritanism — decreeing that male nudity is much more scandalous and is to be treated much more seriously than female nudity, which may be treated casually. (A penis? Onscreen?Why, men might feel inadequate! Unless said penis is somehow comically small. That’s okay! Male egos remain intact!) (Warning: Fassbender’s nudity may bruise some male egos.)

On January 29, a review of Shame went up on the site The Movie Junkies. Here’s an excerpt of what they “wrote”:

What is shocking about Shame is the male vulnerability, weakness and misery we see onscreen. Movies simply don’t show this. Movies protect the male ego, even to the point of decreeing that male nudity is much more scandalous and is to be treated much more seriously than female nudity, which may be treated casually. What you say? A penis onscreen? Why, men might feel inadequate! Unless the penis is somehow comically small. That’s okay! Male egos remain intact!) (Warning: Fassbender’s nudity may bruise some male egos.)

There’s no attribution to Maryann (or, one assumes, payment), although there is a copyright notice at The Movie Junkies. So there’s that irony.

(I saved a screenshot just in case the text changes.)

I wonder what would happen if someone went through the rest of The Movie Junkies’ reviews with a fine-toothed textual comb.

Here’s Maryann’s response, incidentally:

That about sums it up.

Update, 12:11pm: The plagiarized text has been taken down, which is nice.

Dear The Movie Junkies: A public acknowledgement of and apology to Maryann Johanson is something you should do, don’t you think?

Update, 12:18pm: Other possible plagiarisms are being noted in the comment thread.

Plagiarism is Not Romantic

A couple of people have asked me if I have anything to say about the plagiarism accusations surrounding romance writer Cassie Edwards, which have been exhaustively documented at Smart Bitches, and the answer is no, not really. Ms. Edwards pretty clearly cut and pasted chunks of text from other peoples’ work, and that’s also pretty clearly plagiarism. The examples I’ve seen to be largely out of texts that are in the public domain, which is interesting, since if they are, even if it is plagiarism it wouldn’t be copyright infringement; it’s not a legal problem to plagiarize work not under copyright. But no one likes a plagiarist, even if they just stick to plundering the public domain.

What does get me is that Ms. Edwards’ excuse for her plagiarism is that she didn’t know she was supposed to credit sources: “When you write historical romances, you’re not asked to do that,” she told a reporter. This comment was no doubt followed by the the sound of all the other romance writers in the world groaning and smacking their heads in frustration, because Ms. Edwards, in an effort to rationalize her own bad behavior, just rather explicitly stated that romance writing is the warm, shallow, yellow-tinged end of the publishing pool. That’s going to make her popular at the next RWA shindig.

Also: Really? The woman writes 100 books over 25 years and is somehow unclear on the concept of plagiarism and attributing sources? That’s kind of like a long-haul trucker claiming after a couple of decades that he didn’t know he was supposed to use his turn signal when he changes lanes on the interstate. Yes, it’s that fundamental. Irony: at the moment, Ms. Edwards’ Wikipedia entry states that she “is known for her meticulous research.”

Really, it’s not hard: Attribute sources. If your publisher won’t let you have an acknowledgments page because paper is too dear, put up a Web site and do it there. And then you’re covered. Easy.

My Schadenfreude Phaser is Set to “Meh”

People are (rather gleefully, I suspect) sending me this story about conservative writer Jonah Goldberg getting dinged for the jacket flap bio of his latest book, which incorrectly states that Goldberg has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer. In fact it appears he’s been twice submitted for consideration, which involves no special skill other than filling out an application and sending the $50 fee. When called on it, both Goldberg and his publisher said “whoops, that’s an error” and backtracked on it, both suggesting it was an innocent mistake.

Well, it’s definitely a mistake. I’m not sure it was “innocent” in the sense of “unintentional,” although it might be in the sense of “non-malicious,” since no one gets hurt when Goldberg overinflates his accomplishments. But as publishing sins go, it’s pretty venial. It’s not like plagiarism.

Also, from a certain pathetic point of view, it’s not an actual lie. It’s stupid, and it’s something you can get called on so easily that it’s foolish to do it. But just as Bill Clinton wanted to parse what “is” is, Goldberg appears to have been hanging his hat on what the word “nominated” means.

In this case Goldberg seems to have been using the word “nominated” in the sense of “proposed for consideration,” which if you’re a word dork who hauls out the dictionary every time someone points out you’re using a word in a non-conventional manner, is not incorrect: Goldberg’s publishers did propose him (and/or his work) by filling out the forms and sending along the money. Goldberg’s initial response to being called on his use of the word “nominated” in at least one of his various bios — “Nominated by the Tribune syndicate. Never said I was a finalist. There’s a distinction” — makes it clear that’s why Goldberg went with the wording.

And in his defense, he’s not alone. I’ve had people proudly note to me that they’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (again, by a publisher sending in an application) or for Hugos or Nebulas (by a member of the voting pool offering a recommendation and/or submitting their name or work on the initial nominating ballot) or for other awards. Again, in a strict dictionary sense, they’re not wrong. It’s a nomination — they or their work has been named for consideration.

In the practical, real world sense, however, it’s totally incorrect; the common usage of the “nominated” when in comes to awards is those works that have made a short list prior to the naming of a winner (or, in the case of the Pulitzer and a few other awards, noted as being part of the final selection pool after the award is announced). What’s more, I rather suspect a large number of the people who announce their work is “nominated” in the dictionary sense are well aware that people who see the word in the context of award immediately go to the “short list” meaning of the word. Which is why they use it at all — or at the very least allow it not to be corrected.

This is, incidentally, why it doesn’t pay to be a dictionary dork if you don’t understand that dictionary definitions are descriptive, not prescriptive; you can be literally correct about the definition of a word, but still be contextually wrong and look silly in the real world. I mean, look: I’m pretty certain at least a couple of people nominated Fuzzy Nation for the Best Novel Hugo Award this year. If I went around saying it was nominated for Best Novel because of that, I’d have my ass handed to me. And rightly so, because it’s not correct, even if by the dictionary definition I’ve been nominated. The dictionary is not your friend in situations like these.

