Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

A Rose is a Rose, or is it?

A Take on Plagiarism and Copyrights

By Carolyn Proctor
© 2006,
Carolyn Proctor


The following article first appeared in the May 2005 issue of SANDSCRIPTS, the newsletter of the Las Vegas Cactus Rose chapter of RWA.

 "A rose by any other name is still a rose."

Wait a minute -- who wrote that? Shakespeare? I'd better find out so I can properly credit him/her! A quick net search reveals hundreds of articles titled "A Rose by Any Other Name." I scroll through a dozen or so before I find a credit to Shakespeare (in an article written by a lawyer, no less).

Could a few lines, or portions of your story, actually belong to someone else?

"FORMER PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER PLAGIARIZES THIRD WORLD BEST-SELLING AUTHOR CYNTHIA MC LEOD" read the headline of the news release recently e-mailed to me. Suriname historian and author Cynthia McLeod, in a public news conference in the country's capital, Paramaribo, claimed that I "copied whole sections from the study and misappropriated the idea of the novel."

At a public press conference she announced, "It is indeed worse for Suriname than for me, because Elisabeth Samson is Suriname's cultural heritage." Her agent said, "A woman from the north [has] robbed us of our history. This is an outrage that we as a nation cannot resign ourselves to."

They demanded a public apology, $100,000, and that my publisher "expel all books from the bookstores" in America.

When I read the words in the e-mail I felt like I'd just swallowed cold ice cubes. A little voice in my head (my mother's?) mocked me, saying, "What did yeeeew doooo? Yooou're in trouble now!"

My first novel, Elisabeth Samson, Forbidden Bride, had been published by a small, independent publisher six months earlier. It's a fictionalized version of the true story of the first black woman in the 18th century Dutch sugar colony of Suriname to challenge Dutch law forbidding black to marry white. Elisabeth Samson is a legend in Suriname. She was a wealthy and socially powerful personage in the reigning sugar plantocracy. Her efforts to change the law called attention to legal versus "sinful" relationships and led to a legal precedent. Though Elisabeth Samson, Forbidden Bride is a work of fiction, most of the people and events I describe are real and documented.

How do I know this? Cynthia McLeod spent twelve years researching documents pertaining to the life of Elisabeth Samson and published them in Suriname and the Netherlands in a 1994 study. Since she writes in Dutch, which I neither read nor speak, I had a Dutch friend read her study out loud in English while I typed it into my laptop. The study provided invaluable information: historical names, dates, ship manifests, letters, wills and testaments, all documenting events in the life of Elisabeth Samson. Other publications also provided information about the time and documented the military exploits of the man Elisabeth Samson wanted to marry, Captain Carl Otto Creutz. Everything I studied to write my novel is listed in a bibliography at the end, including McLeod's 1994 study.

McLeod went on to write her own novel on the subject in 2000. Though I had -- and still have -- neither seen nor read it, she claimed I copied it.

I made an appointment with an attorney specializing in intellectual properties. Before I could see him, McLeod's Netherlands publisher sent a second e-mail, this time demanding six million dollars. My husband began calling my novel "the bionic book."

Counting the days until my appointment with the attorney, I scurried off to the library to peruse every book I could find on plagiarism and literary copyright infringement.

Here's what I learned:

I'm in good company: Mark Twain, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, J.K Rowling, and Dan Brown, among others, have all been accused of plagiarism. Twain contributed to the establishment and verbiage of copyright laws in America. There are a lot of gray areas in interpretations of the laws today, but court battles most often follow the money. The more money you make, the greater the chance that someone will sue you for a piece of the action.

A lawsuit will most likely be for "copyright infringement" rather than actual plagiarism. Some accused authors claim faulty notetaking. Accidents can happen, and this is a typical defense when confronted with sentences that appear in someone else's work.

A friend recommended Patent, Copyright & Trademark: An Intellectual Property Desk Reference (ISBN#1-4133-0055-3) by Stephen Elias, et al, published by Nolo Press. I rushed to the nearest bookstore to purchase it, treated myself to a sushi lunch, and devoured the section on copyright law.

By the time I met with the attorney, I was familiar with all the legal terminology pertaining to copyrights. I was also suffering from the dangerous result of a little knowledge and had worked myself up into a big ball of terrified insecurity.

The attorney confirmed what I'd read in the Nolo Press book. For a copyright infringement lawsuit against me to be filed in a U.S. court, McLeod's Dutch book would have to first have been copyrighted in the U.S.

"You've done nothing wrong. They're fishing for money," he advised. "Don't even respond to this. Go home, get a good night's sleep and get on with your life. Write another book."

The bottom line, legally: You can't copyright an idea, a conclusion, or an assumption. Nor can you copyright real names, places and dates. And anyone can sue anyone for anything, if they are willing to spend the money and can find a lawyer willing to take the case.

As a result of this experience, I have devised a new note-taking system. Where before I put reference sentences I took from books in quotations with the source, I've added color. Text in red is directly from the source, my creative ideas are in black, and once I've mentioned a fact or idea in my writing, I change it to blue so that later I'll know if I've already used it. I've even copied what I've written and added it to the original note, but in green. Have I become obsessive with this? I'd say you can't be too careful.

I've also learned that you may be in trouble if you name a business or brand-name product in your book; safer to say your heroine reached for a tissue rather than a Kleenex. On a recent episode of CSI-Las Vegas, the crime took place on the university campus. The campus name was fictitious and I thought they fell down in research -- everyone who lives in Las Vegas knows our big university is UNLV. Later, I learned from a friend who writes for CSI that legal issues prevent the use of the real university name.

Patent, Copyright & Trademark: An Intellectual Property Desk Reference should be on every writer's bookshelf. Copyright is part of the business of being a writer, and we should all familiarize ourselves with the basic rules of copyright law. If this sounds all too boring to study, do it over your favorite kind of lunch.

Whether those authors of articles on the internet plagiarized Shakespeare or not, my advice is -- don't title anything "A Rose By Any Other Name." It's cliché.

* * *

A former graphic designer, Carolyn Proctor lives in Las Vegas and was the founding editor of the regional magazine Nevada Woman. She's published magazine articles for many different publications, and erotic short stories. A two-year stint in the Peace Corps resulted in her first novel, Elisabeth Samson, Forbidden Bride (Joshua Tree Publishing, 2004). Visit her website at www.carolynproctor.com.