On Being Plagiarized

By Stacey May Fowles & Submitted by Kevin

Submitted by kevin on June 29, 2016 - 1:36pm

About a month ago, I came out of a meeting to find a rather strange tweet in my mentions.

Someone I had never interacted with before popped up to inform me that she had pretty good evidence I had been plagiarized. The mysterious tweeter in question gave very few public details, so I asked if she could send me a direct message and provide some further information. Confused and kind of stunned, I slipped my phone back in my bag and wandered from the office to a bar on King Street, aiming to kill some time before my evening plans.

I ordered up a glass of wine, put my phone on the bar, and watched as another notification appeared. “Hi,” the message read. “This guy took your story, changed the name of the protagonist, and published it in a magazine. Turns out he plagiarized many writers' stories and published them under his own name.” This kindly stranger went on to give me the name of the publication—a small experimental literary journal based out of the southern US—but at that point I’d already found an effusively apologetic email from their editor in my inbox.

“I just wanted to apologize on behalf of all of us for the plagiarized story,” it read. “We had no idea! I wish there was something we could do for you to make it up to you.” (Sadly, there wasn’t.)

By the time I understood the vague details of this cardinal writing sin that had been committed against me, the piece in question had already been taken down after spending a two months unnoticed on the journal’s website. Because the hard evidence of wrongdoing had disappeared, I didn’t even know which story it was that had been stolen, and had to do some further Internet sleuthing to figure it out. Lucky for me (and very unlucky for The Plagiarist) the literary community was already diligently cataloguing the “writer’s” sins in a pretty thorough and damning blog post.

According to that record, close to twenty pieces, published in journals across North America, had been, to varying degrees, passed off as The Plagiarist’s own. In my particular case, it turns out this literary villain had done a real deep dive to find and steal a rather mediocre short story published online more than ten years ago. I’d written it for a small, now defunct American literary journal early in my fiction career—not a piece I was particularly proud of, nor one I’d given a lot of thought to since.

The story’s basic synopsis is that a young woman’s partner goes missing, and as she awaits his return she comes to the realization that their dynamic, among other things, has rendered her feeling mostly useless and insignificant. As the boyfriend’s disappearance becomes more and more concerning, and as the police come to call, the protagonist begins to understand that she doesn’t miss him, doesn’t need him, and that she would be better off alone.

The southern literary journal was kind enough to eventually send along the story as it appeared, and I did a brief line-by-line comparison. The Plagiarist indeed had changed the title, the name of the main character, and oddly, the story’s ending. (Mine was better, by the way. In my version the boyfriend is dead. In his he’s left her for another woman.) But for the most part my version and his were identical—my words, my phrases, my themes, my structure. While most high profile accusations of plagiarism generally involve a handful of stolen lines and ideas here and there, this was a wholesale theft in bulk—a pretty daring direct copy/paste job that would be far easier to spot for anyone who was looking.

As more and more writers discovered the myriad violations, increasing levels of rage were articulated online, much of which was being directed at The Plagiarist himself. The general ire certainly made sense—from our earliest days of schooling, and all through our educational and professional lives, we are taught that stealing someone else’s work, or cheating, is the absolute worst thing a writer can do. As a result, those who labour up against pressing deadlines live in terror of unconsciously and accidentally appropriating another’s ideas, yet rarely even consider the idea of being stolen from themselves, or what they would even do if that day came.

I certainly had no idea what to do. I spent some time at the bar aimlessly Googling copyright laws and rules around intellectual property, finding little recourse for plagiarism beyond “tell the publication to remove it.” I called my agent and left a message, not even really sure what I was aiming to hear back from her. Right away, I was struck by how not angry I was about the whole thing, groping for what I was “supposed to do,” but not really feeling anything but bemused. As I scrolled through the furious online commentary, through numerous public literary journal apologies, and countless direct attacks on The Plagiarist himself (it didn’t take long for his Twitter account to vaporize and his website to get scrubbed of copy, links, and promotions) I was actually amazed at how calm I was about the whole thing.