Why didn’t Goldberg correct this until he got called on it? You got me. I don’t buy that Goldberg was unaware of the notations. He probably didn’t write his jacket bio copy (I don’t write mine) but he almost certainly got jacket proofs, and it’s incumbent on him to correct errors. This would have been an easy fix. The obvious answer is that he didn’t correct it because he didn’t want to or that he genuinely believed that it wasn’t a big deal to say “nominated” when “submitted for consideration” was more correct. Maybe to his audience it doesn’t matter, or he didn’t believe his audience would know anything about the Pulitzer process. Which may be correct since he was ultimately called on it by another journalist. It was still kind of dumb of him.

My problem is that I can’t work up a real sense of schadenfreude on this because, really, it’s just kind of amateur hour. I’m no fan of Goldberg, who strikes me as a slap-dash researcher and whose political rhetoric runs the gamut from “fatuous” to “shallow,” but the dude’s been in the grown-up publishing world for a couple of decades now and has shipped hundreds of thousands of books. You’ll likely never see me write these words in the context of Goldberg ever again, but he’s better than this sort of penny-ante silliness, or at least he should know better. It’s like watching an NBA player trip over untied shoelaces. It’s not as much fun as it could be.

Quentin Rowan Speaks

I was pointed in e-mail to this article by Quentin Rowan, the fellow who released a debut thriller novel that was widely praised for its skill in storytelling — possibly because much of it had been plagiarized from other authors. The resulting mess of that discovery was impressive. Likewise, Mr. Rowan is a bit of a hot mess himself, as the article he writes details, and in which he tries to explain why he decided to rip off so many other writers. The article is on a site tailored to people in recovery for addictive substances, so it’s heavy on recovery speak, twelve-stepping and AA gushing (Rowan is a member); it also fronts the idea that Rowan’s choice to plagiarize might have been something akin to an addiction of its own. He writes, “Perhaps one day plagiarism will be seen, if not as a disease, at least as something pathological.”

Yeeeeeeeeah. I understand the appeal of pathologizing plagiarism, since then it holds out some sliver of hope that one is not in one’s self entirely at fault for one’s bad impulses in that area. But I’m deeply skeptical of that particular line of suggestion. I’m willing to believe Rowan’s messed up and that the plagiarism was in part a manifestation of his particular goodie bag of neuroses, which apparently include low self-esteem coupled with a desire for recognition. But I am loath to put the manifestation cart before the neurosis horse. I suspect a simpler explanation is more fruitful: Rowan, wanting to be a published writer, nicked and tucked because he thought it was easier than coming up with the stuff in his own head. Ultimately I suspect it would have just been easier to learn how to write.

In any event, check out the article see if it holds any water for you. In the end I think Rowan’s still trying to rationalize doing an appallingly stupid thing, in a friendly venue, using language that is intended to make him look sympathetic (or failing that, just pathetic). The writing is ironically not entirely without skill, but to me not convincing. Maybe you’ll feel differently.

 

Amanda Hocking and Self-Publishing

Tons of e-mails recently from people who want to know what I think about Amanda Hocking or [insert some other self-published e-book author here] and the fact they’re selling lots of self-published ebooks via the Kindle and so on. Answer: See what Jim Hines has to say about it here, since I would say pretty much the same thing so closely to the manner in which he said it that he would be totally justified in accusing me of plagiarism.

More personally as it relates to me, considering that I made thousands of dollars off a self-published ebook a dozen years ago now — back in the days when people had to physically mail me actual dollars (uphill! in the snow! Both ways!) — when said novel was only available on my personal Web site, I’m not particularly surprised that some folks are making more money now they can tie into large commerce sites which handle both payment and fulfillment. It’s excellent for Ms. Hocking and anyone else who’s doing well with it. Good for them. But as Jim notes, we need to be careful not to confuse the statistical anomalies with everyone else, and it is a lot of work. It’s the “lot of work” part, among others, that keeps me working with publishing houses; I like being able to focus on the writing, not the everything else.

Some Useful Clarifications About Fuzzy Nation

I’ve been alerted that in various places online people are — one assumes by lack of actual information than by genuine malice — spreading misinformation about both me and my upcoming novel Fuzzy Nation. In order that I and others can have something to point to when and if this misinformation pops up again, here’s a quick page for that.

So:

Yes, Fuzzy Nation is a book that is a reimagining of story and events of Little Fuzzy, written by H. Beam Piper (and nominated for the Best Hugo Novel in 1962).

Yes, it is authorized — after I wrote the novel I sent it to the rights-holders of the Piper estate and asked permission to try to get it published. They agreed. Little Fuzzy itself is in the public domain; however, both morally and practically speaking I thought it essential to seek permission, because I didn’t want anyone to think I was doing this without the full awareness and participation of the Piper estate and its rights holders.

Yes, the relationship of Fuzzy Nation and Little Fuzzy is made clear in the upcoming book — there’s an author’s note at the beginning of the book detailing the relationship, plus (if the proofs I’ve seen are accurate) a note in the jacket copy of the book. Additionally, the book is co-dedicated to Piper. There’s no attempt to sweep either Piper or Little Fuzzy under the carpet; indeed, I encourage people to read Little Fuzzy, both for its own sake and to note the different approaches to the same story both books feature.

Yes, I am the sole author of Fuzzy Nation — although the story of Fuzzy Nation is based on Little Fuzzy and includes characters and story elements from that novel, all the text is original, and the story in its details diverges in places significantly from Piper’s work. None of Piper’s own writing, published or unpublished, appears in the novel. There are a couple of places in the novel where my description of something is based on what Piper wrote (the description of the sunstones comes to mind), but no attempt was made to cut-and-paste Piper’s work. That being the case:

No, there is no plagiarism involved here. Even if I had borrowed Piper’s own writing, the novel was submitted to and approved by the Piper estate, so any borrowing would have been authorized (and thus not plagiarism).

No, I do not own the rights to any previous Fuzzy books, either those written by H. Beam Piper or those commissioned by Ace Books after the rights to the series came to them. I have a license to write a new story based on the characters and events of Little Fuzzy, and that’s it. As I understand it, Penguin (the corporate parent of Ace Books) owns the rights to all the previous Fuzzy works, save Little Fuzzy, which as mentioned is in the public domain. With that understood:

No, I am not republishing any of the previous Fuzzy books under my name. One, as mentioned, I don’t own the rights to the previous novels. Two, wow, that would be stupid of me, wouldn’t it — not only to be so disrespectful to Piper (and to William Tuning and Ardath Mayhar), but to assume people would buy the premise that I wrote books before I was actually alive, in the case of the Piper works, or before I was in high school, in the case of the others. The only Fuzzy books that will be published under my name are the ones I actually write (and at this point, there is only one of those).

