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The Mad Scribbler

 

 


Your Good Name

 

“Who steals my purse steals trash...
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”

William Shakespeare, Othello, Act III, scene 3

 

On December 20, 2012, Sugar and Spice Press, an erotic romance publisher, issued a public statement on the home page of its website, announcing that it had been notified that it released a novel which plagiarized extensively from a 1999 romance called Logan’s Way by Lisa Ann Verge.

Lisa Verge Higgins, a seasoned pro whose career is currently thriving in the women’s fiction market, is a friend of mine, and I assumed there was merit in the assertion of plagiarism even before I read the sample excerpts that Sugar and Spice posted on its site for comparison. Verge is a responsible and sensible person (at least until you ply her with a few margaritas), and she wouldn’t make such an accusation without valid evidence.

Then I realized after reading the samples provided that even the most wary skeptic would recognize the merit of the accusation after perusing these passages. With the exception of the two lead characters’ names and only half a dozen other words, every single line of the Sugar and Spice novel’s excerpt was identical to the excerpt from Logan’s Way.

The scant differences between the two excerpts were the sort of thing you often come across when studying two versions of an ancient text, due to scribes making minor mistakes in their copying process over the centuries. For example, the heroine “stumbled out of the truck” in Logan’s Way, but she “tumbled out of the truck” in the plagiarist’s excerpt. “Grit and mud” are changed to “mud and grit;” and “as nothing happened” becomes “when nothing happened.” The single biggest difference in the whole passage is where “the geraniums” in Logan’s Way become “the plant by the door” in the later novel.

Apart from these alterations (and I have just cited them all for you), the two 325-word excerpts are a perfect match.

Surely not even the most credulous person in this hemisphere could believe these virtually identical passages were an accident of synchronicity—which is when different writers independently produce similar works. Synchronicity occurs as a result of common influences on authors, and—predictably—it occurs more frequently among authors who live in the same culture and arises most often among authors who write in the same field. To give a couple of examples which I used in an article I wrote about synchronicity a decade ago for the Romance Writer’s Report, sf/f literary agent Lucienne Diver received three separate proposals in one week for novels about cloning Jesus Christ from the Shroud of Turin, and romance writers Mary Jo Putney and Karen Harbaugh cross-posted emails to each other in which they had each come up with the same story idea at the same moment for their separate contributions to a novella anthology.

The key aspect of synchronicity is that it’s about similarities of ideas and concepts—and you cannot copyright an idea or a concept. Moreover (and much to the disappointment of all the people I meet who offer to give me their great story idea and split the money we’ll make after I do the pesky legwork of writing it), ideas are not the meat and marrow of fiction; execution is. There are approximately seven billion vampire novels at my local bookstore; but only one of them is Dracula (or Interview With A Vampire or The Historian). There’s only one Gone With the Wind, though there are many novels about a spirited Southern belle’s tempestuous Civil War romance with a dashing blockade runner (I liked The Black Swan by Day Taylor). The Da Vinci Code wasn’t unique in its premises; it was just far more successful than other novels based on similar ideas. How you write your ideas is what makes a novel, not your ideas.    

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