Plagiarism is Purloining. Or is It?


It’s good to have smart people in your corner.  Mentors can help you take your writing far, and I’m quick to lean on people for advice or to get help when I am stuck.  Like most writers, I get fixated on “what” I’m writing so often, I try to remember to consult with people from time-to-time about “how” I’m writing.  I’ve been having some ongoing dialogue with my former high school English and Journalism teacher, Vickie Benner, who read the first three Chapters of my new novel, When it Comes in Threes.  For some time, she and I have been discussing whether or not I should change the voice in my first draft of the book from an adult to a child’s narrative as suggested by someone I highly respect in the literary community.  When I finally decided to give the new voice a whirl, I discovered I was having much more fun writing the piece from a child’s perspective than I ever did before.  Long story short, it’s a full rewrite, but will be better suited for the Young Adult book market for which the piece is intended.

Just this week, I leaned on Vickie again.  She and I had dialog about other books or movies that could compare to what I am working on now.  After a bit of contemplation, I threw out books that resonated with me that could be considered along the same grain as mine.  So I threw out Running with Scissors (due to the highly dysfunctional family depicted in the book) and Bastard Out of Carolina (the conflicted, young protagonist dealing with abuse.)  But, I got stuck on the name of a third book and the subsequent movie that followed.  I said, “Oh Vickie.  What’s the name of that book with the Wal-Mart Baby in it?  You know, named Americus?”  She said, “Oh yes.  With Natalie Portman in it?”  But, neither one of us could remember the name of the movie.  I then told her my book would have someone, maybe a couple or three people, come into my main character’s life and make a difference in it, like the “Welcome Wagon” lady did in Natalie Portman’s character’s life, and more great dialogue ensued. Vickie and I chatted a bit more and we hung up.

The next day, during lunch, I switched on the TV.  I never switch on the TV at lunchtime, and guess what was on? Where the Heart Is.  It was on.  A movie I hadn’t seen in probably five years.  So, I watched it, and right where I picked up in the movie Lexie Coop (Ashley Judd) was asking why Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) named her baby Americus.

And, then–there it was.

I swallowed hard and tried to will it not be so.  Lexie tells Novalee that she named her kids after snack food.  Brownie, Praline, Cherry and Baby Ruth.  Kids named after food!  Oh.  My.  God.  Enter Chapter 1, Paragraph Six of my new novel:  “Nine months after Mama said I do, she gave birth to Bartlett, named after the pear fruit, ‘cause Mama was green with the flu when she went into labor and threw up all over her doctor, just two years and a month before I was born. Mama always did have a penchant for food, and so she named me Barley, like the waves of golden grain that rolled through the John Deere combines from the dry fields of Oklahoma. Seven years later, my baby brother, Graham, like the cracker, came. Mama didn’t have no real good explanation for his name, except that she liked to crush up graham crackers in milk in the mornings and eat ‘em like that for breakfast.  Us three, Bartlett and Graham and me, we never knew what hit us being born a Sullivan.  One of my elementary school teachers, Miss Espich, once told me that never knowing what hits you is an idiom relating to very bad consequences in which the people involved were totally unsuspecting. That’s us, the Sullivan Three, totally unsuspecting people named after food.”  I thought I was being ingenious and novel when I wrote that paragraph.  I “thought” I owned the inventive concept of people naming people after food!

Wikipedia defines plagiarism as the “wrongful appropriation” and “purloining and publication” of another author‘s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,” and the representation of them as one’s own original work. The idea remains problematic with unclear definitions and unclear rules.The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement. Plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics. It is subject to sanctions like expulsion

So, for all you readers and writers out there, I have two questions and then will follow up with a thought:

1.  I already admitted to watching the movie over five years ago and, Where the Heart is clearly still resonates with me. I’ve carried the book and those characters along with me these past five years. That said, does Billy Letts, the bestselling author, own the concept of naming people after food merely because she published it first?
In the book, The Outsiders, a main character’s name is Soda Pop.
I wonder, based upon the definition of plagiarism, if one author could be accused of stealing the mere concept of naming character’s after food?

2.  Have I plagiarized already by merely expressing an idea, which I thought I owned, by publishing Chapter 1 of my book on my blog?

In December of 2011, I published an article entitled “Finding the Value in Creativity” on Promokitchen.com.  I later re-blogged the same article here on my site.  In it, I write, “The Free Dictionary Online indicates that according to the philosophy of Plato, the definition of an idea “is an archetype of which a corresponding being in phenomenal reality is an imperfect replica.” The web source goes on to say that according to the philosophy of Kant, “an idea is a concept of reason that is transcendent but nonempiral.” But, even Hagel said it differently. He claimed that an idea means “absolute truth; the complete and ultimate product of reason.” In the dictionary, the definition of an idea reads “something, such as a thought or conception that potentially or actually exists in the mind as a product of mental activity.”

Transcendent thought, huh? A thought or conception that existed in the mind as a product of mental activity, huh?  If this is true, that would mean at the point I wrote my paragraph, it was my thought, my mental activity, and my idea.  I don’t know.  Maybe I have to change it purely because it’s now unoriginal. But, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.  My mentor, Vickie Benner, gave me hers…

3 thoughts on “Plagiarism is Purloining. Or is It?

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