Reading · Writing

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, what is plagiarism?

I’ve heard someone say that once people start imitating you and copying your style, you know you’ve made it big. Same goes if you receive a high number of spam comments on your blog, but that’s a completely different matter. Yesterday’s WP prompt suggested writing a post in the style of another blogger, and I have to admit that I would feel flattered if someone were to do that to me. It would feel like some sort of homage.

However, at some point that homage stops being so and instead turns into something uglier and almost taboo in the world of writing. This was something I hadn’t even considered before. Okay, so I know papers and studies sometimes get plagiarized, that’s not unheard of in schools and universities, but I never thought it could happen between writers. Yet in one week I came across three bestselling authors who’ve apparently did a share of plagiarizing. One particular author began with fanfiction, and no, I’m not talking about E. L. James.

Now before I say anything else, I want to make clear that I fully support fanfiction and actually like it when authors try not to stray too far from the characters and style of the original author as long as they give credit where credit is due and don’t make any money out of it.


The author of bestselling City of Bones, Cassandra Clare began her writing journey with a Harry Potter fanfic that received mega popularity. Apparently Cassandra paid a lot of homage to many authors by borrowing quotes and sometimes entire passages from their work. The word on the street is that Cassandra took down her fanfic and rewrote it, but yet many people wonder if the quotes and passages she had copied before were excluded during the rewrites.

Other famous authors got caught red-handed, some tried to say that they didn’t know they had to give credit, and there are probably some who will never be found out. Honestly I can’t get my head around what would possess people to do that. As writers, we’re supposed to craft our own words. Sure one can imitate a style, but copying things word-for-word is a total no-no. Isn’t there some kind of Code of Writers’ Ethics to prevent this kind of thing?

I know I would sue the living daylights out of someone if I discovered that they were ripping off my work without any sort of permission or credit. Even if I’m not the victim, it makes me furious to hear that someone is stealing another writer’s work and I’d most likely have second thoughts about ever reading their books again.

While there may be a shortage of ideas, there will never be a shortage of words and how we can use them, so there’s really no excuse at all.

Why do you think people do this? Would you abandon an author if you hear they’ve been plagiarizing?

48 thoughts on “If imitation is the highest form of flattery, what is plagiarism?

  1. Hmm, it depends. If I think it is original, then I wouldn’t abandon them. If I’m told that it is similar to so and so, and I have not heard or read from that person before, it doesn’t change anything.

    1. Though wouldn’t you want to know if you’re reading that writer’s words? If I found some writer funny then found they’d been taking all that wit from another writer, I’ll most likely head over to that second writer.

      1. If a writer literally plagiarizes word for word, that person isn’t a writer. IF someone tells me I’m reading plagiarized sentences, ripped off from another book, then I’ll stop.

        1. Well that’s what I meant! For example, with Cassandra Clare, I came across a website that compared her Harry Potter fanfic (now turned into City of Bones) with texts from another novel, and it was clear than Clare had lifted lines and passages and placed them in her own story without even crediting the author.

        2. Isn’t she famous? City of Bones is a well known book right? No one spotted it before? I think if it is such a case, the original author should do something.

          But lets say I’m already a fan of that book, I doubt I would believe what people say. Fans are a hard nut to crack. But as a new reader, I wouldn’t get the book knowing this.

        3. Well supposedly the fanfic underwent editing before it was published, but you never know if something slipped by.
          You make a fair point. I was actually reading up on City of Bones to see if I should read it when I came across this info in a few reviews. Doubt I’ll pick it up any time soon.

  2. plagiarism does apparently have a legal definition as cases that often seem like it are ruled not to be and sometimes visa versa. I like to err on the side of giving credit where it’s due, but then I’m not the sort of person who remembers direct quotes. I’ve read Cassandra’s books (from the library) and she does toss of quotes rather often, but she also seems to name her influences.

