Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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Some years ago I was the victim of bare-faced plagiarism. A kind reader alerted me by email and I saw the evidence myself: a writer with her own website had lifted an article of mine on the NovelAdvice site, had topped and tailed it with a few lines of her own, and had presented it as her own work, arising from her own experience.

My first reaction was sickness, the same sort of sick violation that someone feels when their house has been burgled. I then became so angry at this brazen passing off that I literally saw through a red mist. Then helplessness: how could I make this plagiarist remove my work from her site? What sanctions did I have? None except reproach...reproach, against a bare-faced thief?

I am proud to report that it was my fellow writers at NovelAdvice who swooped in on the attack as I was paralysed with fury and shock, and who carried the victory. The offender did not remove my piece from her site, but fully acknowledged me as its author and put in links to my site for those who wanted to find me. That was good enough for me: while it remains there, it will be her brand of shame. I have never thanked my fellow writers enough for what they did. I was deeply moved. Their actions gave me back my faith in my own community.

Afterwards, when I was calmer, I mused on the episode.

Why did that writer, who had more published books to her name than I had, choose to steal another writer's words? How did she justify it to herself? I also wondered why, in particular, plagiarism is so despised. Highwaymen, cat burglars, even car-jackers can be anti-heroes of a sort, but plagiarists are always down there with the scum. I came up with some answers that felt right to me and which might interest you.

Plagiarism is despised because it is stealing someone's mind, the manifestation of themselves. Alzheimer's is fearful because the person, all that makes a person, is gone. It is like a physical assault, yet insidious, because the Self cannot show bruises. How do you explain what the damage feels like inside? How that loss feels?

Plagiarism is frightening. How do I prove my words are mine? How do I prove that I composed them and didn't steal them from someone else? In courts, disputed copyright is decided upon dated manuscripts, on witnesses who remember reading the drafts, on letters in a publisher's filing cabinet, on receipts for postage in the author's filing cabinet. Even then, it is hard to prove. To be plagiarised in the world of paper is bad enough, but in the world of the internet almost impossible. What power does an email protesting the theft have? How do you prove in the digital world that you own any specific thing?

Plagiarism is hard to detect. In my case, I might never have found out. Maybe other words of mine are out there with someone else's name on them. Unlike the high school essay industry, where teachers are far more savvy than their students dream and who have sophisticated searching software to use, no search engine can be guaranteed to return sites carrying identical phrases from my work. A plagiarist on the internet, although she can never rest easy, can rest more easily than most.

Friends tried to make me feel better by saying that plagiarism was a subtle form of flattery: the plagiarist wished she had written my essay and had tried to share a bit of my mind by putting her name where mine had been. My friends did flatter me, but I wasn't convinced, as I had already felt the plagiarist's contempt. To her, I was someone who didn't have to be considered. I was obscure. For all she knew, I wasn't a published writer. I wasn't anybody. What did I matter? Plagiarism is the despising of another human being.

Aside from her contempt for me and, who knows, an uneasiness over the possibility of being caught, what did my plagiarist feel? I have never asked her; I have never contacted her. But I can surmise. A touch of envy, yes, or why steal? Idleness: why write your own piece when you can take someone else's? Arrogance, thinking that she somehow had the right or the rank to do it, that she was 'special'. A certain truculence: 'who's it going to hurt, after all?' Maybe a certain glee. None of these is attractive. None of these is an excuse.

I suspect that all those feelings paled beside the shame she felt when caught, and the anger against her victim that perpetrators feel when their crimes are exposed. And maybe a tiny touch of relief, now that she was forced to remove the source of that tiny itch of guilt. I hope so.

Plagiarism isn't an 'academic' or 'theoretical' crime, one that only eggheads or lawyers care about. It's not a crime against the high ideal of intellectual authenticity. It is not a victimless crime. It is theft. It is damage. It cannot be defended on any ground. It's just a low-down skunk kind of thing to do. It hurts. It hurt me.

My two main comforts, after learning of the plagiarism, were the rallying around of my fellow NovelAdvice writers and the fact that my plagiarist was caught. Plagiarists are almost always caught, sooner or late and, as search engines get better, will be caught more frequently online, too. My plagiarist was discovered within about a year. Several famous writers and journalists have been exposed as plagiarists in recent times. 'Sampling' and 'deconstruction' were their feeble defences, but their reputations suffered. Posthumously, plagiarism can taint a writer's legacy. What he thought would make him immortal makes him merely contemptible. Who wants to be famous for that?

