I’ve been giving a few talks to local writing and book clubs recently and one of the questions that keeps popping up, particularly from aspiring writers, is, ‘How do you deal with the problem of potential plagiarism when you submit your work to agents and publishers/competitions/tutors/writing groups?’
I haven’t got an especially suspicious nature, nor do I think my writing is so ground-breakingly original, artistic and eloquent that someone might want to appropriate it and pass it off as their own, so the idea had never occurred to me. But it’s obviously a worry to a lot of people. The definition of plagiarism is the reproduction or appropriation of someone’s work without proper attribution, and passing it off as one’s own. In effect, it’s stealing, then compounding the crime by lying about it. Put like that, it sounds like the sort of thing a child might do. There’s no law against it, per se, but it’s a moral and ethical offence and can, in some cases constitute copyright infringement.
The expression of original ideas, once they have been recorded in some manner, is protected by law, in the same way as original inventions. However, many nervous, aspiring writers don’t take much comfort from this blanket protection, particularly when their work has yet to attract a publisher, and mistrust of professionals, colleagues and fellow writers holds some people back.
We’ve all heard apocryphal stories of tutors pinching story ideas, writing them up as their own and entering them into competitions or even submitting whole novels to publishers. There’s no copyright on ideas, so, sadly, this is always going to be a possibility, albeit a slim one. I had a sinking feeling a while ago, when, reading the second chapter of a novel published some years ago, I realised that the plot was moving along very similar lines to the one I was developing in my own WiP. I didn’t panic. I didn’t start a wholesale rewrite, but I did take comfort in the knowledge that my story, told in my unique voice, and expressed my way, with style and flair, was actually totally different.
It’s a fact that novels with similar storylines and themes often appear in bookshops in bunches. I don’t know why; maybe it’s something to do with writers connecting with the zeitgeist, being open to the cultural thinking of the time and creating comparable stories to express the current mood. What I do know is that there are no new ideas, only new ways of expressing old ones. Besides, if I told lots of people about my idea and they all decided to write a novel on the same theme, the results would be completely different, because we storytellers are all different.
Digressing for a moment, it can work both ways. I know people who won’t read in the genre they’re writing just in case something accidently “rubs off”. It’s a valid point: how do you safeguard yourself against inadvertently copying another’s work? Fact is, apart from never reading another book, you can’t. You just have to trust yourself.
So, my advice to any aspiring writer fearing that someone is lurking out there, waiting to steal their work is this: don’t worry… We have to take the view that the vast majority of creative people, professional and amateur, published and unpublished, prefer to mine their own experiences and construct their own, original stories.
I mean, that’s what we do, right? That’s what we are.