    1. Yeah, I know that to happen. For example, Stephenie Meyer didn’t sew E.L.James even though it was blatantly obvious that the characters were ripped off. I heard that Cassandra named some of her influences. According to the person who did the research, she somehow chose to omit the one writer she took whole passages from. =/

  3. I’ve heard the saying that up-sells copying as a form of flattery; however, copying is copying and it is not the same as stealing. If I have a perfect car and someone loves it too much, to buy one just like it is fine, to jump behind the wheel of my car and go for a drive is a crime. I view plagiarism as joy-riding in someone elses hard work. As for why people do it, I believe it is lack of confidence in their own talent. They take something they know works and inject it into their own writing hoping to inoculate it against rejection.

    1. That’s an interesting analogy. I guess by copying you mean the imitation of the writer’s style in this case, right? And that’s probably the reason behind it. It’s just sad that they would do it at the expense of people who worked hard to produce these words.
      Thank you for your comment!

  4. Plagiarism – as in, word for word – is definitely pure theft and I would stop reading that author’s work.

    The only way I can see a possible justification for it is in a non-published form: if an author wants to write out someone else’s novel word for word as a type of writing exercise. Although I’m not 100% sure that would be a useful exercise because would that improve your writing or just make you compare your own work to that author’s style in the future (and make you very insecure from then on?). I’m not sure.

    Interesting post!

    1. I think what you suggested would help a bit. For one, your typing speed would increase. And if you’re typing out the whole thing, you may notice sentence structures you’ve never noticed before or else pick up words and expressions you may have glazed over while reading.
      Thank you! 🙂

  5. I would not read a work if I thought it was plagiarized. I really believe in individuality and if a ‘writer’ needs to copy somone elses work, then they’re not a real ‘writer’ as far as I’m concerned. Great take on the challenge 😉

    1. Agreed! A writer is someone who creates their own words, not use the words of others and pass them up as their own. 🙂 This wasn’t really a response to the prompt, haha. More like, I’d been thinking about plagiarism and it reminded me to write about it!

  6. Your logic on this issue is undeniably sound and very interesting. I agree with you that plagiarism is incredibly unauthodox and if I realised an author I particularly enjoyed was indeed maliciously stealing the content of others to support his or her career, my disappointment would be utterly unfathomable. I also agree with you that there will never be a shortage of words, but, on the other hand, there could very well be. Sometimes a writer may develop a number of lines in a conversation and not realise that the same sentence has indeed being constructed before. There are only so many ways some things can be said or explained that makes them intelligible. However, (and I do not mean to appear defensive on the notion of plagiarism), but ignorance is not an excuse for such behavior.

    1. I’m with you there. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, and if turned out that JKR had been lying to us all these years, I’d be severely disappointed. Though then I’d most likely go find the original author. You make a fair point, but to this day I’ve never come across a book that made me say, “Hey, waitaminute. I saw this line in that other book!” I guess these things are greatly influenced by context, don’t you agree?

  7. If an author plagiarized another author’s work, I wouldn’t be interested. I’d probably read the work of the original author (oops, backfire on the plagiarizer’s part!). I also get kind of frustrated when people’s ideas are too similar. It’s one thing to hop on a fiction trend “bandwagon”, but when authors take an excessive amount of elements from a bestselling work and incorporate them into their own, it’s pretty jarring. Then I just feel upset—didn’t I just read this book? Oh no, it’s just a book that’s very, very, very similar. What are your thoughts on such kinds of imitation?

    1. You know, that bugs me a lot too! I’ve noticed lately that nearly all books (particularly in the YA section) are the same, whether in terms of covers, the brooding main male character, the protagonist whose main purpose is to be with the one they love and the abundance of supernatural creatures, namely vampires. It’s like authors saw that one book was successful and they all rushed to take a share in that profit. =/

      1. You know what they say about ideas…there’s no such thing as a new one. What we can do is give them enough of our own touch and voice so that no one will mind the underlying similarity.

