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Tag: plagiarism

How to Protect Yourself When Writing Stories Online

So now let’s talk about what you can do to protect yourselves when posting your stories online.

First, a key distinction (and I only make this again because in conversations, some keep trying to sidetrack the conversation and wrongly conflate the terms). All authors have to deal with piracy at some point. Piracy is where they take your story with your name attached and upload it to a site. It may be a mirror site, it may be a separate site. They tend to target well-known authors because that draws the readers to their site.

Plagiarism and theft is when they take your words and your story and take your name off. They may change some small details, but the vast majority of the story is the same. These individuals typically focus on unknown and smaller authors because it’s more likely that they can get away with it.

Authors never benefit from having their works plagiarized. There may be some who will argue that piracy is not much of a detriment to authors. But the reason that it is difference is because the author’s name remains on the manuscript. They can still potentially gain new fans. It is not a great argument as authors should maintain control of the manner and method of their distribution. In fact, it is deeply flawed. But victims of plagiarism/theft do not receive even this.

Understand What Most Thieves Want

For the most part, thieves want an easy buck. They are not the same as pirates. Pirates typically make their revenue through ads and phishing schemes and viruses on the sites. Thieves/plagiarists typically make their money off the royalties. Because this is hit or miss, they are inclined to do a lot all at once.

In most of my dealings with thieves, they grab multiple stories and do mass uploads or they stuff a single book with stolen items to maximize per page revenue payments. Generally the stories bring in small amounts that then accumulate over time. These thieves are not in it for the big money. Most don’t want to be noticed. It’s about accumulation. (Also in my dealings, most of these thieves are in countries where a US dollar will go a lot farther.)

Determine if You Can Risk Theft

When you post online, you run the risk that someone may steal it. I do not say this to absolve any of the writing platforms from their duty to their writers. It is simply something to bear in mind. Do not buy into any of the promises that they give you that they are different or that they will protect you. And even the best security may not keep out some thieves. (I do expect a good platform to keep it from being as easy as the click of a button, but I won’t move into that rant right now.)

If your project is such that you can absolutely not risk it being stolen, don’t put it online. (And let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean that you are cowardly or somehow stuck in the dark ages. It is recognizing the nature of each writing project, and what works for one may not work for another.)

You need to make sure that you take time to search for your stories and check to see if you have been robbed. Or you need to not care if someone takes your story without giving you attribution.

Don’t Post the Full Story in One Place

Remember that most thieves want a quick and easy buck. So if a story is explicitly declared as not finished, it is less likely to be targeted. (Please note that by finishing, I don’t mean editing. I mean it literally does not have an ending. Thieves don’t seem to care much about grammar.)

The other benefit to not posting the full story is that if someone steals it up and uploads it, the ending will be missing. You will have the ending. That may not be prima facie evidence, but it is quite solid, nearing Big Eyes territory.

Now again, this is not foolproof. Some intrepid thieves may be willing to add an ending. In the Rachel Nunes case, the thief added some sex scenes.

So what about your readers? What if they want the ending and you want to share it with them?

Well, you’ve got a couple options here.

First, if you do choose to not post a full story, make sure to note this at the beginning, particularly if you are on a site like Tablo or Inkitt or Wattpad where serials are common. This way you can temper your readers’ expectations. You could choose to not publish the ending at all until formal publication. Readers can then purchase your story. But please give your readers notice. They want to support you, and they need to be fully informed as well.

You can also time out your upload of the chapters to coincide with the release of your book. This way the final chapters go up online after the book is formally published and registered with the copyright.

If you don’t care for either of those options or perhaps don’t want to pursue formal publication, the other option is to upload the final chapters elsewhere. Say in a different book or on a different profile or on a different platform altogether. Now, please note that this is not much of a protection. It relies essentially on the speed and ease with which thieves want to take your story. It throws up a roadblock. If they do some research and find it, it is simple enough to join the files together.