Finally, no, I didn’t write Fuzzy Nation just for the money — I wrote it for myself and for fun, and as an exercise in retelling a particular story I enjoyed. Money didn’t enter into the writing. Once it was done, my agent approached the Piper estate and Penguin about getting their permission to try to sell the book. If they had said “no,” then I wouldn’t have released the book. Once I had permission, I sold the book to Tor, and I did indeed make money — and so did the Fuzzy rights holders, because they get a cut of what I make, which is, of course, both right and appropriate.

Hope that clears things up for folks.

The Big Idea: Charlie Huston

Hey kids! I’m stuck in meetings all day long (seriously, from about 8:30 to 6), but that’s no reason why you shouldn’t be having fun. And to help you have fun, here’s neo-noir master Charlie Huston to entertain you with tales of The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, his latest thriller, and to explain just what a certain beloved 70s television show which always started with a phone message has to do with anything. Incidentally, the critics are seriously digging on this book and on Huston; Publishers Weekly’s starred review of the book called the dude “one of his generation’s finest and hippest talents.” That’s not a bad way to start one’s day, if you’re him.

And now: Enjoy this. And think of me fondly (or with pity, either works) as I spend all day in meetings, won’t you? Thanks.

CHARLIE  HUSTON:

“The Rockford Files.”

Really, it’s that simple.

The big idea behind The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Hey, can I squeeze in a note to any novelists or prospective novelists out there? Sure I can. Just a thought, but if you’re ever, you know, thinking about giving your book a really long title, take into consideration that fact that you will likely have to write out the entirety of that title many, many, many fucking times. No shit, it gets annoying. Just saying.) was “The Rockford Files.”

Yes, my big idea was over thirty years old, and belongs to Stephen J. Cannell and Roy Huggins. Oops. Caught red handed, stealing other writers’ ideas.

In scholarship they call it plagiarism.

In fiction they call it genius.

Bonus points to me for realizing I am no genius and that I would need the genius of others to disguise my many shortcomings.

So, the Big Idea went something like this.

(internal monologue)

Man, these books I’m writing are both very violent and very dark. And though people often talk about how funny they are, they don’t feel at all funny to me. In fact, I’d kind of like to write something that felt a little lighter. Something where the protagonist’s life is not disemboweled, the entrails dragged over hot coals, and dined upon by feral beasts. I’d maybe like to write something about someone’s life coming together instead of coming apart. And, hey, what if I gave myself a break and didn’t kill half the cast. So I could maybe reuse them in future books or something? And, hey, what if I used past tense, so the narrator could comment on the action, you know, breathe and observe and say something? And, hey, what if the guy wasn’t tough, was wrong as often as he was right, was really funny but couldn’t keep his mouth shut, had a real low-rent lifestyle and kind of liked it that way and…You know what show was really great when you were a kid, Charlie? “The Rockford Files” was a really great show. What if…

Yes, it’s more complicated than that. You don’t just pull an old favorite out of your ass, refashion it, and presto! Big Idea for a new book! There is actual labor involved. Curses.

This vague idea I had, slacker guy hanging out in his friend’s tattoo parlor finds his way into some trouble, kind of sorts it out, and over the course of a couple books becomes a detective kind of guy, and it’s all sort of modeled around my love of “The Rockford Files,” sat in my brain for several years. Waiting.

I mentioned it a few times to both my agent and my editor and they both grunted and said something along the lines of, “It could use some filling out.” Which I get where they were coming from. I just knew the tone. The kind of guy I wanted to write about.

Things started filling in.

I moved to LA and knew it was an LA book. OK, yes, “The Rockford Files” was set in Los Angeles, so it’s not like that’s a real creative leap. But all my previous books had been set in NYC, so it was new for me.

Then, I don’t know, then I was researching something. Can’t remember what, and I stumbled over an article about crime scene and trauma cleaning. Well, that was too evocative to pass up, I needed to know more. And I very quickly knew what my guy would be doing. He’d be a trauma cleaner. He’d start the book doing nothing, get drawn into trauma cleaning, get into some trouble, get out, and go into the detective thing for future books.

Except.

Except the deeper I looked into trauma cleaning, the more it took over.

It’s a sad, rich, funny, brutal, fascinating profession. Full of opportunities for intrigue, compassion, lurid scenarios, heartbreak, and maggots.

I couldn’t pull out of it.

So that was my guy. A trauma cleaner who gets involved in other people’s troubles, and solves them. Sort of. Or not at all. As things go along people may mistake him for a detective, and he may mistake himself for a detective, and he may be hired to do detecting work, but that’s not really his thing. His thing is cleaning up messes. As the books evolve, so will he, and he’ll go from being a mess himself, to a man with a talent for cleaning them up. Except when he blows it.

Or that’s my idea. Which could change. And probably will.

-c

PS

I met Mr. Cannell a few months back. I didn’t have the guts to tell him I ripped him off, but I did thank him for Rockford. An idea big enough to be used many more times than once.

—-

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Mystic Arts here. Sample other Charlie Huston books electronically here.

Another One From the “People Who Really Should Know Better” File

University of Florida English professor James Twitchell caught plagiarizing others in his books. His is excuse? “Fluke acts of sloppiness.” Well, yes, it is sloppy to lift whole paragraphs of other people’s work without attribution, but as the linked article suggests, when you do a lot of it, it’s not really a fluke. Writers should be vigilant against plagiarism in any event, but I’ll go on record saying that authors who are also professors of English ought to be even more aware of it; they should hold the standards that they are presumably holding their students to. A plagiarizing English professor is like a traffic cop drunk-driving into a tree; there’s irony in the stupid.

Speaking of stupid, over at Reason Magazine’s blog, editor Nick Gillespie notes:

Twitchell’s behavior is not simply indefensible but really fucking stupid: We live in an age where it’s tough not to get caught for plagiarizing.

Well yeah, but Twitchell is also in his mid-60s, which means that he came of age, writing-wise, in a world where Google searches and Turnitin.com didn’t exist. I suspect that even if he knows intellectually that cutting and pasting is easier to spot here in the 21st Century, some part of his brain is still working in the 20th Century, when the risk of being called out for such fluke acts of sloppiness was lower, because finding cut-and-pastery was so much more difficult and time-intensive.