        1. Agreed. But the problem is people are trying so hard to provide the public with what they think they want, as though they’ve never heard that “too much of a good thing” (though that is up to debate) can be bad.

        2. That’s why some of the best advice is to “write for yourself”! Or write for your (future) children [: If the public thinks it’s good, then they’ll eat it up. If they don’t, then at least you’re happy with it.

  8. This was an interesting topic for me at this time, Zen. I just finished my book where I used a story in the public domain as inspiration in one plot line in my book. To me, plagiarism is blatantly copying the words of another author, and I would never do that (even though you could from a public domain work). I did, however, want to use something from the public domain in my current book. I’ve mentioned it before, and I wrote about it in my blog post today. I may not ever do it again, but it was really fun to do this time.

    1. I think copying from a public domain work would be an issue if the author did so without providing credit to the original authors. So as long as you give credit, I don’t think you’d have anything to worry about! 🙂

      1. Truthfully, you don’t have to give any credit at all when using something that is in the public domain. However, personally, I wouldn’t feel right without referencing the work in my acknowledgments, so, of course, I will.

  9. Every person has the right to write whatever he or she wishes. It’s when one chooses to share that work (and how he/she shares it) that things get complicated, particularly because today the definition of the word “publish” has become so nuanced. If I post fan fiction on a blog, is it an infringement on some franchise’s brand? I’ve made it public, so am I, therefore, diluting that brand and diminishing its ability to profit from privately owned creative works?

    And what if that blog has banner ads? Then someone else is indirectly profiting from content (i.e., web pages) that contain copyright-protected characters, settings, etc.

    Gray areas abound, and I don’t think many authors would agree that it’s flattering to have other people writing about their characters. And serious writers shouldn’t have to blatantly rip off someone else’s ideas to display their creativity.

    Then again, perhaps it’s because I have a plethora of my own ideas that I don’t feel the need to “borrow” some other writer’s characters, plots or devices for my own. For me, the joy in writing comes from assimilating information in new ways and pushing myself to go where no writer has gone before.

    1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fanfiction if there’s a disclaimer. There are official sites where people can post their fanfics, and there have been no legal implications. There’s also a list of authors who don’t like it when people use their characters, and the site prevents anyone from doing so. I can see how there would be so many gray areas though. It can be tricky to make sure that nothing in your work can enable someone to raise a lawsuit against you.
      But that’s good! It’s always better to work on original things anyway. This way any creativity you might have would not be wasted on something you’re not allowed to share with your readers. 🙂
      Thank you for your comment!

  10. Interesting. If a writer I knew (as in, whose book(s) I’d read) were caught out plagiarizing, I’d be deeply, deeply disappointed, and it would certainly taint my enjoyment of the book. And I’d probably not trust that author ever again.
    I think there’s a fine line between stealing and developing and sometimes it’s hard to detect what is influence and what is stealing. But downright and intentional plagiarism – no, I don’t get that, not at all.
    Actually, we’ve been having quite a few scandals here in Germany where some clever students uncovered that some politicians (and high-up politicians, too!) had plagiarized, and grossly so, on their PhD theses, and they had to step down as a result of that. Which I fully applaud. 🙂

    1. It would be indeed disappointing. I want to read words written by that author themselves. If they’re going to copy someone else, then I might as well read books by that other person and save myself the trouble.
      That’s pretty clever! I’m not surprised they stepped down; such discoveries probably left them with no credibility to their names!

      1. No credibility in the minds of people with common sense. There were, however a lot who supported them and said it was “only” some academic work, that other were doing the same thing, etc. etc. They didn’t get the point that stealing is stealing, no matter if it’s money or words, and that a person who does this (and doesn’t even own up to the fact until the very, very end when denial has become totally absurd) is not to be trusted.

        1. I guess the problem is that people these days have no qualms about copying something from the internet or using someone else’s work and claiming it to be their own. Stealing is usually associated with money and tangible things, so words don’t seem like a big deal. It’s sad, but one can you do other than hope for the best? =/

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