Attribute. Cite. Give credit. Why is this so hard to understand?

Concise, articulate, and on target:

M/m originated in slash fiction. Its roots to fanfic are really, really close and I can understand the confusion on the part of newbie writers who don’t see the difference between playing with someone else’s universe or characters for their own entertainment or developing their writing skills, and the huge legal and ethical leap from there to writing the same way to make a profit. I mean, *I* can see a clear division, but for a lot of people it appears blurry. Here’s where you normally have gatekeepers with knowledge about the industry. They are called mainstream agents and publishers, and they are well aware of things like copyright infringement, need for attribution, what is and isn’t plagiarism. M/m doesn’t have these people. The publishers are as amateur as the writers themselves.

Now that doesn’t excuse what Tj appears to have done, both with this one and with Burn. Which is to use huge chunks out of someone else’s work and fit in his own bits and pieces to stitch it together without any attribution or recognition of the source material. Where is it plagiarism and where does it slop over into copyright infringement? I don’t know and I don’t particularly care. It’s unethical and it’s sleazy, and I don’t like what it says about the standards that are okay in m/m especially with this publisher.

As the commenter notes, this is an ongoing issue in m/m. If you’re going to publish derivative works, copycat fiction, and reworked fan fiction, then be upfront about the provenance. Don’t be coy about it:

Just in case I’ve given you a complex and made you feel insecure, let me take this opportunity to reveal that several of Dreamspinner Press’s stories started out their lives as fanfiction.  Some even by our best-selling authors.  I’d never “out” anyone by name, but rest assured that the author used someone else’s characters/world/personalities as the foundation for telling their own story.

I’m puzzled by this paragraph. If it’s ethically fine, why would revealing the provenance be “outing?”

Look, we are not talking about where and how an author gets “inspiration”. This is about taking the plot, characterizations, and dialogue of someone else’s work and importing it into your own work without attribution. Enough with the comparisons to Shakespeare. Commenters are just insulting everyone’s intelligence and revealing their own lack of comprehension when they haul out that chestnut. (I think that comparing the decision to stop reviewing a particular publisher’s books to Nazi policies pretty much speaks for itself.)

This is not Dreamspinner’s first dance ’round the maypole when it comes to attribution problems, by the way. In 2007 they published a Jane Eyre fanfiction piece (the author called it “homage”) that included large chunks of Brontë’s dialogue and narrative. Check out the comparisons here and here. They withdrew that book, but it isn’t entirely clear to me that they understood what the problem was:

The editorial staff here felt we were unqualified to judge a title based on another work, so we had it reviewed by a copyright lawyer and a professor of literature, who both believed it was suitable for publication.  Be that as it may, with the author’s full support, we have withdrawn the title.

This explanation reinforces the point about amateurism in the comment I quoted at the top of this post.  I understand that the cases are difficult to adjudicate at the margins. But Logan’s book wasn’t a marginal case. I have no idea why the literature professor gave the go-ahead, because I don’t know what material s/he was working with. But why on earth wouldn’t a copyright lawyer give a thumbs up? Jane Eyre’s been in the public domain for a while. It’s not a copyright issue, it’s a plagiarism/attribution issue. Apparently DSP didn’t quite get the difference.

What happened to the idea that the benefit of buying a book from a publisher is that they’re gatekeepers who have done their due diligence? I don’t expect publishers to run all manuscripts through Turnitin, but I do expect them to have a working knowledge of the evidentiary differences between homage/inspiration, copying without attribution, and copyright infringement.

Logan’s book was published in 2007, Klune’s in 2011. Reaching for something positive to close on, we can definitely say that DSP’s marketing strategies and cover art have improved over those four years.

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10 thoughts on “Attribute. Cite. Give credit. Why is this so hard to understand?

  1. “I’d never “out” anyone by name”

    This says it all. In ethics we use something called the “publicity test” (aka “light of day test”): a warning that you may be doing something unethical is that you don’t want other people to know about it.

    I’m no expert, but it seems to me that most authors are only too happy to talk about their inspirations and influences. Talking about their debt to other writers is one of the great tributes one author can pay another, and provides, for readers, an added dimension of understanding and appreciation of their favorite books. That an author would be reluctant to participate in this enriching process of forging connections between writers and readers is a major red flag.

    • Several people have said that all this could have been avoided if Klune or DSP had just put a note in the beginning, saying that the book was inspired by the film (if indeed that connection exists). But maybe there was a concern that it would draw attention to the similarities. I don’t know.

      Until quite recently there has been a strong tendency to hide the provenance of reworked-for-profit ff, partly because of the bias against it, but also because as long as fanficcers could claim that they weren’t making money off their work, they felt on firmer ground (there are other reasons as well, but those were part of it). That seems to be going out the window now, and since a lot of fan fiction is AU or otherwise transformed, maybe people will be less concerned about showing the links. It’s definitely an ongoing debate.

      That said, however, I agree with you. Either be upfront or don’t do it, because otherwise it sure looks like you think you have something to hide.

      I keep thinking of Wide Sargasso Sea, and the Jane Eyre fanfic example just reinforced that. As a reader, WSS is so much richer for knowing the provenance. We would miss so much if we didn’t know what Rhys was writing in conversation with.

  2. “We would miss so much if we didn’t know what Rhys was writing in conversation with…”

    For me this concept is key to making new work derived in part from others – that there is clearly a conversation going on (as Jessica says ‘in the light of day’).

    At it’s best fanfic is a conversation between the original work, the fan writer and the fan readers about possibilities. Fanfic is a shared project that actually has something joyful about it as the original work is valued and people put in time and effort because they care. Fanfic is about community and connection through this conversation. It feels to me that what we are seeing in the ‘numbers filed off’ approach is not this and so I for one, wouldn’t call it fanfic-sourced (even though that means I am probably splitting hairs).

    The copying/taking in these instances seem to me to be an outcome of the failure of ethics on the part of the author/person doing it and the publishing houses. Whether this is to do with short cuts to get product out or lack of confidence on the writer’s part or narcissim or entitlement or whatever reason is also beside the point.

    Playing with other peoples creative work is a legitimate form of craft-learning. Visual artists learn through viewing lots of other work, copying lots of other people’s work and along that journey consolidating their own art practice in terms of the way they see the world and express this and define what is important to them. I am worried that we are losing the reality of that as well as the conversation that raises new possibilities and ways of thinking and seeing in the plaigerism kerfuffles.

    • I agree that the debate is not about repurposing fan fiction per se, at least not for me. If the provenance is given and there is sufficient transformation, I’m more than happy to read fan fiction, and I think that slamming fan fiction in general is a mistake. That is, it’s fine if individual readers don’t want to read it, but this incident shouldn’t be used as a way to lob grenades at fan fiction authors (again).

  3. I love a good derivative work, one that has that “conversation” going with the original. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite examples. I also don’t mind inspiration, but as Jessica says, that can and should pass the “light of day” test. This “is it or isn’t it” stuff just strikes me as SHADY.

    • The thread on Goodreads in which this comment appears has a couple of readers who claim that Burn is at least inspired by The Last Airbender. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie so I can’t speak to it, but if you click on the link you can see the discussion at GR. It’s a long thread (6 pages of comments), and I’m not sure exactly where the Burn references are, but they should be in there.

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