Register the Copyright

Now personally I don’t recommend doing this before the work is done or filing for preregistration (also there are some other restrictions for preregistration.) However, it is your call, and you will need to consider your situation and possibly talk to an attorney. (Yes, I am an attorney, but I am not giving specific advice here.)

Also please note that I will be doing a followup post on how to do an Unpublished Collection through the Copyright Office, but that will take a little more research to confirm some details.

If your country allows for this like the US, it’s just a much simpler way to prove ownership. In the US, it costs about $30 – $40 ($35 for me the last time I paid). And it is relatively simple to go through.

Also foreigners can register their copyright in the US. You can check out what the Copyright Office has to say on this and limitations. But for my readers who have asked most about UK residents specifically, yes, you can register with the US Copyright Office.

To register in the United States, you can go through here.

Note that their completion times vary significantly, but if you do everything properly, the date of copyright is the date that the application is received in full.

Officially Publish Before Posting

Now, let’s get something straight…officially publishing does not mean you are golden in terms of copyright registration. Most traditional publishers, including small, will register your copyright for you. If you are indie, you will need to register your copyright (and I do encourage this even though copyright belongs to you once you create; copyright registration opens additional options and creates prima facie evidence). But even if all you have is the finished book, it is a little more persuasive than a time stamped web page if it comes first in time because you also have sales and release data, usually from more than one site, which leads to the next point.

When you publish, go wide. Again time stamps and dates like this are not foolproof or guaranteed, but they help to build a stronger case. It also makes it more likely that your story will be seen and known.

Utilize a Copyright Registration/Index Service

Copyright registration services are something of a misnomer in that they are not exactly copyright registration unless they are affiliated with the government (and even then depending on your country, you’ve got to doublecheck). It’s actually more accurate to refer to these as indexes, which is what some call themselves. (It depends on your country what the most common terminology is, but an official service will have a .gov ending.)

Essentially for a fee you submit your work to them, and they receive it, date it, and secure it. They can then be used as a business record of note and provide data. It is harder to fake this, and so it is generally more persuasive than a website time stamp as those can be easily faked.

Now bear in mind that some of these may be more expensive than the actual copyright registration service. It also does not create prima facie evidence. But it is not worthless.

Full disclosure though, I have never used one of these services.

Be Precise, Unique, Connected, and Descriptive

In looking over books that have been stolen and uploaded under another author’s name, I have noticed that stories that are more generic tend to be more common targets. To date, most of the targets I have spoken with wrote romance, contemporary, or thrillers. I suspect that this is because the settings tend to be more generic and the general arena quite heavily populated, making it easy for them to blend in.

So add in unusual descriptions and features that are often present in your other stories. In other words, develop a vivid voice, which is great for your writing anyway.

Now this is not always the case. In the case of my Tundra Queen, it was a high fantasy science fiction story with a lot of elements that, even if the thief had changed the names (she did not), it would have been easy enough to prove my ownership. I also failed to note that the story was part of a larger series (another factor, other than the copyright that worked in my defense).

Standalones also seem more likely to be targeted. In most of the cases I’ve dealt with, the story stolen is on its lonesome. Not part of an interconnected world. I would recommend prominently advertising that it is part of an interconnected world if it is (and that will also be good for your readers).

If you have parts of the interconnected world/series officially published, it makes it that much easier to prove that the other one is part of your catalogue and not the thieves. Particularly if you have registered the copyright or taken other steps to secure your property.

Regularly Check For Thieves/Plagiarists

You need to make it a regular part of your routine to check for your stories if it bothers you that someone might take them without giving attribution and you want to stop them.

Now admittedly, this is sometimes hard to do. Particularly when you have a lot of stories up. But take some time to set up Google Alerts. Also take the time to search paragraphs from your story. Personally I take certain key passages with descriptive language. I don’t focus as much on names because names are easily changed. Characters’ physical descriptions and setting descriptions as well as unique bits of dialogue are some of my favorites for this.