This is not to suggest that every writer over the age of 40 is dumb to the ways of the Internet, because they’re not. But I do suspect in some quarters there’s a lack of appreciation for how much it’s changed the game. The flip side is that writers under 40 generally understand this better. I personally don’t aspire to plagiarism, but even if I did there’s not a chance in hell I would do it, because my book publishing career started in 2000 — i.e., well into the Search Engine era. I wouldn’t even have to think about the risk of getting caught; I’ve internalized the fact it’s inevitable. It admirably cuts down the temptation/incentive to plagiarize.

The other thing here, which is also a consequence of the online world, is that I think writers today have less fear of being seen attributing really interesting ideas to others rather than claiming them as our own, because after all that’s what we do online all the time, via linking. It’s still nice to be brilliant and have great thoughts, but there’s also increasing value in showing that one intelligently aggregates and comments on other people’s brilliance and great thoughts, because then people come to you for those aggregation and commentary skills. It’s valuable to be a conduit, basically, and not just a font. I suspect this will over time also help to tamp down the plagiarism impulse, at least among the more intellectually secure writers. One hopes it will, anyway. But if it doesn’t, there’s always that first thing.

Which is to say: Folks, the heyday of tucking someone else’s paragraphs into your work and calling it your own is over. Please don’t try it, and please don’t try it especially if you are an English professor. I mean, Christ. That’s just dumb.

(Nicked from Megan McArdle. See? Citing sources isn’t so hard, is it?)

Quick Official Statement on “2:42″

Wired.com has picked up the story about The Morning News’ piece on 2:42 being the perfect length for a pop song having an eerie resemblance to my own post on the matter a few years earlier. I admit to being initially rather skeptical that the subject matter was entirely coincidental, but then Josh Allen, the writer of the MN piece, came by and explained in a comment how he’d independently come to the idea.

Long story short: I believe him, it was coincidence, we both have excellent taste in music, and that’s that. I would appreciate folks not suggesting Mr. Allen has engaged in plagiarism of me, either in text or in ideas. I don’t believe he has. In any event, the utter pop perfection of “There She Goes” was known to many long before we wrote about its length, and hopefully this discussion will bring Lee Mavers out of his perfectionist cubby hole to write some more perfect pop songs before we all, like, die. It’s not too much to hope for.

Follow-up on Crimes of Fanfic

Lots of very interesting and generally civil discussion coming out in the Crimes of Fanfic thread, for which I am pleased. As some folks have surmised, I did in fact frame the discussion in a particular and confrontational way regarding fanfic and plagiarism, because I was interested in hearing from fanficcers and their readers on the matter, and aside from a few flubs of rhetoric on my part, it worked out pretty well. Thanks to those who participated (and who are continuing to post).

Having said that, I do have a very real concern, in that it’s clear that some portion of fanficcers actually seems to believe that writing fanfic isn’t actually copyright infringement, and that therefore it “exists in a gray area” or is actually not illegal via some interpretation of fair use. Some of this belief stems from the contention that there has not been (to the common knowledge) a copyright suit specifically dealing with fanfic, probably because a “Cease & Desist” letter is usually enough to cause the fanficcer to take down his/her fanfic so no court case is necessary. The thinking here seems to be that if a suit does not specifically address fanfic, then the legal status of fanfic is in fact indeterminate.

I can’t help but think this is a bit of magical thinking, based on the idea that fanfic is in itself a legally special class of writing (possibly under the “we’re doing this for fun” idea), which as far as I can see it’s not. It’s bound to the same injunctions and restrictions as any other piece of creative writing. Certainly US copyright law carves out protections for fair use, parody and criticism, and equally certainly some fanfic qualifies under a realistic reading of these protections. But I hazard to guess the vast majority of fanfic could not be shoehorned into these protections even under the most liberal of terms.

Now, I realize my opinion is suspect, because I am not a lawyer, and also because after yesterday’s entry, some fanficcers undoubtedly see me as the hated enemy. So I went out and about on the Web to look for bolstering of this opinion of mine from folks who have some idea of the relevant law. Our first stop is the Web site of Kevin A. Thompson, who is an intellectual property attorney with Davis McGrath LLC, and whose area of practice includes trademark, copyright, and internet issues. Here’s what he says on the issue:

Fan fiction is prevalent on the Internet, but is it legal? It turns out that’s a really interesting question. For the great majority of what is available, the answer is no… first and foremost fan fiction is almost always never authorized by the holder of the copyright in the work. Most of these stories are classified as an “unauthorized derivative work” and are therefore an infringement. A derivative work is one that is based upon one or more preexisting works. The right to create derivative works is one of the exclusive rights given to the copyright holder pursuant to statute. Infringers of federally registered works can be subject to monetary damages, including statutory damages which can range from $750.00 to $150,000.00 per work in the case of willful infringement. Plus, attorneys fees can be awarded by a judge in certain cases.

Our next stop is the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, a repository of legal information complied by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the clinics of various law schools, including those of Harvard, Stanford and Berekely. On the entry page the site has on fan fiction, the CEC notes that “Not all fan fiction is a violation of law,” which is of course true. However, reading ancilliary pages makes it clear that while not all fan fiction violates the law, a whole lot of it does:

Copyright owners have the right to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work. In most cases the right to prepare derivative works is superfluous since when this right is infringed, the right to reproduction will also be infringed. For example, if a FanFic author creates a new story about Darth Vader, the author will have infringed both the derivative right and the right to reproduce that character.

and

In order to prove copying, it must be shown that the fan fiction author copied the work (either through direct or indirect evidence), and some of the copied elements are protected and that the “audience” of the work would also find similar elements. Since FanFic authors generally do not deny that characters and settings are borrowed (“copied”), as seen in their disclaimers, it is likely that copying will be found. Then you must raise the defense of fair use.

Yes, and what about fair use? Fair use is part of the copyright setup for the purposes of (and here I’m quoting the CEC) “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” While the CEC notes “There is a strong argument that many fan fiction stories are transformative since they create a different persona and set of events for the character,” this is only one criterion for a fair use defense; in any event most fanfic is not created for the purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research — not every fanfic is a parody — nor, is it likely, would any competent court of law hold that your standard-issue Harry/Draco slash constitutes such (and at the very least, Scholastic’s lawyers would have lots of fun smashing that defense to pieces). I suspect that many of the fanficcers who hold “fair use” up as a shibboleth in their defense would find to their grief that it doesn’t well apply to what they do.

