Plagiarism Ain’t an Addiction: A Ramble on Rhetoric and Justification in Today’s Society

I just came across a story about an up and coming author of spy books. He was getting noticed for his first book–good reviews, growing buzz. And then some people started reading his book. Spy novel fans. And they noticed something about them–passages seemed familiar. You can guess the rest. The guy hadn’t just plagiarized one book. He’d stolen passages and pieces from all sorts of books. Not obscure books, either. Ludlum. Fleming. Really well-known books.

He’s written a big long essay about his plagiarizing, which he somehow links with his struggles with alcoholism. He’s deep into Alcoholics Anonymous–which I applaud–but he claims that when he gave up alcohol, he turned to another addiction, instead: plagiarism

Lots to say about this one. First, as an author with my own first book coming out, I’m more than a little appalled by this guy. Copying and pasting whole passages–blatantly, knowing it’s wrong . . . Not once, but many many times, and then lying to everyone about it. The man has the common sense of a cockroach. What’s worse, is that he claims he loves the book industry. He was a bookseller–part owner of a bookstore, for crying out loud. And he’d been plagiarizing for years. But I’m going to set aside all of that, since it’s being discussed online elsewhere at great length.

As a librarian with more than a passing interest in avoiding plagiarism, I have some more to add. But it’s mainly of the “I can’t believe someone would think they’d get away with this” and “This is just so fundamentally stupid and wrong” variety, and you can probably come up with all of that all by your lonesome.

No. In the end, what I really want to talk about is the rhetorical devices this guy uses in his justification of his actions. First, the guy equates “plagiarist” with “almost as bad as ‘rapist’ or ‘pedophile.'” Um . . . no? I see what he’s doing. By trying to make it sound like he thinks of himself as a terrible, awful human being–as bad as some of the worst scum we have on the planet–he hopes that his readers will automatically be on his side. “Come on, buddy. Chin up. You’re not that bad.”

Sorry. That’s not going to work with me. All he ends up doing is trying to use language to belittle the crimes of those other terrible actions. Pedophilia and rape are horrible things. Atrocities. Plagiarism? The action of weak-minded, lazy fools who wish they had actual talent.

(Back in writer-mode for a moment: There’s a lot of debate in various circles about what constitutes plagiarism. Even in the comments section of the article I linked to above, there’s some back and forth. Some equate anyone who copies other people’s ideas in any form as stepping toward plagiarism. Meaning, if someone follows the trends in the market and writes a paranormal YA romance, then that person is plagiarizing. Or if someone lifts the plot from one book and uses it for another. To me, you can’t start broadening the meaning of this word. There’s being a hack, and there’s being a plagiarist. The two aren’t the same. A plagiarist takes everything. All the words, just as the original author had written them. Sure, they might change a name here or there, or switch a conjunction, but the two things are pretty much identical. (Note that parody is different–if you’re twisting the original in a fun way, or to make a point, or do something different with it, then fine.) It also depends on the extent you’ve done it. And plots aren’t copyrightable, and therefore aren’t connected to this discussion. If you take the plot from one book and use it point by point in your own, then you’re a hack. Not a plagiarist. A lawyer friend of mine said to look at it like this: imagine fans of the original work come across your new work. Would they say “It was so cool to see how he took what was in work A and turned them into this awesome new, different thing in work B.” Or would they say “He totally ripped off work A.” Non-hack vs. hack–but neither one a plagiarist. Plagiarists have no skill of their own. They’re admitting they can’t write well, and so they turn to someone else who can. Plot is structure. It’s fundamentally different from actual prose writing, like sculpting is different from carving rock out of a mountainside.)

But what really gets my goat is his feeble attempt to say that he’s addicted to plagiarism. In today’s use of the word, “addiction” is a buzz word for “it’s not my fault.” I’m not a bad guy. I’m a victim of this awful, terrible addiction. Pity me. Get me help. But don’t hate me, because there’s just nothing I could do about it. Maybe years ago, when the addiction started. But not today. Today, I’m a slave to that terrible beast.


Don’t get me wrong. Addiction is a real thing, and I’m not meaning to dismiss it casually. Drugs, alcohol–chemical addictions. I’m fully aware of what they can do and how real they are. But “addiction” is wandering into areas it doesn’t belong, in my opinion.

Addicted to porn, to sex, to video games, to eating, to whatever you want to say you’re addicted to. In some of those cases, I can see a case being made. Pornography in particular seems to have some very strong arguments in favor of it being an actual addiction. But sooner or later, a line’s going to have to be drawn that says “This is Not an Addiction.”

And to me, nothing about plagiarism justifies it even remotely being included in the pantheon of addictions. The guy was a pathological liar, perhaps. But he wasn’t compelled to plagiarize. He was worried about people finding out he was a half-wit untalented thief, so he kept on being a half-wit untalented thief. At any point in time, he could have come clean, or–you know–actually started writing stuff all by himself.

Writing your own stuff is actually possible. I’ve done it for years. It’s hard. And it takes practice and effort. But it can be done.

Anyway. I’m all out of time, and there’s nothing left productive for me to say at this point, anyway. Anyone have anything they’d care to add?

4 thoughts on “Plagiarism Ain’t an Addiction: A Ramble on Rhetoric and Justification in Today’s Society”

  1. At its root, addiction is about being dishonest with yourself and others. (That’s why AA is all about honesty and disclosure.) So I do see the connection there between this man’s alcoholism and his plagiarism. That, however, is where the similarities end for me. As you point out, not all destructive habits are addictions.

  2. Good point, but is plagiarism even a habit? I don’t know–even “habit” seems like too much of a copout for it. Did they guy really say, “I’ve got to write. Oh yeah–I remember how I do that. I just go and press ctrl-c and then ctrl-v for stuff I read that I liked.”

  3. Bryce: Thanks for writing this. Thanks for the time that I wrote you in almost panic about the time I thought something I had written and published per my blog had been plagiarized by a major television show. I felt beyond gypped. But, you gave me perspective in what you wrote that day and today. Thanks! 😀

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