story craft #10 Ethics of Plagiarism

Mike GristStory Craft 21 Comments

Recently I’ve been looking to borrow quotes. None of the sources are from authors still living, indeed most of the people I’m looking to borrow from have been dead for hundreds if not thousands of years. They include passages from the Book of Revelations (up there with Ecclesiastes as my favorite Bible book), quotes from ancient translated Indian caste law, quotes on Medieval law from various British kings, quotes on social ills by Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, etc…

Is it wrong to do that?

My feeling is that it’s not so bad, which might be expected since I’m considering it. There’s certainly no legal basis for anyone to cause trouble. Aristotle will not be filing suit for Intellectual Property violation, that’s clear. As for taking the work of others and co-opting it, well, yes, that’s trickier, so let me be clear about what I’m doing and we’ll see.

Often at the start of a chapter in fantasy and SF novels there’s a bit of world-building background shoe-horned in as a quote. In ‘Anathem’ it’s excerpts from a kind of dictionary. In most fantasy epics it’s bits of poetry and prophecy.

In mine, it’s variously chunks from the holy book (The Book of Jabbler), chunks from the King’s Ley (law), or sections of social commentary from the city’s pamphleteers. For these I wanted verisimilitude. I also wanted quotes that might sound strangely familiar. My fantasy world is not a million miles from reality, and I want the echoes to be clear.

So I take a quote from realia, in some cases famous, others not; and I adapt it. I chop it up, reorder it, and switch in and out nouns so that it works for my world.

Here’s an example. Cicero variously had these things to say about crucifixion-

– It is a crime to put a Roman citizen in chains, it is an enormity to flog one, sheer murder to slay one; what, then, shall I say of crucifixion? It is impossible to find the word for such an abomination.

– Crucifixion is a most cruel and disgusting punishment.

– Let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.

Which I combined and slightly adapted to fit the (quite similar) punishment of the Spike in my world-

It is a crime to put a Jabbler citizen in chains, it is an enormity to flog one, sheer murder to slay one; what, then, should we say of the Spike? It is a most cruel and disgusting punishment, the most wretched of deaths. The very mention of it should be far removed not only from a Jabbler citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.

In my view, it adds weight and history to a world that obviously has neither for the reader (yet). I wouldn’t be claiming the quote as my own either, but rather ascribing it to historic persons in the world of my book; though fair enough that may be splitting hairs.

So what do we think- is it OK to borrow/copy like this?

Comments 21

  1. Hmm… It’s an interesting debate. You are quite right that you are not infringing on any copyrights, but it’s a matter of plagiarism and ethics. I’m sure you’ve heard of this line, but I’ll link it here anyway:

    Personally, I think it’s extremely bad form to pass off the work of others as your own. Using quotes within the context of your novel, or perhaps making it clear that a character has a predilection to talk like Aristotle might be a way of crediting the source and using the past work in a creative way, perhaps? But I think touching up text the way you have done above is uncool.

    From the example above, although you have re-worded several quotes and changed a few words, the content is still very much from the Bible. Although one not as well read as me might not realise it at first, it would be noticed by others and my feeling is that if you are leaning towards being a published author one day, it is a very bad road to take.

    Another reason you might want to re-think re-jigging and using quotes too much in your writing is that they will invariably stick in your head. Hence, when you come to write new material in the future, you may unwittingly start quoting parts of the Bible and other books you have used before. Essentially, you would be committing plagiarism without knowing it! I imagine it would be quite horrible to write something you are very proud of and have people point out that you merely copied parts of other books. I realise by reading a lot anyway this s a possibility, but by actively using the quotes you are reinforcing them in your mind and I reckon have a higher chance of mistakenly using them.

    If you’re just using them sparingly for the openings of certain books or stories however, it might be passable, or even quite cool to do so. Providing readers with a link to past historical figures and famous passages does, as you said, add weight and history to the worlds you create. I’d just be careful about how often you do it and how much you change. You’re walking a fine line between paraphrasing a quotation and simply cutting and pasting artistic words of great past minds into something that looks new and original but somehow feels a little off.

