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Friday, October 12, 2007


This is why you need to be careful about accepting help

Writer Beware and, oh, the internet in general is buzzing at the moment because of an apparent massive plagiarism. An aspiring author, Lanaia Lee by pen-name, was about to release a self-published book when somebody pointed out that the entire first page, at least, was lifted word for word from a book by the late SF author David Gemmell.

Victoria Strauss's explanation has a sad ring of plausibility: Ms Lee had tried and failed to sell an earlier book through a scam agent, and then, having had a falling-out with him and subsequently making peace, found he was offering to help 'ghostwrite' some of her second novel, for a fee of $400 per month, which took about half a year. The 'ghostwritten' bits were direct plaigiarisms, possibly as an act of vengeance from the scammer, or, at best, extreme laziness. The author's been getting abused seven ways from Sunday all over the internet; she's also out several thousand dollars.

This is why you should always be careful about accepting 'helpful' suggestions.

I've already linked to a useful article giving some examples of accidental plagiarism, but here's the link again; it's well worth reading. There is a very basic lesson here: if somebody suggests substantial parts of a story, you have no way of guaranteeing that either their good faith or their memory is reliable. Accepting that kind of 'help' without a watertight contract is the equivalent of picking up food on the street: you don't know where those words have been.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't listen if someone says, 'I think you might try having the princess marry the other knight,' or 'Why don't you have the handsome doctor turn out to be the real killer?'. Those are ideas, and there's no copyright on ideas; when the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail tried to sue Dan Brown for basing The Da Vinci Code heavily on their work, they lost, even though there were close parallels. What gets you into trouble is word-for-word plagiarisms; hence, the rule of thumb is this: don't take any kind of dictation. More than four words in a row, and you're on treacherous ground. It's not unknown for someone to remember a passage and forget that they didn't invent it themselves, even with the best will in the world, and without good will, you're in a lot of danger.

If you really want to hire a ghostwriter, make sure you have a contract. And in that contract, have a clause which states that the ghostwriter is giving you nothing but their own original writing, and that if anybody sues for plagiarism based on what they've written, the legal responsibility is theirs, not yours. Check out their references, read samples of their work, do everything you can to make sure they're respectable.

But really, the only way to be safe is to make sure that every word down on the page is written by you.

Nice post Kit, thanks for bringing it to people's attention - there's a stack of scumbags out there only too eager to abuse our (relatively modest) dreams...
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