Maybe my reaction would have been different if the piece was more recent, more valued, or more personal. Maybe if someone had appropriated my non-fiction, my life experience, my pain and my emotions, and passed them off as their own I would have felt more wounded. Maybe if he had profited substantially, I would had felt the need to pursue compensation. But in the moment, sipping my glass of Riesling, I felt decidedly serene. In fact, I had more questions than fury—filled with a kind of shocked curiosity, completely fascinated that someone would be so bold in the face of what we all have been long taught is the worst thing a writer can possibly do.

So what exactly would drive The Plagiarist to engage in something so unethical, so brazen, and so incredibly risky, solely in the name of "becoming a famous writer?" Why would he lift this particular decade-old story, one that had obvious feminist overtones, and sign his name to it? And if he was simply seeking the “glory” of being published, wouldn’t the fact that it was all just a lie eclipse any satisfaction that he could possibly garner?

And so, I emailed him to ask.

Taking a cue from author Lindy West’s famed story of confronting her cruelest troll, I looked through The Plagiarist’s version of my story that the journal had sent along and

Lindy West Author Photo

noticed the header of the Word doc included his full contact information. The following morning, I sat down at my desk and drafted a query: “I guess the reason I'm writing to you is that I'm trying to figure out why you decided to take (my story) and submit it in the first place? I've been struggling to understand your motivation, and if you could let me know, that would be helpful.”

It took a mere twenty minutes for The Plagiarist to reply, offering what I felt was a pretty sincere, excessively self-flagellating apology. (I’m quite sure it was one he had to send out multiple times during that week.) He even agreed to engage in a back and forth with me in the hope that I would eventually be able to forgive him. I promised not to divulge publicly the contents of those emails, primarily out of his concern for what he claimed was his tenuous safety, but I will say he seemed very forthcoming and apologetic throughout. In the face of alleged threats and harassment against him and his family, I even felt a weird protective compulsion, despite the fact that I was the one who had been egregiously wronged.

A friend I chatted with about this tale admonished my sympathies. She, like many, understandably believed The Plagiarist to be an egregiously self-centred liar who was likely lying to me now, someone who had stolen from me and many others, and didn’t deserve my care or attempt at understanding. But it felt like it was important to try to get at the root of why boldface plagiarism happens. I wanted to open up a discussion on what dynamics can lead to the conscious theft of someone else’s creative efforts, and what we can do to prevent it.

The Plagiarist and I exchanged about a dozen emails between us over the course of a day, and I’m not sure I ever got to the bottom of why something like this happens. (He didn’t reply to my final recent missive, the one where I informed him I’d be writing this and that I’d be happy to include anything he’d want to publicly contribute by way of explanation.) Without divulging any specific details, I will say the conversation was forthright, transparent, and illuminating (if occasionally peppered with caginess and suspicion on both sides.) But at the end of my tiny drama—one that ended as quickly as it arrived—reaching out to The Plagiarist confirmed a lot of my thoughts on the dangerous (and false) splendor associated with being a writer. And in a very extreme way, it spoke to the problem of admiration and fame acting as the primary objective of the written word.

In my view, The Plagiarist wanted to be respected, beloved and celebrated. Instead of putting in the necessary work, he took a destructive, mean, and likely career-ruining short cut to achieve a tiny sliver of deceptive glory. Beyond being a cautionary tale, and the most hated scoundrel in a certain corner of the literary Internet for a short period of time, he was after all only a human being. He was someone who wanted to call himself writer, and ended up plummeting down a slippery slope of rule-breaking to get there.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Stacey May Fowles is an award-winning journalist, novelist, and essayist whose bylines include The Globe and Mail, The National Post, BuzzFeed, Elle, Toronto Life, The Walrus, Vice, Hazlitt, Quill and Quire, and others. She is the author of the bestselling non-fiction collection Baseball Life Advice (McClelland and Stewart), and the co-editor of the recent anthology Whatever Gets You Through (Greystone).