What Exactly Do We Mean By Plagiarism? Gill-Marie Stewart

For a while now I’ve been mulling over what constitutes plagiarism, whether it is always a bad thing, how fanfic fits in … and all sort of other diverse but linked ponderings. I’ve been drawn to blog about this specifically because of the recent case of bestselling author Sherrilyn Kenyon suing bestselling author Cassandra Clare for ‘wilfully copying’ her novels’ (The Guardian, Wednesday 10th February 2016). What on earth is going on?

Plagiarism is defined as the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. It can be seen as a form of flattery and I’m sure most writers began their writing career inspired by someone whose style they (consciously or unconsciously) copied. In my teens I longed to write like D H Lawrence – but failed!

Fanfiction is fiction about characters or settings from an original work of fiction, created by fans of that work, and is always overtly acknowledged as such. I have a particular interest in fanfic because a key character in the novel I have recently finished and sent off to my publisher is a writer of fanfic. It’s not something I’ve ever done myself, but I really got immersed in her world. I also realised that not all fanfic writers stay as fanfic writers – some cross-over into traditional publishing. This is where things can become a bit complicated. There have been accusations of plagiarism about fanfiction which is, after all, using someone else’s characters and setting. Interestingly, Cassandra Clare (then called Cassandra Claire) has previously been involved in controversy around whether she had or had not borrowed dialogue and other sentences from well-known TV shows and other fantasy novels without acknowledging the source.

All writers would agree that they use ideas, tropes, even styles that they have learnt from other writers. After all, it is by reading that we learn to write. As Courtney Milan says in the Guardian article, if using similar themes is plagiarism none of us would ever be able to claim original writing – or be paid for it! So where do we draw the line between similarity and actual copying?

For what it’s worth, my (current) view is:

It is OK to –

  • Explore themes that have been explored in other works of fiction
  • Follow the same plot outline, as long as the characters, setting, etc are new and different (as has been said many times before, there are only so many plots)
  • Make reference to existing works of fiction

It is not OK to –

  • Market your fiction in such a way that it leads readers to think it is something it is not
  • Use another writer’s characters and setting
  • Take sentences or longer pieces from another work of fiction and pass them off as your own.

The accusation is that Cassandra Clare has done one or more of the latter. I don’t know if it is true, but it has made me wonder exactly what has made this writer so successful. I was originally drawn to try her work when I saw the immense and devoted following she had at YALC last year. So I read ‘Welcome To Shadowhunter Academy’ which I reviewed in November 2015 (see review here). I wasn’t overly impressed, in fact I commented that if we awarded half-piranhas I would have awarded the book 3-and-a-half instead of 4. What I did not know at the time was that there was already a considerable debate about her originality.

So, does originality matter? If something is truly enjoyable and readable, does it matter if some of the ideas (or even whole sentences) have come from elsewhere? Well, yes, I suppose if you are the person they are being ‘borrowed from’ you would be peeved. And if the borrower is actually earning lots of money doing this, you would be even more peeved. So does this just make it a question of money? One of the key tenets of fanfic is that you can’t make money out of it. Cassandra Clare has clearly moved on from fanfiction – but is she still copying?

Mmm, I can see that I’m still undecided on this. What do you think?

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Gill-Marie writes YA mystery/romances as Gill-Marie Stewart. As Gilly Stewart she also writes women’s contemporary fiction. The first book in her YA series about George and Finn is Music and Lies (try out the first chapter here).

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