    Just my thoughts :). If it were me, I would stick to using quotes or closing paraphrasing rather than trying to work old literature into your own.

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      Interesting thoughts Mike, thanks for sharing them. It is something I’m a little unsure on, as evidenced by this post.

      As to whether I’ll end up plagiarising by accident, I’m not really concerned about that. I can write in a Biblical style pretty easily, and do so in the Dawn books, but the chances of replicating more than a single line or phrase by accident are very low- and that’s totally within the bounds of coincidence anyway, especially when talking about similar topics.

      I suppose the main issues revolve around mis-attributing quotes and creating derivative works from the words of others. Before I started in on that I looked the issue up (yes, on Wikipedia), and found this under the heading of Literary Theft-

      “While plagiarism is condemned in academia and journalism, in the arts is often a major part of the creative process. …

      Similarly, in storytelling and literature, it is a practice common to all the major authors, to copy from parts of other works and transpose them in their own world. The value attributed to originality is also culturally contigent; some societies, like the one at the time of Shakespeare, instead used to appreciate more the similarity with an admired classical work, like in the case of Shakespeare’s rewriting of Plautus’ Menaechmi for The Comedy of Errors. Unlike in the academia world, in which references are expected to be cited explicitly and precisely, in literature they are usually not revealed or kept implicit.”

      Oh, one other point which I almost feel I shouldn’t point out (since you quite confidently phrased it- ‘Although one not as well read as me might not realise it at first’), but the quotes in the example were not from the Bible, but rather from Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman philosopher before the time of Christ. Of course it is possible his words made it into the Bible somehow- but then that would just be another example of plagiarism rife in the literary world. 🙂

      1. Yea, I happened to read that article the other day, which is why I had so many thoughts on the subject :p.

        I tend to interpret what it is saying as using previous work for inspiration is acceptable. I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if you re-wrote the Bible into a fantasy world, so long as you used your own words. I think the big problem is over direct quotation or paraphrasing too much. I often ask myself when making anything “am I creating something mostly new?” (with ‘new’ meaning I thought of it by own power – very little in the world is actually new these days :P). There’s also the matter of pride when using other people’s work. I wouldn’t like to claim something my own creation if it was just full of quotes from other people’s work.

        The same thing happens to bloggers online. I have no qualms with people using bits of my content or quoting me. They could even re-write an entire post of mine saying much the same thing, but it would be okay. What isn’t okay is copying or paraphrasing large chunks of the original text, tweaking a few words and posting it on another blog as original content. It goes without saying that scraping whole feeds is the lowest of the low.

        And yes, I had a feeling I might have said something stupid in the first comment which is why I put that disclaimer in :p. I would love to have a better historical knowledge. I’m terrible with history ^^;.

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          I think we’re almost wholly in agreement here Mike- I too think copyright theft is just theft and wrong. If someone stole from me I would be pissed, obviously. but the quotes I’m using are ancient, and clearly in the Public Domain, which as I say in reply to Jason lower down- allows us to use them how we will.

          I go into it in more detail in that section, but essentially I agree, I wouldn’t want to use said quotes with zero attribution at all, though I also don’t want to attribute directly next to the quote as it will pull the reader out of my fantasy world and into the real world.

          A possible solution is use of an attributing Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, which explains which words are not my own and where they came from originally. Would such a tactic put your ethical qualms to rest?

          1. Yup, I reckon noting the sources used for each page in an appendix would be a good idea. That way the reader can flick to the back of the book when curious about certain passages to remember where they’d seen similar words before. Still, I think you should use past material sparingly. You have a brilliantly creative mind yourself. No need to rest on the laurels of past thinkers :).

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  2. Why not leave the quote in the original as a chapter starter and allow the reader to draw the parallels between the quotation and the world you have created? or alternatively use your modified quotation and include “(after Cicero, 106-43BC)” beneath it.

    Pratchett gets away with this style of borrowed quotation all the time, but the advantage of parody is that the intelligent reader will feel pleased to identify it back to the original.

    I’m not sure where you’re going with “the Spike”.. but rather than the adapted quotes I’d be more concerned about converging on Richard Morgan and “The Steel Remains”.

