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The Fine Line Between Tribute and Plagiarism

My books are always rammed with quotations from other books I have read. I sprinkle lines from poems around, toss in some song lyrics, maybe an ironic TV catchphrase or two.

In the beginning I was fresh out of uni, fresh from writing accurately referenced scientific papers. And so my first book was very correctly referenced. In fact people found it a bit tiring.

As the poet Blah said, “blah, blah, blah” which reminded me of what Author Yuk once wrote, “yuk, yuk, YUK…”

Over time my writing has changed. I’m more relaxed now, more “poetic” and less literal. I sprinkled (buy it here) with Shakespeare, The Streets, the Smiths, Joni Mitchell, Springsteen, the Bible, Dylan (Bob and Thomas), TS Eliot, Steinbeck and whoever else I was reading or listening to as I wrote those words.
I like doing this. I do it as a tribute. I love the thought of occasional readers picking up on occasional snippets and enjoying the book a little more because of that – a private bond of me and them and our acknowledgement of one of our heroes.

A reason that I definitely do not add quotes in this way is to do it as a lazy way of cheating. It is consciously done so that some people will notice some of them some of the time and enjoy the reference to the Masters. It’s not cheating. It’s not plagiarism. Or is it..?

I was watching an online lecture recently (after my manuscript had gone to print, hence this post) from a conference I have always wanted to speak at. The talk was good. The guy really resonated with me. And then I realised why he resonated with me. The cheeky bastard was quoting verbatim from my website! And with no acknowledgement that this was what he was doing. I wasn’t angry; I was just amazed at the cheek of it.

And then I thought, perhaps he’s doing it as a “tribute” to me (Yes, I know that’s very unlikely!), perhaps he’s just being clever and subtle. No, he wasn’t. He was a cheeky bugger and he nicked my lines. (I emailed him. He denied it. I sighed and let it go. After all, it was a bloody good talk…)

It’s interesting to see things from a different perspective. I’ve learned a lesson for next time, that’s for sure.

(Bonus Point to anyone who finds the maudlin Joni Mitchell line…)

Please buy There Are Other Rivers now to help pay my court fees when I get sued.

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  1. Shame your perp couldn’t muster the courage to admit nicking your material. At the end of the day, who’s still got their integrity – you, or the guy on stage at the prestigious lecture?

  2. You can’t write a post like that and not properly reference or at least give a nice fat clue to who it was!

    At least you weren’t standing right behind him as he ripped you off;

  3. Interesting post – I often publish reports and articles in my line of work, as well as coming from a scientific university background where a long list of formal references in an essay was essential.

    I think there is no absolute rule here, it would be on a case by case basis. However things that are very famous and well known, or very short (preferably both) are probably OK to include without referencing the author (e.g. squeaky bum time, I’ll be back, I may not get there with you, life is like a box of chocolates, to be or not to be, my kingdom for a horse) and it also makes it more OK if you’ve put a twist on it rather than used it exactly the time.

    However I think using say, two whole sentences, would rarely be OK if it was precisely the same but you’d probably get away with it if you changed two words.

    Using a whole paragraph structure is a naughty one. I once noticed Clive Cussler had lifted wholesale a paragraph from an Alistair Maclean novel and just changed a few words here and there. This kind of thing would probably invite abuse and scorn, but not legal action.

    I think in your case you could include a reference page at the end of the book to credit your insipirations without disrupting a flow. You could even write that as prose rather than a boring list. And yes it is quite neat, and much better, when you spot a reference that wasn’t explicltly referenced, especially when you realised you are probably one of the very few people to do so.

    On the whole though, I personally would avoid the slippery slope and lean more towards a little bit more cautious and correct.

    Can’t comment on your book as I haven’t read it. I would need to read it to comment. Oh dear, I appear to be walking into a trap.

  4. I was re-reading ‘Moods of Future Joys’ at the weekend and noticed the lyrics from Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. I thought that it was a bit cheeky, but I don’t think Bob is into cycle-touring so probably missed it. But where does the line between un-referenced tribute and plagarism stand? Did you find out before publishing?

    • I didn’t find where the line lies, but I’m certainly going to rein myself in for the next one. I don’t want to get involved in any grey areas, however well-intentioned!

  5. Martha Solomon Posted

    I was glad to see this post and appreciate the integrity of admitting your former and reformed points of view. When you make a living by your words, it matters.

  6. Jennifer Posted

    There is a thin line that differentiates copyright and plagiarism, but copyright is a broader term as compared to plagiarism. You can check duplicate content with the help of plagiarism checker tool, but is there any tool that can help detecting copyright infringement in artwork?

  7. Alastair, flattery think of it as that, I always think somebody needd to find another word for adventure. Microadventure is your word now if I hear that I know its been stolen.

    Your have started me going on things and I tell others, now others are going on Microadventures, but its totaly secondhand from me, its your word.

  8. Mick Bailey Posted

    I’d quite like to watch the talk if you could post it. Probably best and cheapest just to be flattered by what is laziness unless they make a habit of it.

  9. He denied it? So it’s either coincidence or he’s a liar? Assuming he quoted a decent chunk of your material, then the odds of a coincidence are vanishingly small.

    I’d say you were right to let it go, but flattery it isn’t. It’s a lazy shitbag without the testicles to confess even when he was busted.



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