On June 26, 2013, I received email from a reader that included words no author ever wants to hear: "possible plagiarism."
I've received many messages like this, however - most because another author or publishing house or hair coloring company used a cover photo similar to (or the same as) Easy's cover photo, and others because someone wrote a story eerily similar to Easy. Most of these do not constitute plagiarism. Some of these may in fact be plagiarism... but plagiarism is an ethical sin.
Copyright infringement, on the other hand, is a legal offense.
Titles, ideas or stock photos used for covers cannot be copyright-protected by authors or publishers (though a photograph is copyright-protected by the photographer, and photographers are entitled to licensing payment for their use). While it's true that someone would be treading a precarious legal line in trying to make a book look the same as another book in hopes of tricking buyers into buying it instead ("passing off"), most of the time, that isn't blatantly done.
The reader who contacted me, however, read Amazingly Broken (by "Jordin Williams") one day, and Easy the next. Alarm bells began clanging while she was reading a section of my book that seemed "uncannily similar" to the book she'd read the previous night. Some parts seemed, in fact, exactly like a section of that book.
So she checked publication dates. Amazingly Broken was a week old. Easy, at that time, was more than a year from its original indie publication date of May 2012. This reader chose to email me, an action for which I will be forever grateful.
I asked her if she was referring to the storyline, or an idea. Names of characters. A particular line. I asked if she could type out the section for me, so I could check it against my copy of Easy. I didn't panic. In my mind, this was likely to be annoying, but not technical infringement.
She didn't reply right away. When she did, it was with highlighted screenshots. A bunch of them. While examining those screenshots, I went through a range of emotionally-induced physical responses like nothing I've ever felt. My heartrate shot up until my hands shook, and remained that way for a couple of hours. ("I got my cardio for the week all in one go," I told someone later.) I became nauseated. I cried. I felt furious, devastated and yes - violated, because what I read wasn't an idea or a name. It wasn't a few words or a random phrase. It was my words... whole sentences and paragraphs... an entire section from EASY, bastardized but fully recognizable.
Easy is a romance with a serious underlying theme, and the section selected was the first kiss between my characters. This particular kiss, this physical interaction, was a show of faith on behalf of my heroine - faith that she could let her guard down and trust this boy when others had proven untrustworthy and even dangerous. That scene was a turning point for my characters, and it had been used carelessly and thoughtlessly to portray two characters I didn't know, didn't conceive, and didn't care about. It had been absorbed into a story that had nothing to do with what I wrote.
I texted and emailed a few author and blogger friends, and with their care and counsel, I took deep breaths and forcibly calmed myself when everything inside me wanted to blot that book and its characters into nonexistence. I took a giant step back and watched the swift and immediate reaction from bloggers who'd been betrayed into promoting this book by someone who was not who he pretended to be, readers who'd been betrayed into assuming Amazingly Broken was an original story, and a community of authors who, like me, work every day to produce something meaningful and pulled from our hearts - not from the pages of someone else's work.
The plagiarizer's excuse when confronted by this group of livid people: "It was ghostwritten!"
Plagiarism 101: Important Things To Know: Using a ghostwriter is not a defense against plagiarism and/or - more importantly - copyright infringement.
When you put your name (pen name or otherwise) on something and sell it as your own, you are responsible for the content. If you hire a ghostwriter to write a novel or parts of a novel that you then put up for sale, and the content purchased is plagiarized, you can be held liable. (Note: The "author" gave several interviews on "her" many promotional blog tours, stating that Easy was one of "her" favorite books, going so far as to give examples of why that was so. So no, I don't personally believe the book was ghostwritten, and I was disappointed at the possibility that an aspiring author chose to plagiarize important physical/ emotional interactions between characters instead of writing something original. But ultimately, what I believe doesn't matter, and neither does the ghostwriting excuse.)
Shortly after this story broke, it was discovered that a small but emotionally crucial scene from Beautiful Disaster (by Jamie McGuire) had also been embedded into the same book.