Go through Amazon and check for your titles. Bear in mind that the word search that works for most websites will not work on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Books, etc. You’ll want to check for title matches. It isn’t often that thieves are foolish enough to use the same title, but sometimes they do. Also check in keywords. Focus on elements that are not likely to be changed such as the character’s occupation, setting if it is essential and not easily changed, and the core conflict. One friend found her story on Barnes and Noble by searching for New Orleans nurse high school reunion romance.

Read in your genre. Most of the time, thieves publish their stolen goods in the same primary genre because that is what the story is set for and it is hard to change that much.

Prioritize checking for stand alones and books that are the first in their series and from time to time check the others.

Note: Have your author friends’ backs. If you see something suspicious, let them know. Don’t attack the person you think might be a thief. Your friend will know better if it is actual theft.

Make Your Story Tumblr Style

Tumblr, as you know, is not a text based site but rather employs images and blocks of color with text in them. Photographs of words are harder to scab. Now, people can still right click and save these, but it would take more effort to get the text into a publishable form.

If you really want to mess with thieves, then you can do a mixture of text and text on images. This is a little bit of a pain to do, and I am not inclined to do it myself. But who knows? If it gets much worse, I might give it a try.

If you need options for how to do it, you can either use a service like Canva to create images with the story. Or you could upload it to a story platform site, take a screenshot, and then upload it. Just make sure that if you do this that a single image does not hold the entirety of the story.

Do Not Leave Stories Up For an Indeterminate Amount of Time Without Protection

Now this is playing more against the law of averages and the odds of your work being stolen rather than actual protection. However, if you leave a story up without protection and don’t check up on it, the longer it is out there, the more you risk theft.

A thief just has to come by at the right time and the right place to rob you, but if you never lock your door, you make it easier.

Personally I like the solution of putting up stories for a brief time and then removing them. You may want to inform your readers that you will be doing this. The appropriate time frame varies based on how comfortable you feel.

It will also likely depend on what you have experienced. Right now I am more cautious because I have been targeted by thieves. I am on some of their radar (hopefully someone not to tangle with).

Stay Open to New Ideas And Know That What Works May Change

There are likely lots of other ways to inhibit thieves. We just have to come up with them. The image idea was one I got after a conversation with a site that allows people to download stories without the author’s permission. The developer mentioned that currently there was no way to download images along with stories but that wasn’t a problem because the images weren’t important. For me, that was a lightbulb moment.

Again all this might change. Tech and coding alike change regularly, which is why we rely on the experts to help protect us, and it is important to keep up with it as much as you can.

Remain Involved in the Writing Community

Some writing platforms will not let you know when the game changes and your work becomes vulnerable. Regardless of how much they claim to care about their users, their ultimate concern is to protect themselves. Do not believe otherwise.

With that said, being in touch with other writers is often your quickest route to knowing what’s going on even if the platform does let you know what is happening. It also goes back to the having one another’s back, and if someone sees your story stolen or if you see someone else’s stolen, you can pass that information on along.

Additionally, you can hopefully keep up with new techniques and new ideas to protect your work.

The Revenge Thief

Okay, there is one other type of thief that needs to be addressed here. This is the thief who is out to ruin you personally. This has nothing to do with the bottom line or business. It is personal. I have run into a few cases of this. This occurs when an individual is determined to target you and destroy your stories.

Now for the most part, this individual isn’t going to come out of the blue. They will harass you and do other things to make you as miserable as you can. Stealing your stories is only one aspect of that. In this case, you need to document everything and look into other charges that can be filed other than plagiarism. You’ll want to check into your state or nation’s laws if there is cyberharassment or intentional infliction of emotional distress or something similar that you can pursue. These may be easier causes of action to prove with greater available damages.

