Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ill Met by Moonlight


portion of Portage Near Falls of Grand'Mere, St Maurice River,
Cornelius Krieghoff,
oil on canvas, 1855,
Collection of the Power Corporation of Canada.

Many of us, in the lee of the Edwards plagiarism case, have expressed concern over the inadvertent repetition in our own works of another's words.

However, as Ello put it on Angie's Desk, with profound good sense,"you could possibly have never read a book and come up with a similar line. A similiar sentence can happen simply because of the amount of written work out there."

Case in point.

Last year while contemplating an opening for a piece of flash fiction for one of Jason's contests, I came up with the line In the blue of the moon they howled and hunted for my entry, Trolleri.

Just previous to that several blogs had discussed moon names and the origin of the expression once in a blue moon. In a thought process perfectly familiar to all writers, I played about with that image.

I was quite pleased with the result, actually, because I'd never read that particular take before.

After the Edwards case erupted, however, I googled.

The full sentence remained pristine and unimpaired.

However.

Depending on whether one searches for the blue of the moon or in the blue of the moon, one may find from ten to seventy results, from everything from a film and photo processing site concerned with light filters, to a re-telling of an Ojibwa tale, to a fanfic verse adaptation of a vampire anime. Some entries older than my use, some later.

Not original after all? Obviously.

Plagiarism? Not on your life.

Not even a case of "borrowing."

I never heard of those sites and I'm equally certain the latter ones never read mine. Quite likely they never read each other's sites, either.

Writers should neither cower in hand-wringing humiliation because phrases from their works are not as exclusive as they hoped, nor huff indignantly about plagiarism if they see the odd phrase repeated elsewhere.

Minds do think alike. Even small ones like mine.


27 comments:

Demon Hunter said...

Great post, Bernita. Writers are always going to use similar phrases, it's inevitable. Thanks for sharing this! :*)

Bernita said...

Thank you, my Demon.
BTW, Smart Bitches and Dear Author both have "quick 'n dirty" guidelines on the topic.

Ric said...

It was a dark and stormy night...

Was that Snoopy? Or someone else? and does it really matter?

I don't think we need to worry overmuch about sounding like someone else - wholesale copying is another matter, but there is still a BIG difference.

SzélsőFa said...

Reasonable post here, Bernita.
I once came up with the idea of 'thoughts floating around in spiritual space' - I used it here earlier on in your blog, to demonstrate my idea of these non-plagiarisms.

My theory is this: I suspect ideas just hang about everywhere like radiowaves. Those who have antennae to a special transmission will get it and perhaps, will put it on paper as well.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I'm much worse about plagiarizing myself. :)

Bernita said...

I don't think cliches are considered plagiarism, Ric!

I remember that, Szelsof. It's a poetic explanation.

I have that habit too, SS.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've tried to make this basic point a time or two to folks but you do it much more elegantly. Well put.

raine said...

Even small ones like mine.

Ha! Would that we all had such depth, m'lady.

As stated before, it's a constant, niggling little fear of mine that I'll read something and UNCONSCIOUSLY adopt it as my own. Bailey Stewart and I always joke about being two people who remember the songs from every decent sitcom of the past 30-40 years...not such a stretch to worry about retaining lines of prose. I still remember my high school English teacher's favorite single line of poetry, for God's sake.
And you're right--there's not much brand-new under the sun, and the odd thought or phrase paraphrased is likely to occur.
But not complete chunks of the stuff in more than one book, as in the Edwards case.
That reeks.

Beautiful painting, btw!

StarvingWriteNow said...

And who said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? There was (still is probably) also the tempest over whether or not Shakspeare really wrote all that stuff he's so famous for.

Sigh... maybe I'll just go watch some more "Trick My Truck" reruns instead.

Robyn said...

We were assigned an essay in my fourth grade class- an autobiography. Upon learning that I had used the title All About Me, the girl at the desk next to me shouted, "She copied!" I assure you, I had not.

Although I did use "a voice like the winter wind" before a re-read of To Kill A Mockingbird proved that Harper Lee used it first. I, of course, changed it.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Charles.
Perhaps the best way to explain it is by example.

Aw, Raine...thank you, misguided though you are.
" the odd thought or phrase paraphrased is likely to occur."
I would go so far as to say WILL occur.
But not great chunks.

Starving, a question that will never be solved, in part because we cannot know if there were private arrangments between Shakespeare and any of the various alleged "authors."

Oh dear, Robyn, that is a phrase that will stick in the subconscious, isn't it?

The Anti-Wife said...

Some phrases are so commonplace how could we ever determine the original author? And Ric is right, wholesale copying with minor word changes here and there smacks or deliberate plagarism.

BernardL said...

Well, if writers have to google every line written, it will decrease substantially the number of novels on the market. :)

Billy said...

It's inevitable, Bernita. I couldn't agree more.

Angie said...

Absolutely. [nod] I think in a case like that, had you expanded and published that bit, it would've been clear what'd happened. If someone just happens to come up with a line nearly identical to someone else's from wherever, then I'd assume it was coincidental until given proof otherwise. If there are seventeen of the "nearly identical" lines, though, from the same source, or even several sources, then I'm going to assume something is very wrong until given proof otherwise. [wry smile]

Angie

Bernita said...

I would say wholesale proves it beyond doubt, AW.

Now that's a devious thought, Bernard!

Yes, Billy. One can't really argue with Ello's logic.

I think the same way, Angie.

Steve Malley said...

Sometimes I think folks enjoy overreacting. For the rest of us, that was a nice dose of common sense. Thanks for another great post!

Bernita said...

Thank you, Steve.

Jeff said...

Variations on a theme. I see nothing wrong with that.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Jeff.

Cindy said...

That is an excellent point. :)

I think as long as people make things their own...and that line is truly your own, and very pretty...then there is no worry at all.

Most time you don't even know about what other peopel have written. I wouldn't have seen this post at all, but Blue Moon is a google alert.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Cindy.
Goggle is a lovely tool.

writtenwyrdd said...

That old saying about a hundred monkeys in a room banging on typewriters will eventually come up with Romeo and Juliet comes to mind.

And, as you say, a similar line or phrase is not necessarily plagiarism. I read somewhere yesterday that to use the same idea as someone else is plagiarism, and that isn't true, either! Folks are getting way uptight on this issue and need to take a chill pill, I'm thinking.

Bernita said...

I've seen that about "ideas" too, Written.
Perhaps they meant copying a particular story's structure, plot twist by plot twist,scene by scene, but probably not.
People need to educate themselves about plagiarism and copyright infringement.

writtenwyrdd said...

I'm not sure even that level of copying is plagiarism, bernita. It's been done to Shakespeare as well as a number of other classics, and I've never once heard the word plagiarism. Unoriginal, perhaps, but not plagiarism.

Bernita said...

Usually one may think of it as excessively derivative, Written.

Ello said...

Hey I just saw this! I've been crazed this week! I'm glad you agreed with my point!! I love it when you highlight me on one of your posts. Makes me feel important! ;o)