When Did Imitation Become the Sincerest Form of Flattery?

Someone once said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. A good adage for when you were a child and one of your friends copied everything you did. However, it does not offer any consolation to the author who has had the misfortune of being a victim of copyright infringement. Note that I chose to use the phrase "copyright infringement", rather than plagiarism. There is a significant difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement.

Plagiarism is the more common word used when an author says his or her work has been copied. Plagiarism is when someone has copied the work from someone else and presented it as his or her own. This can also extend to the copying of someone else's ideas and claiming them as your own. (AN1) Copyright Infringement is when a copyright is violated. It is the unauthorized use of any material that is covered by copyright and this use violates the copyright owner's original copyright. (AN2) Plagiarism is a form of copyright infringement. (AN3) Copyright infringement is not something that a vast majority of people are familiar with. Unfortunately, this lack of familiarity with copyrights has led to several misconceptions.

One common misconception people have in regards to copyright is that unless the author states that the work is copyrighted or used the C in a circle – © – the work is not copyrighted. However, this is not the case. In 1887, the Berne Convention first came into effect, which ensured the right of the author. (AN4) This means that as soon as a work is created it is protected by copyright laws. The author is not required to declare or even register his or her copyright. Also, those countries that have signed the Berne Convention protect the rights of authors that are from other countries that have also signed. For example, North Korea, which signed in 2003, will protect the rights of an author from the United States, which signed in 1989. (AN5) It is not necessary for an author to declare that the work is copyright, upon the creation of the work, the author receives protection for that work under copyright laws.

Another misconception that is more common is the belief that anything you post on the internet has become part of the public domain, and therefore, is not protected by copyright. This is not the case. There are two ways that a work can become part of the public domain. The first, and the one that pertains to, all authors on Fictionpress, is for the author to actually state that he or she is giving his or her work to the public domain. (AN6) It has to be stated clearly, not merely implied. The second way for a work to become part of the public domain is if the author has been dead for seventy years, according to the Copyright Law of the United States. (AN7) In most cases, the owner of the copyright is the author. It is possible for someone to inherit the copyright, so it is wise not to assume just because the author is dead that his or her work is part of the public domain. For instance, J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, donated "all future proceeds from [Peter] Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children", who currently the copyright. (AN8) The works of William Shakespeare are considered to be a part of the public domain. Even then it is considered polite, or perhaps morally decent, to acknowledge the author and cite or reference any quotes used. Work published on the internet is not part of the public domain, unless the author declares that he or she is granting his or her work to the public domain or the author (and the original owner of the copyright) has been dead for more than seventy years.

There is also the misconception that when it comes to copyright infringement that you are innocent until proven guilty. This is not true; copyright law is a part of civil law, whereas the idea of innocent until proven guilty is part of criminal law. (AN9) The original author is required to provide evidence that he or she holds the copyright to the work. When it comes to work posted on the internet, the original author needs to provide a link to his or her work that proves it was created before the plagiarized work. It is recommended that if the original author is planning to actually sue for copyright infringement, he or she has registered the copyright. The only other thing that needs to be proven is that the individual infringing on the copyright had access to the work. (AN10) In other words, evidence that before he or she published the work, it could be assumed that he or she could have accessed it. For example, if he or she states that he or she had read the work on the internet, it is considered proof of access. When it comes to copyright infringement there is no such thing as innocent until proven guilty.

Yet another misconception is that if the work is altered in some way, then it is not copyright infringement, but rather an individual work. According to the United States Copyright Office, no matter how many changes you make to another's work, you cannot claim copyright on it without the author's permission. (AN11) Essentially this means that taking a story and changing the characters' names for something like fan fiction, for example, is copyright infringement. Even if you change some of the wording, if it can be seen as being obviously similar to another's work, it is copyright infringement. Making changes to someone else's work does not make it your own individual work and it is still copyright infringement.

A misconception that often persists, especially in regards to the internet, is that as long as you credit the original author when publishing his or her work elsewhere, you are not plagiarizing or violating copyright laws. Although, you are not plagiarizing as you are not crediting the work as your own, it is still a violation of copyright laws. Under the idea of fair use, you can quote or use a sample of someone else's work without permission, but in the case of publishing the entire work elsewhere, you need the author's written consent. (AN12) Without this, you are infringing on the author's copyright. You cannot publish a copy of a work, even if you credit the original author, unless you have his or her consent to do so.

