A question of attribution and other clichés
Bank holidays hey, who needs them? Well, not freelancers, apparently. I spent mine writing about plagiarism, as, at the risk of sounding less than original, this year it has been the new rock and roll. Or was it the new black? Can’t remember which cliché I am meant to use here.
One thing that I was shocked to learn while researching the subject – read Mslexia and the Author to find out what I wrote – is how hard it is to get a plagiarism case off the ground unless you are very rich and have a book that has been copied page by page. I spoke to a number of authors who had been, in their opinion, ripped off by other writers (one even provided a substantial dossier of evidence). But when they tried to pursue their claims they were told that they lacked the substantial proof necessary in law.
As Dickens will tell you, the only people who win in legal cases are lawyers: those authors who consulted legal eagles were faced with bills of £500 and no redress.
I have had articles ripped off a number of times. The worst case was a feature I wrote for a Bookseller supplement, which some enterprising hack lifted for a news story on their newspaper. Her second paragraph opened: “Danuta Kean of the Bookseller says:” The remaining paragraph was taken verbatim from the second paragraph of my feature…. I hadn’t spoken to the journalist, she had just lifted my commentary. Is it me or is it all too post-modern?
My main beef about being ripped off is about attribution. Don’t get me wrong, I love the money, but if I have an idea that some lazy sod wants to use at least have the grace to acknowledge it was mine in the first place. But then there is no copyright on ideas. Will someone copy this idea? Probably.
Talking earlier of the new rock and roll or new black or whatever, I wonder how writers protect great throw away lines? I remember reading in, I think, an Alison Pearson column the words: “The wheel is spinning but the hamster is nowhere to be seen.” It was instantly adopted as my put down of choice for Very Stupid People (we know who they are, they obviously don’t). Is that plagiarism? Does everyone who uses the phrase Aga Saga owe Terrence Blacker a fiver for the privilege?
One interesting point raised by my study of plagiarism is the trouble authors get into by quoting song lyrics. Publishers told me their hearts sink when they read a snatch of Beatles or Kylie lyrics in a manuscript (so does mine, but for different reasons).
You know what they mean: the hero walks into a bar and Dubnobasswithmyheadman is playing in the background and a line of lyrics float through his mind…. Well, the author should hold back from mentioning what they are, because he or she will have to pay out of their own precious advance the fee for quoting the lyrics. I gather Beatles’ and Stones’ lyrics don’t come cheap, nor Robbie Wiliams’ ones (damn, and I wanted to quote all of Angel in the wedding scene I am writing, the bit where someone’s head implodes at the sheer vacuousness of it all). Anyway, lesson to authors: switch to something out of copyright (Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder anybody?), or have characters hum tunes (now that is always great in prose).
To be honest I hate it when authors quote song lyrics. Unless you know the song it reads like bad poetry to a vague tune – just think of all those terrible Shakespeare performances where “songs” are chanted to three chords on a lute (sort of Status Quo in doublet and hose). I used to despair when reading Hardy as an A Level student. If he had been quoting the Smiths I would have been fine. Oh and as for Frank McCourt. Was I the only person who felt that the liberal sprinkling of Oirish Ditties throughout Angela’s Ashes made an irritating book even more so? I reached a point where I began to realise that “misery memoir” refers to the reading process, not just the genre.