Stealing Works and Ideas Is Just That

In February a full blown plagiarism scandal erupted in the romance novel industry. Alerted by an astute reader, historical romance novelist Courtney Milan discovered much of her 2012 book, The Duchess of War, had been copied by self-published Brazilian author, Cristiane Serruya, appearing often word-for-word in her romance, Royal Love. It quickly became apparent Serruya’s plagiarism was massive, involving several authors’ books. Milan, a former intellectual property attorney who clerked for the Supreme Court, provided information to other romance authors on how to file an ethics claim with Romance Writers of America (RWA).

In her blog post, Milan spoke directly to Serruya: “Let me be frank: This sucks. It sucks that someone took my hard work for their own. I wrote The Duchess of War in the midst of a massive depressive spell and I bled for every word that I put on the page. It was a hard book to write and it’s not yours to take.” And she is right. The act of plagiarizing is defined as, “To copy another person’s ideas, words, or work, and pretend that they are your own.” This is exactly what Serruya has done.

When someone plagiarizes another person’s written words, they generally do it behind the scenes. Serruya conveniently blamed the vast portions of lifted texts in Royal Love on her ghostwriter/editor, Delairia Davis, pleading ignorance. Davis posted an apology on Milan’s blog, writing in part: “To everyone affected by Cristiana Serruya: I would like to personally apologize for my role in this situation. I edited Royal Love, Book 1. If I had any knowledge this book was plagiarized in any way, shape, or form, I would have sent her packing.”

My Pilates instructor, Jeanne, relayed a different but somewhat similar scenario. In this case, however, the thief brazenly took what wasn’t hers right in front of Jeanne and her staff. “We had a special for potential members where they could try out as many fitness classes as they like over four weeks for $50. I’m teaching a class, and I see that a woman is writing everything down. Afterwards, she approached me saying, ‘I want to clarify some of the exercises you did. I’m a new Pilates instructor at XYZ (national chain) and I’m getting ideas for my classes.’ I didn’t know what to say, except asking her not to take further notes in class.” However, the woman didn’t stop there. She asked Jeanne’s other instructors for their notes, greatly upsetting them.

Is this stealing too? I say absolutely. The definition of plagiarize includes using someone else’s ideas. Jeanne and her instructors put time and effort into composing lesson plans, often customizing them to a client’s abilities and needs. If Betty wanted ideas, she could research Pilates on the Internet. Jeanne also noted that the fitness organization Betty works for is in direct competition with her smaller, locally owned studio.

The Pilates woman’s cluelessness in believing it’s acceptable to use Jeanne’s class plans as her own simply boggles one’s mind. In response, Jeanne revised the policy for potential members, shortening the time they have to try out classes to two weeks. Some will undoubtedly say Jeanne should have confiscated the woman’s notes, but Jeanne felt the damage had already been done. Kicking her out of the class would have posed additional problems by giving the women the potential to bad mouth Jeanne’s business in the community.

Back to the publishing debacle: Courtney Milan has publicly stated she will take legal action against Cristiane Serruya. I hope she follows through as I don’t believe for a moment that Serruya realizes what a force she is up against in Milan. But it’s not only lesser-known authors whose words are being stolen by other writers. Mega-selling romance novelist Nora Roberts, sued Serruya in April. Serruya again denied any wrongdoing, saying she is a “fanatic” of Roberts’ books.

Cristiane Serruya certainly isn’t the only author plagiarizing works that are not hers, and that woman at the Pilates studio isn’t the only fitness instructor copying other teachers’ lesson plans. There are contrasts between the two circumstances, but what remains the same is that such behavior is egregious and flat out wrong. The question becomes this: Why do so many people feel that lifting words, ideas, or works that don’t belong to them and passing them off as their own is okay?

As authors and readers, what are your thoughts on this crucial, ever-growing issue?

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