Can You Plagiarize An Idea?

from the words,-words,-words dept

Time and time again, we've heard about people claiming "plagiarism" when the truth is that it's just someone else who happened to have the same, or a similar, idea. It often happens with books and movies. For example, multiple people are suing over the claim that only they could have come up with the idea of a child who has a secret life as a rockstar, and Hannah Montana stole their idea. But actual copyright infringement or plagiarism (two different things) require some actual copying -- not just people having the same idea. Given that, it's not entirely clear what's going on with the claim (found via Michael Scott) that the ex-wife of the singer Usher, Tamika Foster, may have "plagiarized" a self-published author when she wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post called "She's Pretty for a Dark-Skinned Girl..." The author claiming plagiarism had written a book, similarly titled "Pretty for a Black Girl."

But is it plagiarism, or just two people coming up with the same idea? Unfortunately, the report at the link above never bothers to tell us! It simply repeats the claim from the woman that it's plagiarism, but her quotes suggest that it's not:
"My heart sank into my stomach. All the hard work, all the sleepless nights I had endured was playing back in my head as I read this article written by a woman I didn't even know," [Aisha] Curry told BV Buzz. "Why did I feel so connected to this article? Suddenly, it came to me. It was my work! It was my work, my voice, but in her words."
Well, there's a problem there. If it's her words then it's not plagiarism. Also, Curry seems to undermine her own argument in explaining how she came up with the idea for the book:
"One day about five years ago, I was absolutely tired of being told that I was pretty for a black girl," she explained. "I started asking my friends if they had heard this statement before, and as time went on, I realized how prevalent the issue was."
Right. The comment is apparently prevalent, meaning that Tameka Foster certainly could have heard the same thing on her own, and could have decided to write her own essay about it. That's not plagiarism. That's multiple people recognizing something that's prevalent and deciding to write about it. Foster's representatives claim they've never heard of the book. But the real question is whether or not it's actually plagiarism, and that could have been determined by finding out if there were any passages actually pulled from the book. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like anyone actually decided to do that. However, as you read Foster's article, much of it seems to be about her own personal experiences, not Curry's, which again suggests this isn't plagiarism at all, but two people writing about a similar concept that is (as admitted by Curry) already "prevalent."


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  1.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Aug 28th, 2009 @ 9:27am

    Clearly

    "Can You Plagiarize An Idea?"

    I was thinking the same thing, so you just did...

     

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  2.  
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    Thomas O'Toole, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 9:51am

    nor can you "free ride

     

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  3.  
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    Thomas O'Toole, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 9:52am

    nor can you "free ride" on a fact

    Nor can you "free ride" on a fact. Not permitted by the constitution or the Copyright Act.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 10:14am

    Just like stand up comedians...

    We've seen time and time again comedians now getting hit for using someone else's joke that someone else *came up with* years ago. But the thing is, most jokes have most likely been around for centuries. It could've started with some Egyptian supervisor doing a stand-up routine in front of pyramid builders on lunch break saying "Two slaves walk into a bar..." or "How many pharoahs does it take to push in a burial stone? None, they get their mummy to do it." or something similar, and here we are making loads of mummy jokes.

    The only real difference is the *first* individual to say it in front of a huge crowd of thousands. Who cares who first said the joke? It's all about who makes the joke well known.

    Same thing with this... It all comes around to who makes the book well known. Eventually, someone will realize who first copyrighted the story by year and try to tell everyone, but nobody will listen or even care since it all comes down to who told the story much better.

     

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  5.  
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    scarr (profile), Aug 28th, 2009 @ 10:43am

    What are the boundaries?

    I'm curious what the boundaries are of plagiarism and/or copyright infringement. It's been mentioned several times that you can't copyright an idea, only the expression. Does that mean I can legally take the plot of a book/movie/whatever and rewrite it in my own words?

    I'm not questioning the ethics, just the legality. I know people get sued for stuff all the time, but that doesn't necessarily mean there's a case for it.

     

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  6.  
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    ASH, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 11:01am

    Re: What are the boundaries?

    Copyright is more than just the words that express the idea; it's likewise about the selection, arrangement and presentation of the idea (referred in shorthand as SAP copyright).

    When you talk about "taking the plot" of a story and then simply rewriting it in your own words--presumably (in your example) not changing the selection, arrangement and presentation of the plot, but just using substitute words to tell the story--then you'd be violating the SAP of the copyright.

    Plagiarism itself is not a legal concept; it's more a scholastic one, used primarily in academia, though I suppose sometimes elsewhere as well.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 11:01am

    Re: What are the boundaries?

    One good example comes from around 1984-1989. In that time frame, Alphaville and Rod Stewart released songs called "Forever Young". Same title, and the songs relayed the same ideas, but the words were completely different. If memory serves, the songs were released at about the same time, but since the lyrics and melodies were different, nothing happened between it.