In this case, you will generally know who your thief is. You need to save everything and get legal counsel from someone who handles this sort of case as soon as you can. Evidence, particularly online evidence, can be difficult to obtain, so you will need professional counsel. Until then do not exacerbate the situation or make threats. Just collect the evidence and go get help.

Concluding Thoughts

Thieves are a reality of writing and publishing now, and there are no benefits to the authors. We have to be prepared.

When you post online, make sure you post informed. If you find your work stolen, take action. You don’t have to hide your work away. You just have to be vigilant.

What To Do When Your Story Is Plagiarized

Copyright may be yours from the moment you write a story, but that won’t keep some people from trying to steal it and pass it off as their own. While professional authors used to dismiss one’s risk of another’s work as being stolen as being the mark of a paranoid and delusional writer, theft of an authors’ works in many arenas is becoming increasingly common.

At this point in my career, I’ve dealt with multiple thefts. Thankfully, so far, they have been resolved fairly easily all things considered though they are frustrating and often time consuming. Now, in fairness, while it has become increasingly common for thieves to steal stories and upload them as their own, this is not a guarantee that this will happen to you. But it can, and you should be prepared for it.

So here are some things that you can do.

Some Parameters

Let’s define a few matters. In this article, I will be dealing with plagiarism of books and stories, not theft of Facebook posts or articles or blog posts. Not because these aren’t important or worthy of discussion but because they have different steps and issues that need to be addressed.

Also plagiarism is not the copying of ideas. It is the copying of an individual’s words. Some minor changes may be made including character names and the insertion of a few details or even scenes, but by and large the actual words chosen are the same. Idea theft is another matter altogether and actually much harder to prove with a lot more nuance.

For this article, we are going to talk about true plagiarism, not piracy. (The key distinction is that in piracy, your name will remain on the story and perhaps other attribution whereas in plagiarism, the plagiarist takes credit or gives no credit to anyone or to someone other than you.) Piracy is another conversation entirely and much harder to deal with.

As many will tell you, in the world of online theft, there are many shades and tragic paths which it follows. This is only one of them. This information is intended for general informational purposes and not as specific legal counsel for individual cases.

What Can You Do?

Get It Published and Formalize Your Copyright

First in time helps with your claim so one of the safest things you can do is publish the story and registering the copyright. If someone takes your work from a free to read site rather than a known book site, it can be harder to track and harder to stop. Plagiarizing thieves aren’t as likely to steal work already on Amazon for obvious reasons (though this does not mean that just because it is on Amazon it is entirely safe). If your work does appear on sites like Wattpad, Radish, Reddit, Fanfiction.net, Medium, Writing.com, and other locations, it is more likely to be seen as available and an easy target. The fact that you are not particularly well-known makes the theft all the easier. Speaking anecdotally I have seen far more situations occurring in small ways on these sites than I have on Amazon.

You can technically register your copyright before a story is officially completed, but because of the inevitable changes to the manuscript and cost of registration, I prefer to wait to register the final copy and then send two copies to the Library of Congress. Just make sure you haven’t signed an exclusivity agreement. (Also, you don’t need an attorney to help you file for this. It can be done on your own.)

Search Your Titles

Second, regularly searching for your titles and key sections from your stories can make a difference. In one of the more recent cases, I stumbled upon a stolen story because I was checking the title to make sure no other story in my genre had it. Lo and behold, there was my own story. The thief hadn’t even bothered to change the title or the cover.

Ask for Help

Third, ask your readers, friends and family members to keep an eye out for you, particularly if they read in your genre. Most of the accounts I hear involve random discoveries as readers go about their business. Let your readers know that if they find your book, they should let you know ASAP, whether on an official for sale site like Amazon or uploaded on another site without your permission. They shouldn’t engage or drown the individual in one star reviews or attacks until it’s confirmed that it is indeed your story (and even then over zeal can actual hurt your prospects rather than help).

