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.