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      Hi Alastair, thanks for sharing your thoughts on directly citing- my concern is that I’m trying to build up an idea of this fantasy world where Cicero himself never existed, but someone like him did, and came up with very similar sentiments. So if I put the Cicero citation in, it pulls us out of that other world and back into ours.

      However, of course I don’t want to try to pass off Cicero’s adapted words as my own invention- I borrowed his for a reason- because I can’t express the sentiment as well as (certainly not any better than) him. Elsewhere in this comments thread I contemplate an Author’s Note at the beginning of the book stating which sections of text are quotes and adapted. Would that satisfy?

      Prachett yes, it’s quite possible I learned bad habits from him…

      Richard Morgan is an author I’ve never heard of, but from looking at the plot summary of his ‘The Steel Remains’ I’m pretty sure we’re going in different directions.

  3. That is plagiarism. Just substituting nouns in mad-lib fashion is not paraphrasing enough.

    Source (see paraphrasing section):

    Basically all the links in this search agree on simple paraphrasing as plagiarism, when a source is not given:

    I do not think this quote idea is something you want to include in your book if you want to get it published, as it would seem to be just another hurdle to getting it published.

    Why not just use the original quotes as they are and site the source? Then beneath them you can apply what was said in the quote to your own story’s needs? That would to me still give your story a historical grounding in the real world.

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      There’s no doubt that it’s plagiarising, I don’t think anyone is contesting that. The question is one of whether that is so bad or not, when the works to be plagiarized are in the Public Domain.

      Works in the Public Domain essentially belong to ALL of us, and can be used by any of us for any purpose whatsoever. I could republish all of Cicero’s letters and charge for them if I wanted to, even publish them under my own name, and that would be legally legit. It would be silly, but there would be no victim, so hardly such a bad crime. Ethical? Well….

      Here’s a site dedicated to Public Domain publishing, where they talk about ‘Stealth Publishing’ and claiming credit for old works not being so bad-

      Here’s the wikipedia page on public domain-

      The idea to cite the source within the text of the novel (in the chapter heads, which is of course the only place these ‘quotes’ would appear) wouldn’t work, as it’s a fantasy novel and within the pages of that novel the fantasy world needs to be immersive. Plus without the mad-lib replacements and alterations the quote would no longer work.

      All that said, I might still feel uneasy to quote even public domain material without any nod to the original writer at all. One potential solution would be an Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, stating that several of the chapter-head quotes are drawn from public domain sources (and either name them there or on an accompanying website), which can’t be cited in situ as that would throw off the sense of the world. It shows I’m not trying to claim them as my own, offers citation to be found elsewhere, while also keeping the fantasy world whole and self-contained.

      An author towards the end of this article seems to have followed that strategy-

      1. So the question is whether it’s good or bad form? It seems to me the obvious answer is bad. I would be totally put off if I was reading a fictional novel and saw blatantly copied quotes from some other book in it, even modified slightly like in your example. The fact that the writing is in the public domain doesn’t change that fact either. Like everyone else has said above, why copy some writer anyway? Use your own ideas!
        Oh and citing the quote at the bottom of the page would be just weird in a fantasy/sci fi novel like you’ve written.
        Just my thoughts…

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          I have a difficult time seeing how it’s so bad. It seems a little like a homage to me, and a little like almost directly quoting the writers in question, especially if an Author’s Note or Appendix (not on the same page, agreed that would ruin it) acknowledges that.

          As to whether you’d recognize the quotes or not, I do quite doubt you would, they’re all from ancient thinkers and not exactly in the mainstream. Also with the adaptation, even if you knew the original quote, it’s pretty unlikely you’d recognize it when I use it unless I directly told you I was. For example- I was trying to find the source I used for the quote in the post (since I had forgotten), and it took me about 10 minutes of Googling to locate it as Cicero, and that’s only because I knew the original quote was on crucifixion.

          Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. “I borrowed his for a reason- because I can’t express the sentiment as well as (certainly not any better than) him.”

    Yes you can. Never think otherwise.

    Man, fuck Cicero. You can definitely write better than he did.