Keep Anything That Helps Prove Your Ownership

Fourth, keep all proof of ownership even if it is not admissible in court. The poor man’s copyright and many other elements of proof aren’t something that you can use in court (and you should never rely on them for protection if you are in a US court; in a UK court, however, it seems there may be some value in the poor man’s copyright), but they can be useful in the pre litigation phase. So save them all. Save your copies. Save your conversations. Save everything within reason that indicates your ties and ownership to the story.

This can sometimes get a little bulky. If you need to, set up a separate file, get a flash drive, and dump it.

Search for Sections of Your Story

Fifth, regularly check key passages of your story through plagiarism checkers. There are more and more on the market. Copyscape was one of the best ones for me for quite awhile though it does cost a little bit (just a few cents a search). However, there are plenty of free versions out there. I have also used Google Alerts for key words and phrases, but that has been increasingly hit or miss. It doesn’t hurt to set it up, but you shouldn’t rely on it wholly. Incidentally, these phrase checks are how I find most of the stolen works.

Do note, however, that these do not always search for words in published books. Book blurbs, however, do seem to show up with more frequency.

Be Open About What You’re Working On

Sixth, do talk about your stories if you are going to post them online before they are officially published. Make it clear what you’re working on. You don’t have to post whole segments if you don’t want to, but it can help as social media posts are admissible. Ideas themselves can’t be copyrighted, and there are likely many stories that you can

Be Professional

Seventh, if you do find out that someone has stolen your work, handle it professionally. Generally, the steps remain the same, and you don’t even need a lawyer to help you with this at the beginning. It is often recommended to contact the individual first and to ensure that it is not fair use. But if we’re talking about out and out plagiarism, that is actually easy to prove. If you choose to skip this step, then you contact the host administrator and inform them what has happened.

Sometimes they will ask that you file a DMCA at the same time rather than requiring the DMCA to be a separate step. You can also send a cease and desist letter.

Now to be clear, a cease and desist letter does not require an attorney or a judge. A cease and desist order does require a hearing and a judge. The cease and desist letter is something you can pick up in a template online, and it puts the individual on notice that you are exercising your rights as the owner of the copyright and you are not allowing this usage. If I am contacting a website or an individual directly, I tend to use these.  It also helps me to know what to say without becoming inflammatory.

The process often branches here. Some places like Amazon tend to respond to a copyright notice by pulling down the content and notifying the person who posted it of the strike. Youtube follows a similar procedure. The two have the opportunity to present their case for ownership. Depending on the platform, this can sometimes be quite frustrating because the room to respond is often limited so use your words wisely and avoid feeling language. Focus on the facts. Usually first response goes to the plagiarist after the complaint, but if you have proof of copyright registration (the certificate of registration), that should be open and shut (but not always; bear in mind that this provides prima facie evidence that the owner of the certificate is the owner of the work, but it can be challenged; however, most plagiarists are not going to get in this far; they want fast and easy success).

Now demanding disgorgement of profits made on your work is something that I often get asked about. I’ve actually never gone this route, primarily because none of my stories have generated enough to warrant it. And once you pull money into it, you slow things down. You can always ask for it. But oftentimes, this requires more legal action. In some cases, monetary platforms will do that automatically.

Eighth, relatively few of these cases actually go to court. Most are settled before it reaches that point. The ones that do move forward such as the Rachel Nunes case are usually more exciting because of how egregious they are. This does not mean that other cases aren’t out there.

A Few More Caveats

Be cautious of naming and shaming, particularly if you have an engaged fan and reader base. One of my thieves had a name that I realized was fairly common in India. If I had just listed her name, it could have led to some serious problems for innocent women with that same name. As angry as you are with the thief, do not take action that will harm innocents. This does not mean that you cannot talk about what is happening. It means simply that you must exercise caution.

It is neither fun nor pleasant to behave with restraint, but it will help you in your case against the plagiarist. Do not make threats of violence, death, or rape to the plagiarist. Do not use slurs of any kind. You do not want to create sympathy for the violator. (I know that it should not make a difference because what the plagiarist did is wrong, but people are emotional.)

