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Plagiarism [Mar. 31st, 2006|01:12 pm]
telosphilos
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Plagiarism

In every fandom there comes a time when the topic of plagiarism crops up. It is a regular headache of fanfiction. Part of the problem is that by academic rules, fanfiction is technically a form of plagiarism. We get away with it because the original authors allow us to do so. We are using someone else's intellectual property to create our own derivative fictions. Some writers, such as Anne Rice, come out and flatly refuse to allow derivative stories. Others, especially Japanese authors of manga and anime, tolerate and even encourage fan-based works, as there is a large culture of fan-produced comics (doujinshi) art and fiction in that culture. By being respectful and mindful of the original author's copyright, we protect our privilege of writing and sharing fanfiction. This is why, at the top of every piece, you will usually see an author's disclaimer to non-ownership of the characters and setting.

The problem in fanfiction communities has less to do with the most commonly recognized form of plagiarism. The most easily recognized form is a word for word copy; or verbatim, if you want to use the fancy word for it. That kind of thing doesn't happen that much; it gets people banned from the servers for doing it and makes the readers mad. Really, it is the least common form.

No, the form of plagiarism that crops up so much in fanfiction is a soft form where people take plot devices and the like from other people's stories. Sometimes people will try and write within someone else's 'world' which is colloquially called a 'cookie.' Who knows where that term came from, but a fanfic of a fanfic is a cookie. Cookies are a lot of fun, particularly when you have an epic fic to work from, but there is a slight problem. Much like the fact that we only get to post our work on public servers with the permission of the original author, we need permission from the writer of the original fanfic to post a cookie.

Taking someone else's plot device isn't always a bad thing, but generally it is best to avoid it. It is ok to do when you have permission or when it is a generally used plot device. The problem is when people take specific ideas that are unique to a particular author without acknowledging the original work. A generalized plot device, such as a hurt comfort fic, is ok to use without permission. The plot device being a character being hurt and the comfort of another being a vehicle to healing, that is pretty general. A specific plot device, such as a particular type of poison/injury/cure, or a specific setting, or a specifically hypothesized back story for a character, will be unique to a particular author and should not be used without permission. Shades of grey exist in this situation, so when in doubt, accredit it.

An accreditation is a simple statement such as, "Thank you so-and-so for allowing the use of thus-and-such in this story." Good citizenship in a fandom means being polite and asking the other author for permission to use his or her idea. It is also good to give details about where the original story can be found in the acknowledgment. If you can post a link, do so. Even if you can't get ahold of the author who used something first, it is best to cite their original use just to avoid the potential mess. A sample acknowledgment in the author's notes might look like this: "I'd like to acknowledge so-and-so for the concept that the villain can grow his hair at will and use it to ensnare victims, which first appeared in her excellent story Medusa's Crowning Glory."

Sometimes problems crop up when using fandom cliches or things that are just considered fanon. Cliches only work when the writing is good enough to support them and they aren't the driving focus of the plot. A cliche is by definition something that is overused to the point that it loses its intent. For that reason if no other, it is usually worth it to avoid using them. Yes, it is a pain to attempt to avoid all cliches. Cliches used well can really help a story along. Fandom cliches form the basis of fanon. Things aren't considered fanon immediately. You have to wait until the idea is pretty much a cliche before you can consider something fanon and stop acknowledgments. Pretty much unless it is a very common idea that is part of the common ground of the fandom, cite it somewhere in your author's notes. Don't assume something is fanon.

It does happen on occasion that people do get similar brain waves at the same time. Calculus was invented by two different people at roughly the same time who never saw each other's work until much later. If that can happen with calculus, why on earth should we think fanfiction would be any different? Lots of topics are brought out for discussion and tossed about on the communities and lots of different viewpoints get presented. Whatever the topic du jour, it isn't that odd that two, or more, different writers would have the same idea at the same time. The best thing to do is to just acknowledge it in the author's notes. "So-and-so had a similar idea in their story. This is not that story." It's especially polite to send that author a note telling them you had a similar idea and are publishing a similar work. Better yet, get them to look over your work. They last thing either of you want is to have one or the other accused of stealing the idea.

Challenge responses will often have elements that are similar from story to story. By stating that the story is a challenge response, including stating the theme of the challenge, the issue of the commonalities may be avoided almost entirely. Problems can arise; however, when stories parallel each other. At that point, it is better to contact the other author and see what's going on without accusations so that you can differentiate from each other.

Now what happens when this sort of thing gets out of hand in a fandom is a lot of finger pointing. Arguments go back and forth about what is plagiarism and what is fanon. Things degenerate, the tone of the argument gets worse and worse and there are a lot of hurt feelings all around. Some people are particularly touchy about other people using their ideas. Usually those people are the ones who work particularly hard on their stories. The quality is generally higher and the updates slower. The hurt feelings and general upset just get to the point where the argument is circular and highly unproductive. No fandom wank has ever solved anything at all. So, let's all avoid the plagiarism wank by being nice to each other and acknowledging each other's work.

cross posted to genxrai, kakairu and anywhere else people want it to be.
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