Plagiarism: The Buck Stops With You

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I’ve written before about plagiarism, both what to do if you’re a victim and how to avoid accusations of plagiarism. With everything online and in electronic format these days, it’s just so easy to either knowingly or mistakenly copy someone else’s work. (Yes, mistakes can happen such as when you use something without realizing it wasn’t public domain, or when you use a phrase from a work you loved without fully realizing that the inspiration in your brain came not from your brain, but from that much beloved work.) However it happens, though, it’s 100% wrong and can land you in big legal trouble.

This week I was reminded of why plagiarism continues to be such a big damn deal. Social media exploded this week when it was discovered that a successful indie author plagiarized the work of a bunch of other authors. How many? I don’t know. I lost count after about ten. Basically, her books were nothing more than lifted passages from other books (and articles), strung together into “new” novels. Someone on Twitter called them Frankenbooks, and that’s apt.

I’m not going to name names here because you can easily find it if you look. Plus, innocent until proven guilty, etc. (although the evidence is pretty damning). Now, the author in question claims she didn’t do it. She claims that she used a ghostwriter she found on Fiverr to write many of her novels and it must be this person who is guilty of the plagiarism.

Sorry, “The ghost did it!” defense died when you left kindergarten. Especially since a ghostwritten project is copyrighted in your name. Thus the, “ghost” part. They do the writing, but you get all the credit. Or the blame, in this case.

There’s a lot wrong here, but let’s unpack it.

First of all, hiring a ghostwriter isn’t unheard of, and it’s not illegal. Ghostwriting is a legitimate field of work. The thing is, if you’re going to hire a ghostwriter, you need to hire a good one. You need to hire one with a proven track record, and enforce their obligations and liability with lawyer-reviewed contracts. Good ghostwriters don’t come cheap, either.

Hiring some bonehead on Fiverr because they’re cheap isn’t the best choice. (And don’t get me started on Fiverr and its ilk. They may provide ways for people to make money online, but they (and the content mills) have done much to devalue writing and trash the marketplace for serious, competent writers. But that’s a rant for another day.)

Still, if you insist on using a ghostwriter, you must remember one thing: Once you put your name on that book and put it up for sale, it does not matter that you used a ghostwriter. You are responsible for the content of that book. Yes, if you have a solid contract you may be able to slag some of the liability off on the ghost, but it will still come down to being your problem.

You are the author of record. This means that whatever is in that book is your responsibility. Before you hit “publish,” you need to go through that thing over and over until you’re satisfied that it is original work. Run it through a plagiarism checker. Have others familiar with the genre check your work. They might recognize copied passages that you don’t. Do everything you can to make sure that the work is the work of your ghostwriter and no one else. Trust, but verify. And verify again.

Plagiarism isn’t something you want to fool around with. There can be legal issues. If you’re “lucky,” you might get off with only having to pay back any money made off the back of another’s work, plus a bunch of fines and legal costs. If you stole enough to push the monetary damages toward felony territory, you could go to jail. Sure, it’ll be white collar jail, but it’s jail. And that doesn’t even count the damage to your reputation. No publisher will ever work with you again, and your fans will dump you for abusing their trust. If you try to get a job in the corporate sector and they discover your past record, you likely won’t be hired. So, yeah. It’s not something to screw around with.

Whether you work with a ghostwriter or not, when it comes to plagiarism (or any other fun things like libel, defamation, making up quotes/stats, etc.) you have to remember that you are responsible for all of the words written in anything you publish. Saying, “I didn’t know,” isn’t a defense. It’s also pretty dumb. Either you didn’t know because you’re lying about knowing, or you didn’t know because you have no idea what kind of work is being done in your name. Either way, it makes you a dumbass. It’s like when a head basketball coach says, “I didn’t know,” when the NCAA investigates the team for improprieties. Either you’re lying, or you have no idea what’s really going on in your program. Either way, not a good look for you.

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