Keep a log of all the actions you have taken. If the matter escalates further and you need to speak with an attorney, this log will be helpful in demonstrating what has been done.

Screenshot and save the conversations. Save emails and all other information. Not only is this evidence, but it will also help in your case in the event that you need legal representation and in proving your case.

All the best in your writing. I’m thinking about following this up with a one that deals with how to protect yourself online and another that deals with piracy and one that deals with idea theft and one that deals with Facebook posts, articles, and similar thefts. Let me know your thoughts.

And if you have any experiences with your stories being stolen/plagiarized, please feel free to share in the comments.

 

 

A Tale of Four Thefts

Jeff Goins’s book, Real Artists Don’t Starve, was quite an enjoyable read. The information in it is not new or groundbreaking in most respects, but it is excellent for artists of all types. And frankly, sometimes we need to hear the same things over and over before we are able to truly absorb and act on them. (To be clear, this does not mean that those who spoke the message to us earlier were failures. It simply means that it takes time for some messages to saturate, and often each application/hearing of the message results in pushing us closer toward that goal).

The book brought about a series of responses within me, and I wanted to deal with them in separate blog posts.

One of Jeff Goins’s points is that great artists steal. He provides multiple examples, and he then clarifies that he does not mean plagiarism or theft theft. What he makes quite clear is that there are no new ideas and we all draw from somewhere. He also references how many of the masters copied other greats to learn the craft. His point, and I believe Picasso’s as well as the others who have used this phrasing, are referring to the fact that pretty much everything has been done. But Jeff Goins and others refer to this as stealing.

This struck an emotional response within me that I struggled to interpret. It isn’t that I deny artists draw from sources. We are the sum of our ideas and experiences, which are often drawn from others in both firsthand accounts as well as books, movies, television, art, and more. What we experience becomes a part of us and then bleeds into our work. But I don’t particularly care for the word “steal.” Partially because I’m a lawyer. Stealing is wrong and morally problematic. It destroys trust and breaks down community. Jeff Goins’s isn’t the first one to say that artists steal. And again, he makes it clear that a true artist reorganizes, adds more, and reimagines what is taken.

The use of the word “thief” is more provocative than descriptive.

Yet still I find myself struggling. And I found myself reflecting on four experiences in particular with what I would describe as four types of “thieves.”

(Note: I will cover reboots and remakes in another post as those are different from this as well.)

The Painter: A Reprehensible Thief

When I was fourteen, I officially started calling myself a freelance writer. The only thing I had was an Internet connection and a basic understanding of Google. Without much concern for theft, I drafted and sent out stories to every place that would take them. Including a number of e-zines. One story was The Color of Murder, a tale about a serial killer known as the Painter who had a very specific method of killing and purpose to his madness. In looking back, the story wasn’t particularly good. I got a rejection from an editor with a note that the story needed work.

That was true. The story disappeared into a file with hundreds of others, and I didn’t touch it. Until one day I was on a popular writing website and noticed a story called, The Color of Murder. There were a couple of stories out with that title, but curious, I clicked on the story and found that it was actually mine. Word for word. The author listed on the page was none other than the editor who had rejected my story.

Unfortunately for her, I still had that rejection email along with many others. Even more unfortunate for her was the fact that within the span of the last sixteen years, I had grown up, gone to law school, and become an attorney. Contacting her with the evidence resulted in what I wanted: the story being taken down.

This woman was clearly a bad thief. What she did was illegal, wrong, and in no way something that a professional would recommend. This is actual theft. Outright plagiarism. Getting in touch with the thief resulted in the story’s removal from the site.

