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Katiebabs is a self-proclaimed present day bluestocking with her head always in a book. She runs her own book blog called Babbling about Books and More!

Some thoughts on Shay Stahl

This woman has been in my feed a lot lately, so I just wanted to make an observation or two.


For starters:  what she did was wrong.  It was unethical.  It was lazy.  It was theft. 


Furthermore:  Her fans are misguided at best, gullible in the middle ground, and sock-puppets at worst.


I don't want to say I hope she fails, because that may seem mean-spirited.   But I definitely hope she doesn't succeed until she learns her lesson, confesses, apologizes, and then does all the hard work necessary to rebuild her image.  Followed by concrete proof that she actually is the one to write her next novel.


And I don't see her doing any of that.


However -- and this is really what prompted me to post -- plagiarism and copyright infringement are not the same thing.  Sometimes they happen together, but more often they don't.


So what's the difference?  Ugh.  For starters, copyright infringement is illegal, and plagiarism is not.  I don't know why it's not, but it's not.  Also, copyright infringement is only applicable to copyrighted works, whereas plagiarism applies regardless of whether or not the work is protected by copyright. 


For the rest... well, I am not a lawyer, but here's how I understand it.  Let's say two authors each write a ten page scene where a conversation takes place in the kitchen. 


If both authors use the same occasional wording, this is not necessarily a case for plagiarism.  Two authors using a standard "good morning" exchange between parent and son, for example, is unlikely to be plagiarism.  It's far more likely to be art imitating life.


If, however, the two authors use the exact same sentences or phrasing for a substantial part of the scene, then that is arguably plagiarism.  Here, by substantial I essentially mean "more than could be coincidence". 


Now, the second case may or may not also be copyright infringement.  It depends on what happens in the scene.  If it's nothing more than a mother and son talking about plans for the day over breakfast, it's highly unlikely that the scene would qualify as copyright infringement.  Largely because I don't think you can copyright something that happens every day in countless homes across the planet.  It's a scene that we've already seen in hundreds of books and dozens (at least) of times on film.  There's nothing there to steal.  So in that case the scene would qualify as plagiarism, and only plagiarism.  (ETA:  I may be confusing the ability to win a case of copyright infringement vs. the infringement taking place.  It's been bothering me ever since I wrote it.  As I said, I'm not a lawyer -- take with grain of salt.  Basically, though, the greater the likelihood that something might be due to coincidence or commonality, the less likely you are to have a case.  I think.)


Suppose, though, that it turns out that it's not just a mother and son having breakfast.  Maybe it's a mother and son plotting to murder the man of the house by taking horrible advantage of his pica, and supplying him with common yet poisonous household items he can eat. (I'm sorry, it's late and that's just the first crazy and hopefully out-there-enough-to-be-unique idea I could come up with.)  In that case, it's highly unlikely that two people would come up with the same idea, much less write it in the same exact words.  Which would make this a case of both plagiarism and copyright infringement:  one of the authors is a very bad person.


Finally, if we suppose that both authors write a scene in which this murder plot is explained, but each does so in their own words, then we have a case of copyright infringement without plagiarism. 


Clear as mud, right?  As another example, though, we can consider Cassandra Clare, plagiarism queen.  As many people know, Clare -- writing HP fanfiction as Cassandra Claire, with an I -- plagiarized lines from a wide variety of sources.  Usually she focused on quippy little one liners, often taken from TV shows.  This was unquestionably plagiarism, but was it copyright infringement?  Maybe.  Such a case would, I think, hinge on whether or not the uniqueness of the writing elevated the crime from one to the other.  Was the Buffy series Buffy because of the story, for example, or because of the writing?  Or both?  I think a clever lawyer could probably make the case for both.  Especially since we now have the term "Buffy-speak", apparently coined because of the unique way the characters talked.  As such, she didn't just steal Whedon's words, she stole a portion of what made Buffy Buffy.


That's probably not helping things.  This will, though:  Cla(I)re also copied from Pamela Dean's novels.  And when she did so, she didn't just take words, but entire concepts.  Thus, with respect to Dean, she committed both plagiarism and copyright infringement.  The words she stole were tied to ideas that were uniquely Dean's.


Now, as I understand it, what Stahl did was take what I'll call "stock" exchanges from someone's fanfic, and reused them in her novel.  I call them "stock" because they're not unique -- they're on par with mother and son talking about plans for the day, rather than mother and son plotting to commit convoluted murder.  We've seen scenes like these many times before.  As such, they're not copyright infringement.  However, they are distinctly worded, and Stahl stole those words.  So it is plagiarism.


This is important, because Stahl is trying to change the conversation.  Her long letter is trying to make the case not that she didn't plagiarize, but that she didn't commit copyright infringement.  That's what all that stuff about how there are no original ideas is aiming at.  And the beauty of her argument is that she's right:  from the samples I've seen, she did not commit copyright infringement.  She did a whole lot of plagiarizing, but she never crossed the line to breaking the law.  At least, not as I, non-lawyer that I am, understand it.  I hesitate to think someone who couldn't write her own stock phrases was clever enough to steal only nonspecific sections, so my guess is that she just got lucky. 


However, assuming there is no criminal case pending (and I'd be surprised if there was) then we need to bring the conversation back to our actual complaints, not her fabricated ones.  Think of her letter as an attempt to distract us from the (wo)man behind the curtain.  It's infuriating, but it's not important.  Keep making the point that the problem is not copyright infringement, but plagiarism.  It's not the use of someone else's ideas, it's the use of someone else's words.


And the way we string those together still tends to be pretty unique.


Also, if anyone writes a story about a family committing murder by pica, I will hunt you down.