When Fair Use Becomes Bad Writing

The plagiarism news wire came up with a new twist on plagiarism I had not considered before – the use of reference works in historical fiction. </p?

Any novel writer who wants to be taken seriously by historians must of course do a certain amount of historical research…because you know it’s a bad Civil War novel if the battle of Gettysburg takes place in 1885. On the other hand, you don’t really foot notes in your historical novel. Imagine the following piece of fiction with citations.

As Jim Bob swatted away another mosquito on the morning of July 1, 18631 while marching with General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia2 towards Gettysburg through the scenic Adams County3 orchards of Pennsylvania…he knew it was going another hot day…

In other words – full citation is not really a key concern of novelists. The serious historical novels may have a bibliography at the end, but few “romance” novels will have any such resource. In some sense, novels must have a built in “fair use” clause to include whatever research a novelist chooses to use – without or without citation

But what happens when a novel lifts entire passages from a reference book as one romance novelist has been accused of doing. That is, how far can you go in using academic research?

In this case, it’s not a clear case of “cut-and-paste” plagiarism (which would definitely be wrong), but would rather would be a case of “inappropriate paraphrase” – that is rewording the material so little that the “essense” of the original remains. Is this OK?

Actually it may be more OK than you would think. Dan Brown (author of the Da Vinci Code) won a lawsuit against Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of Holy Blood which originally proposed the thesis that Jesus and Mary Magdeline may have conceived a child and still had modern descendants. All Dan Brown did was take an interesting premise and add a modern day thriller twist.

And it’s a good thing he did win or else we would never be able to enjoy a bad UFO’s in Roswell novel ever again. Truly, I doubt there could be an economic crime here – few people mistake novels for historical research. Even if Brown did not directly acknowledge his sources, I do honestly think that Holy Blodd could easily have leveraged the novel to increase their own sales. I think ANY book about Mary Magedeline could have seen an increase in sales.

But I can’t let our novel authors off scott-free either. It’s never a good sign that a reviewer or reader can determine your original source material. It either means you didn’t do enough research or you’re not a good enough writer to translate scholarly prose to compelling prose. I don’t know about you, but I’m not feeling the gritty splendor of indigenous native American culture in the following passage

He [Shadow Bear?] nodded toward the closed entrance flap. “Outside, you will notice that further recognition is given the sun by the erection of the Lakota village with every tepee door facing the east.”

The crime may not be plagiarism, but it sure is bad writing.

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