    If you write a story and it closely matches another, as what happened with a dutch writer who wrote a book about children who supposedly learned magic from a school, and JK Rowling's lawyers went nuts:

    http://www.contactmusic.com/new/xmlfeed.nsf/story/potter-author-in-court-battle

    However the outcome is, it's safe to say that the Dutch writer's reputation could be tarnished. She would probably have to write under a different name. I would think that this example would be impossible to prove as the Dutch writer wrote in her own words, didn't steal line for line, changed the character names in her story, and may have even changed the plot in some ways. In that case, I seriously doubt the Dutch writer will lose, but then again I don't have all the facts.

    If your book follows an identical plot, yet the events, characters, and writing is different, it should be considered *your* work. Otherwise, anyone could argue that "War and Peace" might follow too closely to "Lord of the Rings" simply because of one event that might be 'close'.

     

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  8.  
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    Matt (profile), Aug 28th, 2009 @ 11:50am

    There has been an argument (premised on the SAP of the copyright) that it is a violation of the derivative work right for a second author to base the second writing on the first, even if the second writing is a wholly new expression of the idea.

    This is the source of the common infringement test that looks for substantial similarity plus access to the original work. If, as copyright theory dictates, the law concerned only expressions and not ideas, then "substantial similarity" would be irrelevant absent some actual copying.

    Note, incidentally, that protecting SAP is necessary if you want to have modern copyright. This is one of many good arguments that we should not want to have modern copyright.

     

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  9.  
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    scarr (profile), Aug 28th, 2009 @ 11:58am

    Re: Re: What are the boundaries?

    I didn't mean solely word replacement, or the bare mechanics to go beyond that. I know you have to step beyond that. I know a "hero's journey" isn't protected either. The lines (possibly) drawn in the sand are where my questions lie.

    I guess I should search for info about "SAP copyright". Thank you for the terminology.

     

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  10.  
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    scarr (profile), Aug 28th, 2009 @ 12:08pm

    Re: Re: What are the boundaries?

    I almost cited Harry Potter, as there have been lawsuits for and from JK Rowling on that one. "Kids going to magic school" doesn't seems like a premise, not a copyrightable expression. Is a kid fighting a dragon then running through a maze after a cup though?

    What about the general idea of quiddage? That's clearly JK's invention, but can she own people making up stories about other characters playing it?

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 12:09pm

    aluminum foil hat

    If you wrap you head in aluminum foil it harder for people to steal your ideas or thought! Plus it has the added protection against mind control lasers!

     

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  12.  
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    ChrisB (profile), Aug 28th, 2009 @ 12:51pm

    Hey, that looks like my picture ...

    I has some idiot email me about a picture (closeup of blue xmas lights) I had up on Flickr. She asked where I got the picture. I said I took it. She said she'd had problems with people stealing her pictures and it looked a lot like one she took, but begrudgingly admitted they weren't the same.

    Idiots everywhere think just because they thought of it or took a picture of it, they own it, and anything that looks/feels remotely like it.

     

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  13.  
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    Richard, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 2:07pm

    If SAP copyright had been around in Shakespeare's time much of his work would have been banned as most of his plots and characters were drawn fairly directly from pre-existing works.

    IMO SAP copyright is a disgrace which has largely been created by case law, aggressive litigation and the deliberate blurring of the boundaries between trademarks and copyrights

     

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  14.  
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    1DandyTroll, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 4:49pm

    TrolledYoureIdeaRightFromUnderYourLeftFoot

    'Can You Plagiarize An Idea?'

    Hmm, let me see, how much potential money is it in for me ...

    Goddamn, you thief, you wrote down my idea!

    (How nice it is when I have to prove nothing and you everything.)

     

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  15.  
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    ASH, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 6:25pm

    Re:

    Matt, I'm not sure I follow your line of thinking here.

    There has been an argument (premised on the SAP of the copyright) that it is a violation of the derivative work right for a second author to base the second writing on the first, even if the second writing is a wholly new expression of the idea."

    if it's a "derivative work", in which the author has "based the second writing on the first," then (by definition) it's automatically not a "wholly new expression of the idea".

    Or, if what you mean to say instead is that he's only basing it on the idea, not the expression, then it's not a "derivative work" (again, by definition).

    This is the source of the common infringement test that looks for substantial similarity plus access to the original work. If, as copyright theory dictates, the law concerned only expressions and not ideas, then "substantial similarity" would be irrelevant absent some actual copying.

    I don't follow your logic at all. What does expression/idea question have to do with "substantial similarity"? The test is about substantial similarity to the expression, not to the idea.

     

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  16.  
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    ASH, Aug 28th, 2009 @ 6:43pm

    Re:

    If SAP copyright had been around in Shakespeare's time much of his work would have been banned as most of his plots and characters were drawn fairly directly from pre-existing works.

    This is a bit of a phony meme that requires virtually no knowledge of copyright law to debunk, since even then those plots and characters would have long since fallen into the public domain. (The story of Hamlet was based on a manuscript 300 years old, Richard III had lived 200+ years before Shakespeare, the Cantebury Tales were already two centuries old when Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream, etc. etc.)