A final misconception is that plagiarizing a work does not hurt anyone. I think that most authors would disagree with that statement. I can only speak for myself, but I put my heart, soul, blood and sweat into my writing. It is something very personal and everything I write has a tiny essence of me in it. At the moment, I can only imagine what my reaction would be to having any of my work plagiarized. First, there would be intense anger mixed with a hint of sadness. I would feel as if someone had stolen it from me. I know that I would take action against the individual, to me that is not something I would ever consider letting slide. My feelings would most likely shift towards disillusionment and disappointment. The disillusionment would be with writing in general and the whole idea of publishing anything on the internet ever again. I would consider removing everything I have posted and would probably only leave up a portion to provide a time stamp. The disappointment would stem from the fact that one of my readers had done something like that to me, when part of me had always been trying to please them with my writing. Of course, that is just some of what might go through my mind if I were ever plagiarized. It is important to remember that it is the author who determines how hurt he or she is by the plagiarism. The readers are also affected by plagiarism. As more and more authors are plagiarized from websites like Fictionpress, they are removing all of their work from these websites and no longer publishing new work on these websites. Those readers who had previously enjoyed these works lose as well as those who had not yet discovered these authors. Ultimately, both the authors and the readers are affected by plagiarism and hurt by it.

Now I want to return to the idea that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. When it comes to plagiarism and copyright infringement, it is not imitation but straight out copying that is occurring. By using this expression when speaking of plagiarism, you are excusing the behaviour. I want to take this to a more extreme level. Imagine someone stole your car, which no one will argue, is your property. Now when you are complaining to, or perhaps simply informing, a friend or family member about the theft, he or she says that imitation or copying is the sincerest form of flattery. In other words, he or she is stating that the individual who stole you car did it because he or she admired you and wanted to be more like you. I cannot imagine that very many people would react kindly to such a statement and I highly doubt anyone would accept it as an excuse for theft. After all, it is your property and no one has the right to take it from you. Copyright protects the intellectual property of the creator. Copying or plagiarizing someone else's work is a form of theft and the creator can take the perpetrator to court and sue for damages.

In conclusion, the misconceptions about copyright and plagiarism are numerous and I only addressed a select few here. An author does not have to state outright that a work is copyrighted, the work was copyrighted at the time of its creation. Just because something is posted on the internet does not mean it is part of the public domain and therefore not protected by copyright. The author must grant something to the public domain or in the United States, the author must be dead for more than seventy years. These are the only ways a work can become part of the public domain and no longer protected by copyright. There is no such thing as innocent until proven guilty when it comes to copyright infringement and the laws under which someone can charge you with it. Even if you credit the original author when posting his or her work on a different website, you are still infringing on his or her copyright unless you have received permission to do this. Even if you alter a piece of work it does not become your own individual work, without the original author's consent this is a violation of copyright. Finally, plagiarizing and copyright infringement does hurt someone. Just ask any one of the numerous Fictionpress authors who have been plagiarized and their readers.

Some Final Food for Thought

When it comes to copyright infringement it is frequently difficult for the court to determine the exact amount of the damages that have occurred. In the United States, the creator than can be awarded statutory damages between $750 and $30 000 per work. In cases where it can be proven that the infringement was down with the knowledge that it was illegal these damages can be as high as $150 000 per work. (AN13) I would advise you think twice before plagiarising anyone's work.

Author's Note: This is a direct response to the numerous cases of plagiarism and copyright infringement that have occurred on Fictionpress lately. The vast majority of the plagiarised authors had at least one story among my favourites, if the author wasn't listed. It has come to the point I am scared when I receive an alert from a story that it will be yet another story that is being removed from the site due to the increase in plagiarism. I also wrote this when I realized how little I knew about copyright infringement and what protection I have from it. The copyright laws that are mentioned here are mostly from the United States. There are two reasons for this. One, they are very similar to the Canadian copyright laws (and I am Canadian). Two, there is abundance of Americans on fictionpress. I strongly recommend that you look into the copyright laws of your country. I strongly recommend reading "10 Big Myths about copyright explained" in AN6 and AN9 as it was a huge inspiration and a wonderful guide. AN1-13 are references that I used in the creation of this essay and are sources of varying amounts of information. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of fictionpress I cannot properly reference them here, but I will provide a link in my profile to a reference list. Please note, I am not a lawyer and therefore do not know everything, if you have any corrections please let me know. Also, if there are any other misconceptions that were not addressed, please feel free to mention those as well. Thank you.

If for some reason you want to post this elsewhere, I ask that you contact me first so that I am aware of it and link back to here. This is copyrighted as of June 2009.

Just to clear something up, because I just have a feeling someone will blast me on this, I have had my car stolen. The ordeal was horendous, but it had very little to do with the actual theft and how it made me feel. It had more to deal with the circumstances of the theft. I discovered my car missing at 11pm on a school night and I had to be at the school the next morning at 7am to prepare for my student teaching. Oh, and the school was in the middle of nowhere (no taxis or buses) and I still had lesson plans to write that night. That's not even talking about the headache of dealing with the insurance company. My car was found all in one piece and in working order (despite the insurance company's concern otherwise). I would not wish that on anyone. Now having said that, in my mind it would not compare to what I would feel if someone ever plagiarized my work. To me, the plagiarism would be so much worse.

On another note, to those who were hoping for more Surviving Obsidian Empire. I am working on the next chapter. It's jsut killing me at the moment.