In sum: The large majority of fanfic is almost certainly a copyright violation; the large majority of fanfic is almost certainly illegal.

The reason to accentuate this point is not to rub fanficcers’ noses in it (“Ha! You silly, silly fanficcers! I laugh to your pathetic Harry Potter handling!”), but to dissuade fanficcers from assuming they have certain protections under the law which they almost certainly do not. Simply as a practical matter, rather than assume that their fanfic exists in a legal Schroedinger’s Court Room, where the legality of fanfic exists in an indeterminate state until someone cracks open the door and withdraws a verdict, fanficcers should work under the knowledge that most of the copyright case law suggests they do not have a legal right to produce fanfic, and proceed accordingly.

In fact, I suspect, the large majority of fanficcers do just that, which is why among other things they are admirably self-policing whenever one of their number gets it in his or her head to, say, start selling their fanfic. But clearly there are more than a few fanficcers who are under the impression that what they’re doing is legal, or at least, not so illegal that they can’t do whatever they please in someone else’s universe, with someone else’s characters. For those folks, I suspect the best solution, if they truly believe fanfic to be legal, would to make themselves a test case, so that there is an on-point copyright case involving fanfic. I don’t suggest using any universe I’ve created to do so, since I’m already on record as thinking it would be cool to have fanfic. However, I hear Anne Rice would be a fine person to test this legal theory upon.

I think fanfic is perfectly fine; I also think it’s largely illegal. I think fanficcers will be better off if they share this basic frame of mind with me.

Crimes of Fanfic

A couple of e-mails have come in recently — whether independently or coordinated, I can’t say — asking me if I had any comment about what seems to be a long-running kerfuffle in the Harry Potter fandom about a particular fanfic author who allegedly plagiarized other works in the construction of her own fanfic story. As evidence of this I was presented with a whole bunch of links that turned out to be really tremendously not useful because nearly all of them were like dropping in on a heated argument that had a subtext one could learn nothing about, and anyway the argument was in Albanian, so all you knew was there was a lot of yelling and shouting.

The wrinkle is this particular fanfic author is in the process of crossing over to writing original material, and I can only assume that these folks e-mailing me about the kerfuffle want to blow the lid off of this writer’s alleged previous sins before she escapes into the real world. The e-mails hinted that this was something along the line of Lori Jareo or Kaavya Viswanathan, the former being a case where someone was stupid enough to try to commercially publish their fanfic, and the latter being a case where an author put forward an original work, portions of which were plagiarized from other novels.

Well — and bear in mind that I’m working from a bunch of links and LiveJournal hissy fits that I fully admit I can’t find a coherent thread in — I’m not feeling a whole bunch of outrage here, nor frankly do I find that a) what this fanfic writer has allegedly done has any consequence outside fanfic circles, or b) that this fanfic writer needs to be punished or humiliated prior to their formal publication. This writer may or may not have plagiarized other works in their fanfic — I can’t tell at a glance, nor am I inclined to research the matter to any great length — but if they did, I’m hard-pressed to see why it matters in the larger scheme of things.

Let’s remember one fundamental thing about fanfic: Almost all of it is entirely illegal to begin with. It’s the wild and wanton misappropriation of copyrighted material (I’m sure there is fanfic that features public domain characters, just not nearly as much as there is of, say, Harry Potter fanfic). Copyright holders may choose not to see it, or may even tacitly encourage it from time to time, but the fact of the matter is that if you’re writing fanfic, you’re already doing something legally out of bounds. And, really, if you’re already wantonly violating copyright, what’s a little plagiarism to go along with it? Honestly. In for a penny, in for a pound.

I recognize this attitude probably won’t sit well with fanficcers, but this is really an “honor among thieves” sort of issue, isn’t it? If you’ve already morally justified intellectual theft so you can play with Harry and Hermione and Draco and whomever else you want to play with, I’m not entirely sure how one couldn’t also quite easily justify taking juicy chunks of other people’s text to play with as well. Think of it as the literary equivalent of a “mash-up,” if you will. Everyone seems to think The Gray Album was a perfectly fine thing to do (well, except EMI), so how is this any different? As long as it all takes place within the confines of fanfic sandbox, it’s all pretty much the same, morally and legally speaking. Out in the real world, I take plagiarism rather very seriously, but then, out in the real world, I take appropriation of copyright seriously as well. If fanficcers want me to oblige their outrage about fanfic plagiarism, I suppose I would have to ask how it is essentially more serious than the appropriation of copyrighted characters and settings, and how if I must criticize one why I am not also therefore obliged to criticize the other.

On the other portion of the issue, should what an author does within the confines of the fanfic sandbox have any effect on what happens when they start to do original fiction? I think not, personally. What happens in fanfic, stays in fanfic. I’m perfectly content to think of fanfic as a sort of free play area where anything goes and what goes on has no bearing in the real world of writing. No harm, no foul. In the case of this particular author, if the original fiction they’re working on turns out to be chock full of plagiarism, that’s another discussion entirely. But since the original fiction isn’t even out yet, there’s nothing to suggest that it is, and I don’t think it’s useful or fair to the author to make such a suggestion or implication.

I’m not a fanficcer, and while I have a generally have a very relaxed attitude toward to the concept of fanfic and find it largely beneficial to the well-being of any media property’s longevity, I’m not inclined to pretend that it’s got a legal or moral leg to stand on, either. So, at best, the response I have to people engaging in intellectual theft complaining about other people engaging in alleged intellectual theft is amusement, followed by mild confusion as to why I should care. In any event, in this particular case, I’m not in the least bit inclined to name the parties involved in this kerfuffle, or to condemn them. This is one literary crusade that will have to get along without me.

Plagiarising the Whatever

A question from e-mail:

I would be interested in reading about your experiences with people who plagiarize your entries to the Whatever. I’ve been reading a few other bloggers who are dealing with the issue and I’d just like to see how this has been with you and your blog.

