Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 581, August 1, 2010

"The definitive Nero Wolfe"

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On Plagiarism
by Richard Bartucci

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Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

Ideas tend reliably to fail of qualification for intellectual property rights (IPR) protection for the perfectly practical and plausible reason that it is extremely difficult to prove innovation in an idea as such. One of the curious things about getting a broad and continually expanding education is that one tends to realize that there is really very little in the conceptual realm that can be accurately described as genuinely novel. The more you know about history, the more likely it is that you can put your finger accurately on something in the past that is bodaciously similar to what seems (to the less literate) to be brand spankin' new and never-been-seen-before.

It is for this reason that copyright protection commonly covers only very specific elements, and why science fiction has been one of the areas in which copyright violation lawsuits have been peculiarly effective over the past half-century or so. SF writers do innovate, coming up with ideas that are so demonstrably new that nothing of their like had ever been seen before.

For example, nothing in any form of literature had been like Harlan Ellison's scripts for the 1964 Outer Limits episodes "Demon With a Glass Hand" and "Soldier" (which latter he derived from his own 1957 short story "Soldier From Tomorrow"), and when James Cameron consciously and flagrantly ripped off Harlan's innovations to make The Terminator (1984) it wasn't too damned difficult to get the production company to settle out of court.

Anybody else remember sitting through Alien in its 1979 theatrical release and immediately realizing it was ripping off A.E. van Vogt's 1939 Space Beagle stories "The Black Destroyer" and "Discord in Scarlet"? I sure as hell did. They settled out of court on that one, too.

And let's not go too far into the story of David Gerrold's script for Star Trek, "The Trouble With Tribbles," in which he only realized at the last moment that he'd subconsciously lifted a key plot element from Heinlein's The Rolling Stones and was able to discuss it with the Grand Master—who was gracious as all hell about it—and get the originator's approval or blessings or whatever in hell the lawyers like to call it. Had anybody ever before developed an idea of what might happen in the closed ecology of a spaceship when an apparently harmless and goll-durn cute ingratiating extraterrestrial species got taken aboard as pets and then proved to be not only omnivorous and parthenogenetic but also fecund to a degree that might beggar the imagination? Only Heinlein.

Mr. Smith's current ire over the Shire Society's rip-off (without attribution or so much as an expression of gratitude) of his "New Covenant" is understandable. This is an innovative work in prose, excerpted from his copyrighted novel The Gallatin Divergence (1985), and while fair use standards might allow the quotation of this very brief item in full, there's nothing whatsoever that allows somebody to file off the serial numbers, piss in it a little, and put it up as if he (or they) had whacked it up out of thin air and personal genius.

In academic writing (which I've done a bit), we call it plagiarism. Big no-no. Violation of professional ethics. Bad form. Momma spank, after which editor of publication and chief of department kick your ass.

Mr. Smith considers it copyright violation, and plainly that's what it is. More importantly (in my own personal opinion), it's a pretense to an innovation these "Shire Society" people did not produce, and which they have claimed as their own—with all sorts of indignant masturbatory motions and protestations of how intellectual property rights are evil and bogus—when in reality they committed precisely the sort of offense which lazy college undergraduates have been perpetrating since time out of memory, and for which they've been flunked and even expelled.

Plagiarism. The silly bastards could have "fair use" copied out Mr.Smith's "New Covenant"—hopefully with his permission, and with a link to his Web site—and then recommended that one or two codicils be considered by the thoughtful in the Shire Society's quest to "improve" on Mr. Smith's work.

Or they could've put together something from scratch that says something along the same lines—incorporating what they consider to be "improvements"—without violating Mr. Smith's copyright or kicking him in the metaphorical balls as they did. I sure as hell could manage that, and I'm no goddam great shakes as a writer. I've done it in academic publications I've written, where I've had to summarize and paraphrase findings and conclusions incorporated in earlier articles I've had to cite.

So why the hell didn't these Shire Society gonifs take such a course of action?

Contempt and hatred for the innovator is about the only thing that can explain their conduct. They wanted the fruits of Mr. Smith's thought and work, and they didn't even want to mention his goddam name, did they?

Contemptible. No other word for it. And these guys are supposed to be libertarians?

Yeah, sure.

Yank the other one now. It's got bells on it.

[see also "Another Letter from A.X. Perez" in this issue—Editor]

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