Plagiarism to Make You Laugh

By Poison Ivy,

Usually it is not amusing when someone steals your writing. It’s a matter for heated phone calls, for cease and desist letters, and for expensive lawsuits. But the plagiarism scandal du jour is actually funny. Seems a sex advice column had a new writer, and the writer, not having received any letters with questions yet, decided to steal the questions from previously published sex advice columns by someone else. (For the seamy details, see Jezebel, or just check out our link on the right to Smart Bitches and look for January 24.)

What is wrong with this picture? The columnist needs to make up questions, which is a time-honored practice. I’ve done it myself when there was a letters page to fill and there were no letters. The standard, perfectly acceptable thing to do in this circumstance is to ask one’s friends and coworkers for some questions.

At this point, we pause, and try to imagine any random dozen people who cannot think of a single sex question.

Nah. Impossible. I can think of a half dozen questions myself, of the milder sort, in thirty seconds: Will I go blind if I masturbate? If I have sex unprotected just once, will I get pregnant? Does wearing a condom make any difference in the sexual pleasure experienced by either partner? Why doesn’t my girlfriend want to give me oral sex? Is there really a G spot? Do men and women have different sexual appetites?

And that was just thirty seconds. And tame stuff, admittedly, some of it more suitable to a general advice column than a sex advice column. Sex columns don’t usually talk about pregnancy, for instance. They might talk about threesomes instead.

But let’s say you don’t want to think up the questions. Then you could find a sex survey online, and create questions about its topics. Actual surveys are copyrighted, so the copyrighted news story you’d find online, such as this one from ABC News, doesn’t give the questions themselves. It merely lists the topic and the percentage responses in basic gender breakdown. Yet this is plenty of information from which to create some questions for a sex advice column, because all you need is a topic. For instance, having sex outdoors. You would not need to cite the ABC News Sex Poll if you made up a question about someone who engages in sex outdoors. The idea of having sex outdoors cannot be copyrighted.

So now I’m thinking of any number of questions about having sex outdoors, ranging from the straightforward (dirt in delicate places) to the humorous (poison ivy accidentally encountered). From the “Is my boyfriend weird?” to the “Why can’t my girlfriend have an orgasm if we do it in a bed?” From the straight to the kinky. And so on. And so can you. I’ll leave the rest up to your own vivid imagination.

Which leads me back to the silly part of this entire plagiarism episode. Just how lame is it not to be able to think up some sex questions for a sex advice column? Very, very lame. Laughably lame. Writing about sex is not hard. (Sorry.) Most people have an opinion about sex, and most people also have at least a passing familiarity with it. Most people also are familiar with basic journalistic ethics. This person acted as if she didn’t know that it is ethically wrong and potentially a lawsuit if you take someone else’s copyrighted words and pretend they are your own. That’s both plagiarism (the stealing part) and copyright infringement (the stealing from a copyrighted work). A person who isn’t comfortable asking for help, who doesn’t have much background in creative writing, and who fears that she’s not a very talented writer might feel pressured enough to dispense with ethics. But it wasn’t necessary at all. I’m trying to feel sorry for her, since her resignation was immediately accepted (yeah, she got fired). But I have to say: lame.