To be honest, I can’t think of a situation where I think someone’s plagiarised a Whatever entry. There have been a couple of times when people have cut-and-pasted an entire entry of mine into their own blogspace, most notably with the “Being Poor” entry, but even in those instances they’ve usually linked back either to me or to the place where they originally found the entry. That’s not plagiarism, because there’s no attempt to hide the fact they didn’t write it. It is a massive copyright violation — no interpretation of fair use includes a simple cut-and-paste of an entire entry — but generally speaking I find it difficult to care if some random dude does a cut-and-paste onto his personal site, particularly if he links back.

Also, here’s the thing: The couple of times where someone has cut-and-pasted something I wrote into their blog without attribution, someone has popped up in the comments and said “hey, John Scalzi wrote that. You should credit him.” And then — pop — up comes the attribution. No, those commenters are not me working through a sock puppet. It’s simply that enough people read my stuff online that people recognize what I’ve written, even if it’s on someone else’s site.

In a larger sense I don’t think there’s much incentive to plagiarize online, anyway. 99% of plagiarism as far as I can see comes primarily out of two desires: To make one’s self look smart to friends, and to get a good grade while avoiding actual work. Well, people generally aren’t being graded on their blogs and journals, and the blogosphere’s value system is such that you get almost as much credit for finding something smart and clever and sharing it with your friends as you would for writing something smart and clever. Most people are content to excerpt and link, and of course I am pleased when they do.

Off the Internet, it’s possible that kids are plagiarising my Whatever entries for school papers or whatever, but I don’t know how much of a good idea that is. My site is regularly spidered by Turnitin.com and other plagiarism-detection services, so anyone who copies something I write wholesale into their own paper stands a good chance of being caught if their professor uses any of these services. So kids: Don’t. Just don’t. Cite me and put the URL in a footnote. It keeps you from having to explain why you suddenly write like a 37-year-old shut-in living in rural America.

Students aren’t the only plagiarists, of course; sometimes pro writers and authors will nip in a few passesages from other favorite writers here and there, because of deadlines or stress or whatever excuse seems most convenient at the time. As far as I know, no one has yet attempted this with me. I am occasionally quoted by newspaper columnists (the Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn does this from time to time), but being quoted is nice and good, and I’m happy when it happens. But wholesale lifting of work? Nope. Not that I know about. If it were to happen, my first inclination would be to contact the writer and give them a chance to “correct” their lack of attribution rather than report them to their bosses. If they got all snotty about it, then there would be trouble. But generally speaking I’m not in a rush to end someone’s career because they did something that is stupid but probably harmless. Call me a softie.

As far as I know, I have not myself plagiarised anyone. But I have been drinking a lot of cough syrup recently. And I have deadlines. And I’m under a lot of strees. I could do it any time now. I apologize in advance for my possible future plagiarising misdeeds.

Quick Hits, 4/25/06

Feel like I’m running about like a madman today, which I suspect has something to do with an orthodontist appointment this morning (for Athena, not for me, and yes, everything’s fine with her mouth; we’re juts making sure it’s big enough for her grown up teeth). So some quick hits:

* Lori Jareo? She’s so last Friday. The hot writing scandal today involves Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergrad who got half a million for her novel — which on closer examination appears to have rich, meaty chunks of plagiarism in it. This caused Ms. Viswanathan to issue an apology suggesting that some near-word-for-word rips from author Megan McCafferty’s work were “unintentional and unconscious.”

Bah. Look, people. Cutting and pasting paragraphs from someone else’s book into your own and then swapping out a few words here and there as a freshening agent is not something you can blame on your subconscious, on Ambien or on alcoholic blackouts. You will remember doing it.

Having said that, I find it difficult to work up a real head of steam about this one. A teenager plucking choice passages from someone else’s work to give her own work additional resonance? That’s what happens on MySpace 13,000 times a day. Speaking from experience (believe me), teenagers are generally not terribly resonant communicators, even the clever ones, so they model and ape the words and poses of the writers they admire. I spent a large chunk of my 19th year trying to be a junior HL Mencken, and yes, it was just as painful to read as it sounds. Now, I didn’t plagiarize ol’ Henry, but then, I also didn’t have half a million dollars worth of pressure hanging over my head, either.

I’m trying to roll with the snark here, but I just keep feeling sorry for this girl instead. She could probably have used a good editor who understood that teenage writers — even the ones what go to Harvard — are special cases and need to be handled with a gentle combination of encouragement and suspicion; the former because the writer is being asked to do so much, and the latter because the writer is being asked to do so much. I have no opposition to young writers being published — when I was 19 I wanted to be published, so why would I begrudge anyone else — but were I an editor of a novelist that young I think the first thing I would do when I got the manuscript would be to quietly wash it through Turnitin.com, and then be ready to deal with the handholding that would follow if something popped up.

* Wanna make yourself feel like a fool? Stress out like monkey in a trash compactor about an article deadline at the end of the month, and then learn the deadline is at the end of next month. Man, I want hit myself with a hammer for that one. On the other hand, if you ever need an expert on LEGO brand toys, baby, I’m your man.

* The state legislatures of Illinois and California are reportedly considering drawing up articles of impeachment against President Bush; apparently they can do so under some obscure parliamentary rule of Congress. I think this is a tremendously bad idea. Leaving aside the issue of whether Bush should be impeached or not (you can see my thoughts on that subject here, if you would like), if the states get into the whole impeachment act, there’s not a single president between now and the end of the United States who will not get impeached by some damn state legislature during the course of his or her term. There are fifty of them and only one of him. And anyway, state legislatures are where high school senior class treasurers go to die. Think about your high school senior class treasurer. You want him having a significant role in national politics? I didn’t think so. I’m hoping this thing gets nipped in the bud.

* Arrived via UPS today: Chris Roberson’s latest, Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, which is his take on the thrilling pulp science fiction stories of yore. It comes out next week, for those of you with money burning holes in your pocket. I’m a fan of his Chris’ last novel, Here, There & Everywhere, and he wrote a kick-ass story for the Subterranean Magazine issue I edited, so you can imagine I’m looking forward to cracking this one open. I’ll let you know what I think when I’m done. In the meantime, here’s Chris’ Paragaea site, which in addition to info about the book contains a complete prequel novel for your enjoyment.

* Asked in one of the comment threads:

I have noticed that you don’t run any ads on the Whatever. You are popular enough that you could probably bring in some significant revenues this way… Any reason why you have held off on this?