Plagiarism is consciously passing off someone else's words as your own. It is not the same as 'fair use'. 'Fair use' is quoting, sometimes at quite liberal length, for certain purposes without having to pay the author for subsidiary rights. The key word is 'quote'. You have to acknowledge your source: who said it, in what publication, and on what date.

You cannot use someone else's work and pretend it is your own. Not fifty words. Not even five. Yes, there are combinations of words that many authors have shared: 'But officer, they are innocent' or 'I wanted to marry her' or 'In a kingdom far away'. As with musical notes, we all use the same words, and often in the same combinations of them. The difference is that, when you plagiarise, you know you're copying. You know you are appropriating something that you are going to pretend was your own.

Perhaps you are writing an historical novel and one of your source books has said something in such a perfect way that you can't better it. Or a phrase has so captured your imagination that you can't bear not to delight yourself by weaving it into your own work. As a tribute, you argue, to the original author. Or it may be that you are so steeped in an author's work – Tolkien, Grisham, Cornwell, whoever – that all you want to do is to be part of that author's creation, to write an extension of that universe. Or you think, 'I can do better than that' and out comes your version of Elmore Leonard or Anita Shreeve.

What is fandom, what is homage, what is imitation, and what is plagiarism? There are many books and articles and websites on copyright that will tell you which is which, but I think the best guide is within yourself.

If you love Star Trek so much that you want to live in it, and even make up new narratives yourself, then you aren't stealing. You may not be the most imaginative writer in the world (real writers like to invent their own worlds and their own characters, unless they're jobbing for a syndication) but you are having fun and you not pretending to be doing anything else but what you're doing. Fandom.

If you enjoy reading romantic novels set in the old west, then you will probably write romantic novels set in the old west. It is, after all, what interests you. Fine, and you may well get published. It's genre writing, and these have their own rules that must be obeyed, which means certain ideas will be repeated. That is the point of genre writing: more of the same, though each slightly different, like pizzas. Genre writing has a long, honourable history and it's a tribute from you to the many happy hours you've spent reading just that kind of book. Homage.

If you want to be an author and can't think of an idea that sells, you can take a cold, hard look at the market and decide that writing a Kellerman-style thriller or a Rowling-style children's book is the best chance of getting into Borders or Amazon. After all, publishers want something they can sell without raising sweat and, if they can't get enough product from Mr Grisham, they will take a Grisham-style thriller from you. It may not be admirable to tread a trail broken by a better writer, but it's an economic decision that's often successful. Imitation.

Then there is the work you lift. Steal. Quote without the quotation marks. 'Sample.' 'Weave in.' The fan writing, the homage, the imitation: all these you could admit to on a talk-show without the audience booing you. But those paragraphs you 'kinda borrowed', well, they would make you feel funny if your writing group or your TV audience recognised them. Or there's that phrase you wrote in all honesty and only remembered later that you'd read it somewhere – but which you do not delete, once you remember that it isn't yours. Or there are plot devices that you know an editor would reject your MS for if he identified it. It's the words you know you are stealing, even if you never get caught, even if you never get published. Plagiarism.

Plagiarism is a crime against your community. The writers who encourage and support you, who will defend you (as they defended me) when you are helpless, the writers who will supply blurbs for your new novel, the writers who work for P.E.N. to rescue writers in need around the world – they are your community. Plagiarism rips the fabric of our mutual trust and support. It is, in a metaphoric way, the crime of Cain: killing your brother.

Plagiarism is a crime against your own writing future, because a plagiarist is something a publisher or a fellow writer doesn't want to get involved with, doesn't want to touch. It's a crime against your own mind. Do you think so little of your own brain that you couldn't write something of your own making? It's a crime against your own honour, that you would put your name to something that wasn't yours in the hope of being admired for it.

Mark Twain said pride protects a man from deliberately stealing other people's ideas. If you plagiarise, you have no pride. No pride in your work. No pride in yourself. If you had any, you have lost it with this act of theft. Plagiarism is a sad crime: it is a crime against you, and you will always be its contemptible victim.