Plagiarism in the Internet Age

By Poison Ivy,

Usually I try to keep to a light tone to these entries, even if I have something serious to say. But the flap over Cassie Edwards, a longtime writer of florid historical romances featuring Native Americans, is not something to ignore or just joke about. Internet search engines have allowed some alert readers to discover many passages in her books that they believe have been copied nearly word for word from books written by other authors (see Smart Bitches Trashy Books for the full story). Whether this can be proven in a court of law—or even will ever get to a court—is a matter of legal property rights, not morality. (It’s also a matter of libel law, but since truth is a preeminent legal defense in American libel law, that’s kind of a non-issue.) Meanwhile, the truth is obtainable on the Internet for anyone who cares to run a comparison between an Edwards text and anyone else’s. This is an amazing leveling of the playing field that is ultimately to the advantage of all of us.

In this Internet age, access to original material is dead easy. This is fine as long as writers and readers both maintain some moral compass. Unfortunately, the world has plenty of chiselers. There are readers who shoplift books. And there are writers who lift the words written by other authors. High school and college teachers marvel that their students keep trying to palm off stolen or purchased essays when it’s so easy for the original texts to be found via simple Internet searches. Now, the sloppy habits of published writers who don’t bother to write their own words and don’t think they have any moral obligation to credit their historical sources are easy to detect and pillory. But passing off someone else’s writing as one’s own isn’t just a nasty habit of kids and fiction writers. Many previously well-respected authors of serious history have been discovered to be shameless lifters of other people’s material. They’ve sometimes gotten away with the claim that the copying was unintentional. And maybe they’ve had the money or the clout to win a legal battle or hush up a public hue and cry. But that was mostly pre-Internet, and their reputations have been tarnished permanently regardless.

Sadly, plenty of students get away with their purchased essays and then go on as adults to pollute our world with more thievery and lies: They steal the research of others, and claim it as their own. They falsify reports on the true results of medical tests. They suppress scientific evidence that doesn’t suit their political or religious leanings. And more. Remember the Piltdown man? A fake invented to inflate somebody’s reputation. We don’t need a world this dishonest. We need to have consequences for bad behavior, or we’ll have chaos. And now we do: Public outing on the Internet.

As much as the Internet facilitates thievery—consider the current chaotic, wild west situation with music and movies—it also exists as a vigorous policer. Oh, not in a legal sense, not yet, anyway. Having discovered they’ve been plagiarized doesn’t do most writers any good, because most writers can’t afford to sue anyone. Publishers have the financial resources to engage in a legal battle, but they won’t bother to do it for just any writer. And as for a book that is out of copyright protection, written by an author who is now dead, well, it’s likely to be fair game for anyone to lift unless a powerful corporation has a vested interest (don’t mess with Disney or Tarzan!). Still, the Internet facilitates the truth coming out. We will discover more plagiarists. There will always be untalented and dishonest writers who steal from other people, and who find credulous publishers to publish the stolen material. And it’s likely to get worse. But luckily for all of us, plagiarism can’t be obscure anymore if we don’t want it to be. The Internet is an opportunity for thieves, but it’s also an opportunity for the rest of us to find these people out and show the world what they are. All we have to do is put it out there. I applaud Smart Bitches Trashy Books for having the courage to tell the world.