Yeah: I just don’t want ads on the Whatever.

There’s no major philosophical reason for this; I’m not opposed to people making money writing blogs (I do it myself). And I certainly don’t think ill of people who put ads on their sites. I just prefer not to do it here. I do suppose it’s true that I could make a tidy sum from ads at this point, but you know, I’m not exactly hurting for cash these days. If I were to lose income in a significant way and needed a way to replace it, then I might consider putting ads here, and not feel too bad about it. Baby needs shoes and all that. But at the moment I can afford not to do it. So I don’t.

Which is not to say I don’t do any sort of promotion here on the Whatever. This site is of course an advertisement for myself; I’m not shy about letting you all know when something of mine is out and about. I also cheerfully promote others; I promoted Chris Roberson in this very entry, because he’s a friend of mine and because I expect Paragaea to be a lot of fun, and therefore something worth sharing; two entries previous to this I promoted Hal Duncan’s book Vellum because I thought it was a really excellent read. Tomorrow I’ll post a note from Bill Schafer at Subterranean Press announcing a nice little deal he has on one of his books (not one of mine), because he’s one of my publishers and I don’t mind doing him a favor. But in each case, it’s not trivial that this promotion comes from me personally rather than from ad server; I’m fairly transparent in my motives and in my intent, and I try make sure it’s not all pimping, all the time.

I have given thought to creating a different site, with different content, that could run ads. I own the domains Mencken.com and Schadenfreude.us; both of those, I think, have a number of delightful high-traffic possibilities, some of which I plan on pursuing at some point in the reasonably near future. But I expect that Whatever will remain ad-free. I like it that way, and that’s a good enough reason there.

* Final thing: Those of you wondering when my next novel will hit the stores, wonder no longer; according to Amazon, The Android’s Dream will hit the stores on October 31, 2006. I think having a book with an official release date of Halloween is super cool.

How Not to Plagiarize

I’m reading with interest this story about writer Brad Vice, who won a literary award and published a collection of short stories and then had the former revoked and the press run of the latter pulped when someone noticed that, hey, there’s a short story here that seems at least partially written by another writer. Vice, who is a professor at Mississippi State University, said something along the lines of "whoops," claimed what he was really doing in lifting entire lines from another writer was an homage, and also claimed to be confused about that whole "fair use" thing. Meanwhile, industrious reporters have noticed the increasingly-aptly named Mr. Vice may have also lifted lines from other places as well, which certainly lends credence to the whole "shaky about fair use" thing, but also suggests the fellow may be a serial plagiarizer.

Now, this article from Media Bistro says to me that lifting junk from other writers is some sort of hot new academic trend — "Issues of intertextuality, embedded narratives, and literary borrowing and homage were very much in the critical air through the 1990s" — which I suppose marks yet another difference between academia and the real world, in that if I heavily excerpted text from, say, Olaf Stapledon, and presented it as original material in a novel, I suspect Patrick Nielsen Hayden would bring down a big fat cudgel on my head long before I would have to make up some lame "It’s an homage!" excuse and Tor became obliged to pulp an entire print run of a book. Out here in the wild, claims of wanton intertextuality gone amuck pale in the face of the economic cost of a major screwup.

(Also, come on, let’s get real: homage is one thing and plagarism is another, and someone who makes his cash as a professor of English at a major state university damn well ought to know the difference — and know what’s acceptable "fair use" to boot. If that’s not actually in the job description from an English professor, it should be. And heck, Vice is the advisor to the MSU’s English honor society! Oh, the shame. For its part MSU launched an investigation into Vice’s lifting issues, which suggests tenure is not something he should hope for at this point.)

Being as I am someone who ripped off Robert Heinlein with wild abandon for Old Man’s War, I’m the very last person who should suggest homage is not a legitimate literary technique. However, I would note that in my case I did two things which I think are of critical importance: One, I didn’t actually cut and paste Heinlein’s words into my manuscript, and two, I’ve been almost gaggingly upfront about what I’ve been doing. I thanked Heinlein in my acknowledgements, for God’s sake. It beats deluding myself that no one would ever catch on to what I was doing.

As a matter of record, I did it again in The Ghost Brigades, where I found two ideas of fellow SF writers compelling enough to play off of them. One of the writers was Nick Sagan, whose ideas about consciousness transference in Edenborn were right in line with what I needed for TGB. Another was Scott Westerfeld; the brief space battle on pages 119-121 of TGB owes quite a bit to Scott’s jaw-droppingly good extended space battle in The Killing of Worlds (his is the economy-sized version, while mine is the miniscule travel-sized version). In both cases I gave a head’s up to the authors that I was going to play a riff off a theme they established, and of course I noted the riffs in the acknowledgements section of the book, listing the authors and the books, and describing them as "authors from whom I’ve consciously stolen."

Because why wouldn’t I? I don’t want to hide when I borrow; I’m comfortable enough with my own writing skills that I’m not threatened by acknowledging how much my writing is influenced by my able contemporaries. More to the point, I want people to know, because if they liked my tip of the hat, they should know where to find the inspirations. If reading The Ghost Brigades’ acknowledgements (or indeed, this very bit of writing here) sends a few more readers to Nick and Scott, how could I not be happy about that? They’re both excellent writers — I thieve only from the best — and deserve all the readers they can get. Also, and not insignificantly, it innoculates me from later accusations of idea poaching, since a guy who hands you an itemized list of the people he’s borrowing from is clearly not worried about such accusations. I plead guilty, and hope you’ll read these other excellent writers, too.

I’m not so sanguine about actual word theft, mind you; that space battle I mention above plays quite a bit like a miniature version of Scott’s, but at least i typed all the words and word structurements out of my own brain rather than cracking open my copy of Killing of Worlds and transcribing from what lie therein. But I guess if one were going to do that, then one really should acknowledge it, shouldn’t one? Because otherwise you end up with the situation Vice seems to be in. A little tip for you budding (and in Vice’s case, not so budding) writers, which I encourage you to take freely and propogate widely: Unacknowledged "homages" are often indistinguishable from plagiarism. Yes, even when everyone "should" know the writer or the work you’re homagifying (no, that’s not a real word). A simple CYA statement at the end a story ("The author wishes to acknowledge [insert other writer here], whose story [insert story name here] this piece homagifies in an academically approved intertextual sort of way") will probably save a lot of heartache and print run pulping later.

