Thursday, February 21

Mighty Pen Thursday - Feb21/08

No submissions, so I looked through my vault. The only thing that seems important to share, given the recent writers' strike, is a little essay I wrote regarding a poem of mine that was plagiarised.

Whether you’re a poet, a sculptor, a photographer or any other member of the creative community, there’s one thing you should know: plagiarism is alive and well. Yes. I mean the kind of plagiarism where one person takes your work and presents it as their own.
I know, because it happened to me.

In my case, I’d submitted poetry samples with a grant application. Being that I’ve applied for grants for many years, all I expected was rejection letters. The “RJ” letters came, and months and months later so did a huge kick-in-the-head.

It was early May, when I was reading through a literary journal (that had recently rejected work of mine) and I happened upon a poem that ‘rung a bell’. I re-read the familiar-looking poem, and suddenly a very creepy feeling washed over me. My hands began to tremble. I said aloud ‘hey, those are my words!’ My deaf cat stared at me blankly. I thought ‘oh, maybe the editors decided to publish one of my poems after all, but forgot to let me know’. But the table of contents confirmed that this was not the case. There I was, holding my poem, but my poem had not been credited to me.

The hours that followed took me on an emotional roller coaster I will never forget. I became sad. I laughed. I felt violated. I got nervous. I huffed and puffed. And finally I sat down and thought about who I could call for help. Two lawyer friends came to mind. Professional writer friends came to mind. Finally, I picked up the phone, and called lawyer friend # 1. Voice mail picked up, so I had to leave a message. Luckily before I began dialing lawyer friend #2, my other friend returned my call. The first words out of my friend’s mouth were, “contact ALAS”. “Hmm, what’s ALAS I asked nervously” thinking that it was some secret service agency like the CIA. “Artists Legal Advice Services” she chirped and then went on to explain that most lawyers who volunteered at ALAS were fluent in the Copyright Act. I was elated at the thought that I wasn’t alone, and that there were people who could help me. That night I called ALAS to book an appointment.

ALAS’ appointments are 30-minutes long, and they ask for a $10.00 donation. I handed the bill over with a smile. Once the session started I knew I’d come to the right place; first thing the lawyer said was that plagiarism were the norm.
My barrage of questions began. The first thing I wanted to know was if I was correct in thinking my work had been plagiarized. See, from the time I saw my poem in the journal I wasn’t sure if I was out of my mind. It didn’t make sense that someone would want to steal my work! To my relief, after the lawyer read the published poem and all of the paper trail (which documented the history of the poem), she said ‘yes’. My work had been plagiarized. Next, the lawyer proceeded to write a letter on my behalf to the person that had published my poem under their name. Then she wrote another letter, this one to the literary journal that had published my poem. After that there were still another nine minutes left, and the lawyer suggested alternative routes, including taking the case to Small Claims Court. My thirty minutes were up, and I walked home a lot more confident than I walked in.

Following my appointment at ALAS I mailed out the letters, and waited. Within days I got a written apology from the person that had reproduced my work as if it were theirs. With this letter in hand I approached the granting body, who in turn promised to preclude the person from ever again being a recommender or a juror. Then in late summer, the literary journal that had published the poem in question published the writer’s apology to me. In four quick months my rose-coloured glasses had cracked. The optimistic me was now a bitter cynic. All I could do was stare and re-read the apology letters and try to console myself that these were small victories. But my heartache was huge; damage had been done to me and one of my favorite poems.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t be afraid to speak out, and protect your work. As stated on the Writers’ Union of Canada website “Copyright is a property right that arises initially from authorship alone. In Canada, formal registration is not required. An author has copyright in any original literary work, whether or not it is published, except in some cases where the author has been employed to write the work. Copyright in a work remains with the author or his/her heirs for the life of the author plus 50 years, unless copyright is assigned (by sale or gift) to someone else”.


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Jamie said...

That was very interesting and I'm so sorry that has happened to you! The last post you did on the homeschooler's list that got plagarized hit me, because I had read it FIRST on the offending website. I was so disappointed and sad for the writer that did not get the credit. I've also seen other threads where people have said that they visited websited and seen photos of their chirdren being used as a banner or what not. I think there are plenty of people that are not aware or knowledgable about the wrongness of borrowing others' material online, but there are more who know and just don't care. Thanks for posting this. It's good to know what action to take. Not that it would ever happen to me, but you never know who will need this information.

village mama said...

You're welcome Jamie!

amy t sharp said...

It makes you think hard about things- Yr tough though and yr wicked smart about it. I once had poems taken from my in college- I just felt sick..I recall that feeling...I am sorry about this- but you gave a lot of good insight!

village mama said...

Amy, I'm sorry to learn that you too know this feeling. It's absolutely violating, and unbelievable that people's lack of creativity would lead them to such an act.