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  5. It’s hard for me to understand how you can see it as anything other than wrong. It would be homage if you were writing a book about Cicero’s life and using random quotes that he wrote, but it doesn’t seem like homage (at least to me) when using it in a completely different context, like a fantasy novel. Even the title of this post ‘Ethics of Plagiarism’, is puzzling to me; trying to dispute that the word plagiarism can somehow have a positive meaning?

    Putting a general citation in the appendix would of course be better than not doing it, but what would you have thought if Orson Scott Card, for example, mentioned in the appendix that some of what Ender was saying was modified from Biblical quotes or some other ancient texts? You don’t think that would’ve been strange, and even disappointing at some level? I’m pretty sure it would’ve lowered both my enjoyment, and my opinion of the book to find that out.
    And just because I wouldn’t recognize it as copied doesn’t mean that nobody else would, unless you’re writing for a very small set of people.

    Anyway not to argue the point too much as you seem to be (as that article says) ‘comfortable’ with this course of action, but can you point out any other famous authors who’ve used this technique with success? Just curious.

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      If I`d found out that Card had been repeating quotes from real world sources, I think I would`ve been impressed. That Orson Scott Card could weave in stuff from the real world would add credence to the fantasy world that he built. These things happened and were talked about in reality!

      Now, if he stole ideas for the plot of the story, the characters, the setting from another writer directly, of course that would be reprehensible. If he stole whole paragraphs from another novelist and worked them into his story that would be wrong. But that`s not what I`m talking about.

      Here`s the closest comparison I can think of- if the Peter and Valentine avatars Locke and Demosthenes were given a little stage time, and said something weighty but relevant about social ills and the government of the world (which I think they didn`t actually do in the book- all their debating happened off-stage). If they did that and I later found out that for that section Card had taken real world quotes from ancient orators and made them apply to his situation, I think I`d be impressed. Like he was singing with a chorus of voices across time. It would add realism to it all for me, tie things together.

      As to other authors who`ve done it, I couldn`t say. I haven`t seen it done before.

  6. Like what the Can says, the use of the word “plagiarism” is itself negative and cannot ever be thought of as ok, so another term for doing what you propose would need to be used.

    What I think you should do is post the contents of this post onto a large writing website’s message boards/forums where a larger, more specific and relevant audience can see it and offer feedback on it by a group of actual published novelists and wanting to be published writers. It would be more useful to have actual published novelists or aspiring novelists feedback on the question.

    Also, on an article on plagiarism, you are using a copyrighted image without linking back or giving credit. The website where the image is from does give copyright credit and a clear and distinct link back to its creator. If one of my original photographs was being used on a website with ads (or even without ads for that matter, but especially with ads) and I was not asked permission first to use it, and also not given a photo credit, I would be quite angry and contacting as Scott Bourne advocates.

  7. Chiming-in late, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using public domain works as you propose, so I don’t think the word “plagiarism” is even apt. As you mentioned, you’re engaging in the time-honored story-telling tradition of borrowing from other stories to enhance your own, and ultimately to better entertain your audience. The texts that will appear in your book are derived from the originals, but they are still your work (and the fact that the originals are in the public domain means you’re within your rights to create the derived works).

    Since you’re fictionalizing the texts, I’m not sure there’s even any meaning in citing the original texts either in-line or in a end note: By adapting Cicero’s text to your imaginary world and execution method, you’ve removed Cicero’s thoughts and left just his writing style; it doesn’t really matter any more that your text was derived from Cicero’s because they are now talking about different subjects.

    I say go for it. Actually, this kind of writing sounds like a lot of fun both to write and to read.

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      Glad someone agrees with me on this topic, David- thanks for chiming in late or no. Calling it plagiarism in the title was probably me rabble-rousing a bit.

      As for fun to write- for sure. Felt like my world was coming alive with the grand thoughts of others.

      As for citing, I’m with you, would look weird in a fantasy book.

      1. I would say citations would be called for in a fantasy work only if you were either quoting the original texts verbatim (e.g. Cicero’s actual comments on crucifixion are meaningful to your story), or if a large part of your story (more than just chapter headers) were made of fictionalized versions of other texts.

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