It’s a little early to expect homage or even simple theft of the books I wrote, but you know, if someone wants to play the changes on an idea I’ve had or a scene I wrote, groovy. Have fun with that. And if you want to note it in the acknowlegements of your book, even better. And if you want to send me a nice gift basket with an assortment of cheeses in it as a way of saying thank you, why, that would be best of all.

Bob Greene Gets Canned

Header in my Spam box today: “Barnyard animal rapers take it to the extreme!!!” Jesus. Aren’t they there already?

***

Speaking of taking it to the extreme, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene resigned his position over the weekend because someone blabbed to the Tribune (in an anonymous e-mail, no less) that Ol’ Bob had a sexual encounter with a teenage girl a decade ago (he would have been in his mid-40s at the time). He had met the girl in connection with his newspaper column. Interestingly enough, it’s that last part that seems to be the smoking gun, not that she was a teenage girl and he was a middle-aged guy with what looks like a bad haircut, although all of that looks bad enough. Apparently she was the age of consent, even if she was a teenager (there’s a couple of years where those two overlap). But having sex with someone you meet in connection with a story is a no-no.

That Bob Greene would have sex with a teenager while he was huffin’ and puffin’ away at middle age is not much of a surprise. First off, he’s a guy, and if the average 40+ guy gets a chance to boink an 18-year-old without penalty (or in this case, a penalty delayed by several years), he’s going to take it. Undoubtedly he’ll have a good rationalization (we always do, and Greene, being a writer, probably has a better one than most), but to cut to the chase, he’ll do it because she’s hot and young, and because during middle age the Veil of Male Self-Deception, even at maximum power, can no longer hide the fact that one day the man will die, and that between now and then, the number of truly hot young women he can have without paying for them is small and getting smaller, fast. So that’s reason number one.

Reason number two that it’s not at all surprising is that Bob Greene is, by self-appointment, Boomer America’s Newspaper Columnist. Well, was. Anyway, as a chronicler of the Boomer Nation observing itself, it was only a matter of time. Boomers have never done anything that wasn’t eventually about them; it’s the funky never-ending narcissism thing they’ve got going. No, that doesn’t make the Boomers evil — every generation has its annoying tics (my generation, for example, has a tendency to whine like kicked puppies being shown the boots that will get them in the ribs), and this is the Boomers’. Also, rather unwisely, the Boomers made a fetish of their youth when they were younger — hey, they were young, what did they know — and they’re not handling the inevitable decrepitude well. Narcissism + Getting Older = Irrational Behavior, often involving younger women in ill-advised trysts. As Boomer America’s Newspaper Columnist, how could Greene not do this? He’s just staying true to his demographic.

Reason number three is that Bob Greene telegraphed the idea he’d do (or did, depending on the timeline) something like this a decade ago in his perfectly awful novel All Summer Long. The story involves three life-long high-school chums, who when confronted with the stirrings of middle-age do what all newly-middle-aged men do in mediocre quasi-autobiographical fiction written by newly-middle-aged Boomer men: Take a long vacation away from their families and responsibilities to “find themselves” on America’s byways. This, of course, often involves extracurricular sex with hot babes. In the case of Bob Greene’s obvious stand-in inside the novel (a nationally well-known TV journalist named “Ben”), this means having sex with a graduate student roughly half his age. In real life, Greene diddled with a high school student closer to a third his age, but, speaking as a writer, one always tries to make oneself look better in fiction.

Now, Greene didn’t have to follow through on the whole sex-with-a-much-younger woman thing just because he wrote about it. Mystery writers write about killing people all the time; most of them don’t actually attempt to follow through. But sex with a younger woman won’t kill you (just your career) and anyway let’s revisit points one and two here. It wasn’t inevitable, but when a guy draws himself a roadmap and hands himself the keys to the car, it’s not entirely surprising he ends up in Whoops-I-slept-with-someone-my-daughter’s-age-ville, looking for a motel that rents by the hour.

Be all that as it may, I do have to wonder what the problem is here. Greene’s sleeping with a teenage woman is gross to think about, but they were both of legal age, and even if she was just barely so, “just barely so,” counts as legal. So far as I know, Greene applied no coercion other than his not-especially-dazzling celebrity, and as everyone knows, if a great many celebrities didn’t do that (especially the not-especially-dazzling ones, and especially ones, like Greene, who have a face for radio) they wouldn’t get any action at all; they’re just as lumpy and furtive as the rest of us.

Journalistically speaking, having sex with someone in one of your stories isn’t very smart and is definitely suspension-worthy (a nice long “leave of absence” would have been good), but it’s not a crime. From what I can tell, Greene even waited until after he had written about the woman to hit her up. The Tribune is labeling it a “breach of trust” between journalist and subject, but if he did in fact wait until after he had written about her (and did not write about her post-boinkage), where is the breach? What I see is simply middle-age-death-denying sex, which God knows is common enough. Unseemly, sad and more than a little creepy, but there are worse things a journalist can do. Hell, it’s not plagiarism.

There’s probably more here than what we know now, that’s my only guess. It’s worth noting that the Trib didn’t fire Greene; he apparently offered to resign and the resignation was accepted. If I were a corporate suit, I’d’ve taken the resignation too, since it was an easy way to distance my company from Greene’s compromising position.

Also, I think Greene should have been cut as a columnist years ago, not because he’s morally tainted, but because he’s a boring columnist. He stopped being interesting and started being filler long before he did his questionable after-school activities. From a purely utilitarian point of view, there’s no downside to Greene hightailing it out of town, excepting that there will be the painfully rationalized mea culpa six months down the road as part of Greene’s inevitable comeback (America loves a reformed sinner).

But based on what we know now, this isn’t the way Greene should go out. If he needed to be yanked, he should have been yanked on the merits of his writing (or lack thereof), not because of sex he had a decade ago with a legal adult who apparently gave her consent after she was no longer his journalistic subject. Greene is getting popped on a dubious technicality, and though I would have never imagined I’d say something like this, I think he probably deserves better. Getting canned for being a boring columnist would probably have been harder on the ego, but at least it would have been a reasonable excuse for getting escorted from the building. I won’t much miss Greene’s columns, but even I wish he could have had a better final act.