Last week a scandal hit the world of romance writers, and I wanted to talk about it here because of how it affects all authors.
The scandal started when the well-known romance author Courtney Milan received an email from a fan. The fan told her that a book she was currently reading, allegedly written by a Brazilian author named Cristiane Serruya, had passages in it that seemed to come directly from one of Milan’s own books.
Milan investigated and found that the fan was right. There were not just sentences or paragraphs, but entire passages from Milan’s book included in Serruya’s. Milan notified the writing world about what was happening via her blog and soon, other fans found what looked like more instances of plagiarism in Serruya’s book. Only now it wasn’t just Milan being plagiarized—it was dozens of other authors and lots of other books. In fact, as of this writing the list includes thirty nine different authors and fifty one different books. And the list keeps growing.
Serruya, for her part, at first protested and said that the plagiarism was not her fault, then disappeared off of all social media. Who knows what the ending of this story will be? But if the charges of plagiarism are true, it is horrifying. And it is, sadly, all too common.
In this digital age it is all too easy to steal words and ideas and pass them off as your own, and many independent authors (including me) have had to deal with plagiarism or pirating, or both. But what do these two words mean?
Plagiarism happens when somebody incorporates phrases, paragraphs, or perhaps even entire pages from someone else’s work into their own work and uses them without crediting the original source. It doesn’t have to be copying exactly word for word. It’s still plagiarism even if the plagiarist changes a few words here or there. Sometimes it happens accidentally, as in this instance with Helen Keller, but other times it is deliberate and purposeful.
Piracy is a much more blatant act. It occurs when somebody takes an entire work from another author, claims it as their own, and either sells it or gives it away. It is always deliberate. Pirates sometimes take stories that they find posted on fan fiction sites (as happened to me in 2015). Other times they hack into files that they find stored online and download them. They are not above buying a single copy of a paperback and scanning it in manually, page by page, until they have the entire text. Then they add a new cover and a new author name and voila! They have a new book. Pirates are determined and creative, and most of the time, they get away with it.
What is an author to do? We authors pour our hearts and souls into our stories. We agonize over every conceivable detail of what we write, from the structure of the overall story right down to whether to use a comma or a semicolon. We spend months, sometimes years, writing, editing and proofreading, and then we send our story out into the world to see what it can do. To have a story taken away from us either by plagiarism or piracy is an intensely personal violation.
It can also be a terribly expensive violation. If an author tries to fight back, the “fake” author may just take down their books and disappear, but they almost certainly won’t give back the money they already earned. Even worse, the pirate or plagiarizer may claim that they wrote the story first! Then the author has to prove when and how they first wrote and published the story. The story may end up in legal limbo for years, and during that time the author is not earning any money from it. Add in the money spent on legal fees, etc., and the time the author could have spent developing another project. It’s enough to make an author want to quit writing altogether, and some authors have.
There are a few ways for readers to fight back against piracy and plagiarism.
First, be aware of how big the problem is. Statistics on plagiarism are hard to come by, but many authors say the problem has gotten worse in recent years. Some people blame the way that Amazon ranks its authors, rewarding those who publish more books in a short time. Others say it’s also a problem on other platforms like Google Play and Kobo. Regardless of the reason, we know plagiarism is a serious issue. As for piracy, consider this shocking statistic: in 2017 alone, over 31 million books were illegally downloaded, at a cost of $315,000,000!
Secondly, be wary of any site that offers “free” downloads of a popular book. A legitimate author is much more likely to offer a free book through an established channel like Amazon or Smashwords. Many times a download link on an unfamiliar page is actually a link to a virus. If you’re not sure if the link is legitimate or not, contact the author first.
Third, be willing to speak up! Plagiarism and piracy are almost always found first by an alert reader who notices what’s going on. There are so many books out there that it simply isn’t possible for an author to check all of them, even with software to help. But when a reader notifies an author that they’ve found something fishy, the author can investigate and then start fighting back by sending take down notices, notifying the distributor, and alerting other authors so they can check for infringements of their own work.
This topic is way too detailed to cover fully in just one post, so I’ve included some links below for further reading. One is the original post by Courtney Milan and another is by Nora Roberts, who was allegedly also plagiarized by Serruya.. There are also some other pages that talk about plagiarism and piracy. I’m interested in hearing what all of you think of this whole issue!