Monday, 1 June 2009

In extremis

I've had my fair share of experiences lately which have shaken my faith in human kind, most recently the shock discovery that someone I trusted and liked has been ripping off other people's work and entering it in contests under his own name. Almost worse than this is the failure by the contest organisers to disqualify him when evidence is produced by the victims of his plagiarism. The writers whose work has been stolen have effectively been victimised twice: once by the plagiarist and then again by the contest organisers who have treated their complaints with indifference at best, contempt at worst. It leaves a terrible taste in my mouth. These contest venues have been struck off my list for subbing in the future, which is a shame because one of them had commended my work in the past, but how else are we to show these people that we have standards and expectations as writers?

Moving on to some pleasant news, I was invited to produce a guest blog for Strictly Writing, a lively and thriving site with contributions from editors, agents and writers. I'll post a link when my guest blog is up there. This assignment inspired me to do a little more research into my family history, which led me to the Changi quilts, an astounding piece of evidence to restore my faith in humanity. Click on the image above for an enlarged version in which you can see details.

These quilts were worked by women interned in Changi jail in Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion. Each woman worked a separate square, embroidering a picture or words. This did more than alleviate the boredom of internment. It provided evidence that the women (and their children) were alive; the finished quilts were sent to the military hospital at Changi Barracks, where many husbands and fathers were held. Apart from being a vital means of communication, the quilts are works of art, beautiful and poignant. Examples can be seen at the Imperial War Museum in London, and at the Australian War Memorial Museum, Canberra.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excuse me for asking, but how does someone rip off other writers' work? Is it using the same story idea? Or same structure complete with characters and twist at the end? Or is it all those, and including chunks of the other writer's prose?

Nik Perring said...

Looking forward to your SW piece; I think we all need an antidote to crappy things.

Nik

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Anonymous. Clearly there is a definition of Plagiarism under Law (see http://definitions.uslegal.com/p/plagiarism/ for one such definition). But for the purposes of what I am talking about here, I think it's any and all of the things you describe. The only caveat I'd enter would be that a "story idea" may itself be something that cannot be copyrighted, e.g. a universal theme or concept that has been widely re-interpreted by generations of writers, each in his or her unique way. A writer is someone who deals in uniqueness, who creates. Someone who lifts plot, character, twists, prose, dialogue from another source - this is not a writer. This is a thief.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Nik. Agreed!

belantana said...

Wow, what a truly sorry excuse for a human being. It's not like there's tons of cash to be had, and how could anyone enjoy recognition for something which isn't their own? Mystifying.

On the other hand, the quilt is amazing. I love the cherries, and the idea that each piece is a secret message.

Sarah Hilary said...

Exactly, J! How can you take pride in winning under these circumstances? Baffling. And dismaying.

The quilts are just wonderful, aren't they? Amazing to think that something so beautiful could come from such an ugly situation.

Jenzarina said...

Oh that's just absolutely despicable. Ugh. How can that person live with themselves?

But, yes, there are always wonderful examples of humanity to balance out these few rotten apples.

Sarah Hilary said...

The quilts lifted my spirits immensely, J.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi Sarah,
I think the problem with plagiarism is that it's such a fuzzy area in law. As you say, you can't copyright ideas or indeed writing style, only text. So when someone has very obviously lifted the idea, the storyline the structure and various tropes without exactly lifting chunks of text, as I know happened here, it's hard to prove actual infringement of copyright without a good lawyer. It seems to me the best redress is to publicly draw attention to the similarities between the original piece and the plagiariser's piece: this way the public can judge for themselves, and if the piece is clearly a rip-off the plagiariser is likely to be publicly discredited.

Unfortunately, it's harder to do this if the original piece remains unpublished - ie the plagiariser got there first.

Sarah Hilary said...

I do appreciate that it's tricky, Elizabeth, but I think it behoves contest organisers and/or editors to take seriously evidence of past plagiarism by current winners. As I understand it, in this case, there was such evidence (including a published piece of work by the original author which later appeared - with very small changes - under the plagiarist's name).

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, Sarah, I wasn't in any way defending the competition organisers - I was talking more generally about a problem which I think is becoming a very serious one for writers. Personally, I think the organisers of the one comp acted outrageously, as I think it was quite clear in this case what was going on, as the plagiarised piece was already published. I'm really sorry that they took the competition piece down without any public announcement as to why and, as far as I know, without even acknowledging the writer whose work had been copied. The point I'm trying to make is that the fact that it's all so fuzzy in law makes it possible for this to happen and for the original writer to get no real redress.

As I understand it the same person won something in another competition by plagiarising the work of another writer, and this writer's chances of redress are even smaller since the plagiarised piece was unpublished. This shows how vulnerable we all are when we send stuff off or share it with others, and probably our best protection is to make a noise about it all in the way that you are so rightly doing, in the hope of deterring plagiarisers and showing that they will only be discredited. And indeed, as will those who give them legroom in comps and mags, as you say.

Sarah Hilary said...

Absolutely, Elizabeth. Sorry if I came across as stroppy there. I suspected we were saying the same thing, but this medium is so damn difficult sometimes!

I think one of the reasons so many of us feel the need to speak out about this is precisely because it's the only power we feel we have - our voices. Frustrating, when these are not backed up by people making decisions (I'm sure in good faith) who are actually in a position to do something more meaningful, such as naming and shaming the plagiarists. We bend over backwards to meet their criteria for submission, contests etc. I do feel they could put themselves out to investigate fully and/or explain the reasoning behind decisions such as taking work down - as you rightly say.