The Accidental Plagiarist
By Evan Braun
Plagiarism, simply defined, is when a writer takes the words of another writer and uses them without permission and without attribution, passing them off as their own. Arguably, plagiarism has never been more prominent than it is right now in the digital age, with so much easy access to online text that can be transferred with a simple click.
Teachers everywhere, from middle school to graduate school, must be vigilant in their search for red flags in their students’ essays and term papers—and in the publishing industry, editors must work hard to keep their eyes peeled for offenders.
To make matters more challenging, we live in an era of self-publishing, when authors don’t have to clear their manuscripts through anyone except themselves before posting their books for sale online. Going after self-publishing plagiarists can be a nightmare, and unfortunately it’s becoming increasingly common. This recent case will send shivers up any author’s spine.
But this post isn’t about protecting your copyright from serial plagiarists, as big a problem as that is. Today, I want to focus on the so-called accidental plagiarist: the person who doesn’t know how attribution works and makes mistakes that can lead to legal problems down the road if they’re not careful. Accidental plagiarists are far too common.
This mostly happens with non-fiction writers who use a lot of quotes from a lot of different sources—other books, academic papers, internet articles, song lyrics, magazines or newspapers, movies, TV shows, dictionary definitions, YouTube videos, etc. You name it, chances are someone is quoting it and getting it wrong. It may sound simple, but most authors make a fundamental mistake: if you didn’t write something, anything, you have a responsibility to credit the person who did. And in some cases, get permission.
So, do you need to get permission to use that two-sentence quote from your favourite author? Probably not. The key lies in length. For the most part, short quotes are considered fair use and can be quoted, as long as they’re cited. I say “for the most part,” because there are exceptions—notably song lyrics and poetry. Generally speaking, you’re not allowed to quote the entirety of a work without permission, only a small portion. When it comes to poems and songs, which are often very short, the safe amount of text which can be quoted is… well, very small. Song lyrics in particular are notoriously problematic, and Word Alive Press usually advises authors to drop lyric quotes unless they seek direct permission from the copyright holders. This usually requires authors to purchase a license, which is often more trouble than it’s worth.
(For more information on how to cite correctly, you can find lots of helpful information by looking at the three most common citation styles: Chicago, MLA, and APA. At Word Alive Press, we favour Chicago style, and here are great overviews on how to quote books and periodicals in that format.)
Even the Bible is subject to restrictions on how much can be quoted. In fact, I previously wrote a helpful article on that very subject.
If you’re getting your book edited (a step which should never be skipped), a good editor will help you navigate the murky waters of proper citation. Here’s my best advice to authors who don’t know how to attribute quotes but are definitely getting their books edited: at least ensure that all the quotes are set apart with quotation marks. Even if you don’t know exactly how to cite your sources, by setting your quotes apart, the editor will know where some extra attention is needed. If an author doesn’t set apart quotes with quotation marks, an editor likely won’t know that there is a quote there at all. Indeed, not using quotation marks is how most plagiarism happens, accidental or otherwise.
Another problem is that some writers end up using so many quotes that their own voice starts to get drowned out in the noise. I think it’s important to ensure that your own words are in the majority, otherwise your book serves more as a curation of other sources than it is a unique work. Except in special cases, it’s best not to cross over that line.
Speaking of lines, here’s the bottom line: whether you plagiarize accidentally or on purpose, you are equally responsible for your actions. So be careful when it comes to quoting others, and when in doubt, get permission or reach out to a professional editor. And ultimately, if there’s a way to get to your point without quoting at length, that’s probably your best bet.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.