(Also, how’s this for a bit of dark humor? Almost all the comments she got on the story were quite negative. I mean, really, what do you expect posting a fourteen-year-old’s interpretation of a serial killer who uses the blood, bones, and organs of his victims to create paintings? The concept is intriguing and something I hope to do something with in the future, but the story as it was absolutely deserved to be rejected. I find it laughably horrid that she would steal, not only from a child, but a bad story at that! There was literally no upside to her in this situation.)

This sort of theft is unacceptable. If you do it, you are not a good member of the artistic community, and most likely you will soon be ousted from the community and may face legal consequences.

The Mermaid: A Cruel Thief

Partially thanks to my sister, I love mers. She does gorgeous drawings, and when we were little, I used to whisper her stories about mers and fantastic worlds that we could only dream about. We both inspired one another, and many of the stories I drafted involved various interpretations of mer worlds. Some were set on Neptune or elsewhere in space, some in lands accessible only through magical portals, and still others in rivers and oceans in our own world.

My hope  one day is to create a gorgeous series that showcases some of the fascinating mers that my sister has created and that populate some of my stories. I shared some of these with someone who I thought was a friend, and I was so excited. The first two stories were nearly done (we often swapped stories for critiques). My friend seemed excited by them as well. She mentioned that she particularly liked the worldbuilding aspect and the inclusion of multiple races and the way that they intersected.

To my surprise, a few days later, she posted in a writing group about a new story she was writing in which she used my identical ideas and renamed characters. Multiples of my ideas and plot actually. The sense of betrayal and shock I felt was enormous. Now, I knew that I had no legal claim to the ideas. Ideas cannot be copyrighted. But this was my friend. She hadn’t told me in advance. She hadn’t even asked if I would mind. Technically, this was not required.

I would argue though that this was cruel and not something that a good member of the artistic community would do. Legally she was fine. Ethically, not so much. When I asked her about it and tried to explain how I felt, she curtly informed me I didn’t own the idea and she could do what she wanted. The friendship ended soon after that.

When it is your friend who comes up with the idea and you want to do something almost identical, it may be best to have that conversation with your friend out of courtesy. Proximity makes it trickier than if you got the idea from a TV show or out of a book.

If you already had the idea, you can mention this to your friend. But to keep the air clear between you, open communication is best. It’s also vital to ensure you do then what Jeff Goins recommends, which is to add in multiple ideas. The more you add, the less problematic it will be.

I would also add that if someone winds up being a tremendous source of inspiration or gives you an idea for something, it would also be kind to thank and acknowledge that person for their contribution. Particularly if it’s going to be quite similar to something they are releasing at the same time. Legally you’re under no obligation, but if you want to keep your creative friends, it’s best to err on the side of caution and courtesy.

The Dragon: A Clueless Thief

One of the things I’ve mentioned before is how I am hoping to soon finish a fantasy series that I started about twenty-five years ago, Tue-Rah Chronicles. I was about six years old when I first started, so clearly a lot of that time has been spent learning how to do it. This series has grown with me, and it has played a tremendous role in my life and development. The characters are as real and vivid as the people I know in some respects, and I enjoy talking about them.

In a writing group, I became friendly with another author. She and I chatted off and on, discussing what we were working on. I told her about my story and my absolute favorite character, a shapeshifter who can become anything with wings but who specializes in dragons. He is one of my favorites because he started off as one of my imaginary frenemies when I was a child, and he is one of the first I ever created. His personality is quite clear to me, and as a result, it’s incredibly easy to write him.

A month ago she announced the release of her story, a novella that featured a main character who was a dragon shapeshifter and whose name was simply a different spelling of my character’s. He also shared the same personality features and had a puzzle box that contained pencil sketches of his wife and children, something which he fidgeted with when thinking and which played a significant role in his arc. There were a number of other similarities too that hinged a little too close for comfort.

Perhaps it was because of the previous experiences or because of how much I loved that specific character, but it stung. Badly. I felt betrayed, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d stolen the idea from me. The fact that I was getting ready to go to final edits for my beloved epic and at last release it into the world made this hurt all the more.

