A Rose is a Rose, or is it?
A Take on Plagiarism and Copyrights
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
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
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
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