The next several hours were agonizing. Though I greatly appreciated the enormous outpouring of support I received, I avoided social media while I contacted my agent and editor. I also did something that may seem counter-intuitive: I bought a digital copy of Amazingly Broken. Finally argued into a corner by an infuriated public, the plagiarizer began removing Amazingly Broken from distribution sites. He claimed he had "confessed" to distributors, and they were "returning the money." He claimed he was not going to be paid, and many people believed him.
And then he deleted his blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts. At that point, most people felt justified and the crowd dispersed. The threat was gone. Right?
Unfortunately for him, Jamie and I began our careers as indie publishers. We are, actually, still indie published authors. In other words, we know how this rodeo works.
Amazingly Broken was live for eight days and sold thousands of copies - and someone was going to have to be paid. Yes, everyone who requested a refund from the distributors got one, as far as we know. But most people, believe it or not, never look up their favorite authors online and like their pages or follow their blogs. Most readers buy a book, read it, and move on to the next book. (In purchasing the book and not requesting a refund, I in effect became one of those buyers. And for the record: I never got an email alert about alleged plagiarism, and I never received a refund.)
For those of you who don't see where I'm about to go, think of it this way: Distributors hadn't pulled the book, the "AUTHOR" did. As far as those distributors were concerned, the book made money before it was pulled. They took their cut... and were legally bound to pay the "author's" cut to him at the end of the pay period in August.
The plagiarizer was contacted by Jamie's publisher and mine. He had a choice at that time: offer to pay back all monies he was to receive in roughly sixty days' time... or keep playing the it-was-a-ghostwriter, look-I-pulled-the-book-let's-all-just-be-cool card. He chose the latter. Jamie and I were in an odd position. Our publishers had not filed our copyrights - we had. Each of us published our books as indie authors before they were picked up and republished, and we'd each filed copyrights upon original publication. The rights infringed were all ours.
Nevertheless, the legal teams of our respective publishers had offered him a chance to make the situation right at no cost to himself. He chose not to take that offer... at which point we had no choice but to seek legal representation from an IP (intellectual property) attorney.
My goals in pursuing this case:
(1) To unequivocally state that stealing someone else's words and using them as if they are one's own is unacceptable, and that "It was ghostwritten!" is an excuse, not a defense - whether that claim is true or false.
(2) To send a message that indie authors know how this system works and we are bound and determined to protect our rights and at the same time the rights of ALL authors, indie or traditional.
(3) To prevent the plagiarizer from keeping profits from a book containing copy-and-paste portions of my book, and recover legal fees accumulated in this pursuit (the latter of which he could have avoided completely by coming clean to our publishers' attorneys in the first place).
(4) To donate, in full, my portion of all proceeds received to the charities of my choice (see below).
THESE OBJECTIVES HAVE BEEN MET.
Funds received will be divided equally among the following three charities: (1) RAINN.org, which works every minute of every day to educate the public about sexual abuse and assault, and works to support and assist survivors and their loved ones with the aftermath. (2) Legacy Counseling Center - Founders Cottage, a hospice and long-term care home for people with AIDS - a place of comfort and blessing to my little brother in the final days of his battle against the disease. (3) Philippine Red Cross, to assist in relief efforts in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.
Many of you will have questions about the plagiarizer. I will not be answering these questions. I believe this young man made a series of very bad choices, and I hope he's learned from them. If it really was all about the money and his "book" was actually ghostwritten and brilliantly marketed, I hope he finds something honest to be passionate about and goes out and does that thing to the best of his ability. If he has aspirations as a writer, I hope he's learned that there's a vast difference between being inspired by someone else's work and copying it.
Final note: In the US, when you write something down - on a cocktail napkin, in a blog post, within the original portion of a fanfic story, in a manuscript or an essay for class - that written thing is common law copyright protected. I learned this from my business law professor over a decade ago. Granted, proving you wrote it first is made easier by filing for an official copyright, and I highly recommend taking that step. (Filing also increases the possible compensation if those rights are infringed.) Contact an IP attorney for further explanation and/or assistance (here's mine: Pamela Chestek) if you believe your rights have been infringed.