Now, in this case, I had no intention of confronting her. The story itself, though similar in some minor respects, was largely different even if our characters were almost the same. I wasn’t sure what to even confront her about though I did decide I would not talk to her about what I was working on again. When I confided my pain and frustration in one of my closest friends though, she suggested I talk to this author. As I admitted, it was possible that this was unintentional. After all, our conversation happened months ago, and sometimes people absorb experiences, then forget where it is they got the idea from. (And sometimes people get largely similar ideas without even interacting with one another.)

So I contacted her and brought it up in the least accusatory and kind way I could. She responded almost immediately and apologized, stating that she remembered now but had forgotten our conversation when she was in the middle of writing. She apologized, and I was grateful to know it wasn’t intentional.

I sometimes worry I may have done something like this. It would be something of a nightmare if I did because I don’t want to hurt my fellow artists.

But this isn’t such bad territory. If someone did have to confront me about this, I would likely handle it the same as my friend and apologize and see if there was a way I could fix the situation and keep a good relationship with the other author. And that’s more in a situation when there’s an actual conversation.

In situations where the other author has no way of knowing what you are working on or you haven’t had that conversation, then it’s probably best to leave well enough alone. Lots of ideas get repeated.

The Elementalist: A Good Thief

The Tue-Rah Chronicles features a lot of different races, including some elementalists. In the chapters I released on Wattpad, I have developed some of them through the main story and others through short stories, and I have received a fair bit of feedback from readers, many of whom are also writers.

The other day, one of these readers messaged me to say that she had written a story of her own about elementalists. She mentioned that she had been inspired by the combat style that the elementalists used as well as their culture and how their lifestyles influenced their strength with various elements. And she then wrote her own story. Not a fanfiction. Not a rip off. She wrote a story that took some of the ideas that I had, added a bunch of her own, and created a whole new conflict and set of characters. In essence, she made it her own.

When she finishes this story, it’s going to be amazing. I couldn’t be happier for her. It was also quite cool to see how I was able to positively influence her as so many others have positively influenced me.

The fact that she added to the story and changed up the idea made all the difference. Her letting me know about it wasn’t necessary. If I had read her story without knowing about it, I would have noted some similarities but oddly I wouldn’t have thought she had ripped me off.

And really I wouldn’t even call her a thief. I think that this is the one where calling such a person a thief bothers me the most. She didn’t steal the idea from me though she did get it from me. I suppose if I were to make it a metaphor, I’d say that she ate the fruit of my story, took some of the seeds, spliced in components for other seeds, and grew her own kind of fruit.

Ultimately I don’t think I would call people in the second two categories thieves (particularly since in the case of The Dragon, she did not do it intentionally). Though I take the point, I feel that that minimizes the actual meaning to call such people thieves, particularly when there are actual thieves out there. Even if you see an idea in a movie and decide you want to play with it, if you do it right, you aren’t stealing it. You are adapting it. Or at least that is what you should be doing. By referring to all as thieves, I feel that this dilutes the meaning when one is trying to talk about actual wrongdoing.

The purpose of referring to all artists as thieves is, in part, to calm creators down and help them realize that nothing truly new. People who insist they have something utterly unique and that has never been done are usually demonstrating a skill in puffery or their lack of knowledge. But can’t we accomplish this by simply referring to the fact that we all draw inspiration from all around us? We drink from a common river. We don’t steal from it.

And maybe the reason that this bothers me most in the fourth case is because no one owns ideas. No one. What we own are the words we put together and the take that we give them, the perspective we bring. Even in the case of The Mers, my story wound up being quite different from my former friend’s because, though she took my concepts, she didn’t tell it the way I planned to.

Maybe this is just semantics. I’m not entirely certain, but this over reference does bother me, perhaps because I deal with actual thieves. What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s right to call all artists thieves? Is the understanding of implied conduct enough? Or is there something that we lose by referring to everyone as a thief? Is there a better word?

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