    IMO SAP copyright is a disgrace which has largely been created by case law, aggressive litigation and the deliberate blurring of the boundaries between trademarks and copyrights.

    Now you've lost me; trademarks and copyrights are virtually unrelated to each other, except perhaps in the rare cases of music jingles and comic book characters; for example, an image of Superman can both by a copyrighted character as well as be a symbol to sell a product (comics, etc.)--and even then, they're an entirely separate sets of rights.

    In fact, in almost all cases, things that would qualify as trademarks nearly automatically do not qualify as copyrights, and vice versa. This is because a trademark (by definition) needs to identify a product--like a name, slogan, etc.--which is almost always too short to qualify for copyright.

     

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  17.  
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    zoe, Sep 1st, 2009 @ 5:03pm

    Re: Hey, that looks like my picture ...

    HAAAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHHHAHAAAAHHAHAHHAHHH
    HAHAHHHHAAAAAHHAHAHHHAAAAHHAHHAHHAHAHH!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
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    Stop Plagiarism, Mar 18th, 2010 @ 8:20am

    Stop Plagiarism

    SOURCE: http://stop-plagiarism.blogspot.com/

    G. Murugesan and Dr C. Chellappan Plagiarism Case - Anna University, India

    We were informed that a paper recently published contains plagiarized texts from other already published articles. Here's the details:

    Paper Title: An Economical Model for Optimal Distribution of Loads for Grid Applications
    Journal Reference: (IJCNS) International Journal of Computer and Network Security, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp 62-66, October 2009
    Authors: G. Murugesan and Dr C. Chellappan
    Authors' Affiliation: Department of Computer Science and Engineering Anna University, Chennai 600 025, India
    Paper Link: www.ijcns.org/papers/Vol.1_No.1/091010.pdf

    While we went through the paper (not completely), we found that texts at different location of the paper were copied word by word from the following listed articles (by the way, you can check yourself, do the search on Google):

    1. Multi-Source Grid Scheduling for Divisible Loads by TG Robertazzi (2006)
    Link: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/iel5/4067758/4067759/04067800.pdf?arnumber=4067800
    Link: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.61.9294&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    2. QoS Guided Min-Min Heuristic for Grid Task Scheduling by HE Xiaoshan
    Link: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.75.9892&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    3. A static jobs scheduling for independent jobs in Grid Environment by using Fuzzy C-Mean and Genetic algorithms by S Lorpunmanee (2006)
    Link: http://eprints.utm.my/3338/1/A_static_jobs_scheduling_for_independent_jobs_in_Grid_Environment.pdf

    4. Grid Scheduling Divisible Loads from Multiple Sources via Linear Programming by M.A. Moges (2004)
    Link: http://www.actapress.com/Abstract.aspx?paperId=17820

    5. Resource-Aware Distributed Scheduling Strategies for Large-Scale Computational Cluster/Grid Systems by S Viswanathan (2007)
    Link: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/iel5/71/4302721/04302731.pdf?tp=&arnumber=4302731&isnumber=430272 1

    6. Divisible Load Scheduling for Grid Computing by D Yu (2003)
    Link: http://www.ee.sunysb.edu/~tom/MATBE/div-grid.pdf

    We stop reviewing this article at page number 2, column 1, as the amount of copied texts is ENORMOUS!!!! A REAL SHAME!!!

    Due to limited resources we won't be able to go through the entire paper which is 5 pages long!! So definitely, there may be other people works that these people have plagiarized!! We will be grateful if someone can check this and report to us so that we can update this post for all our readers.

    We further noticed that they published a similar paper, probably with a 80%-90% similarities in the content (trying to hit 2 birds with 1 stone):

    Paper Title: An Economic Allocation of Resources for Multiple Grid Applications
    Journal Reference: Proceedings of the World Congress on Engineering and Computer Science 2009 Vol I WCECS 2009, October 20-22, 2009, San Francisco, USA
    Authors: G. Murugesan and Dr C. Chellappan
    Link: http://www.iaeng.org/publication/WCECS2009/WCECS2009_pp213-217.pdf

    These 2 authors can be contacted at: murugesh02@gmail.com and rcc@annauniv.edu

    SOURCE: http://stop-plagiarism.blogspot.com/

     

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  19.  
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    dan, May 26th, 2010 @ 6:37pm

    taking facts from a book and reproducing them

    I was wondering can i take information from a book and reproduce it differently onto video? if the information in that book is just true facts that the author first discovered. it is basically a HOW TO book but the author discovered the facts 20 years ago by himself and wrote his book and claimed it as a method. BUT TO ME IT IS BASICALLY JUST A PSYCHOLOGICAL DISCOVERY.
    i have no intention in calling it a method or naming it the same as his book. i just want to spread the word on these facts and produce it in my own light. if it is not possible for me to do then why can anybody write about other discoverys i.e. Y=mc Squared?

     

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