There has been a fair amount of tension hereabouts lately due to general misinformation and confusion surrounding what I would call authorial matters. When you write and publish (web, print, photocopies, whatever), you become an author. When you write nonfiction, you write from sources. Those sources should be, indeed, must be given credit. Drawing bright distinctions between what you've taken from other writers and what you've come up with on your own shows good manners and enhances your writerly credentials.
How you handle your sources reveals a lot about the kind of writer you are--how sophisticated, insightful, resourceful, deep-thinking vs. how derivative, shallow, uncommitted. A productive writer doesn't try to invent everything anew and doesn't pretend that brilliance leaps full-born from the skull like Athena burst from Zeus' brain after one hell of a headache; a real writer recognizes the raw materials that she combines, refines and refashions into something new and significant.
In another life, I spent better than a decade teaching writing and literature while writing in my specialty for the five other people in the world who are interested in my subject. In my current incarnation, I'm still practicing the craft. Between these two lives I also did a stint as a copyright specialist advising academic departments in a state university.
Those are my bona fides. This is one general area wherein I'm an expert. Because so many Kossacks aren't, and because there's been so much misinformation about authorial matters spread wide, contributing to the emotional distress of so many diarists, I wrote this primer about how "real" writers approach their sources, give them credit, and distinguish themselves from their source material. This is not written in response to any single example or instance; rather, over the last months an accretion of unfortunate events and responses have suggested to me that this might be beneficial. So please take what I write here in the spirit in which it's offered, and let's start on the other side of the orange croissant.
A specialist in computer law will tell you that a computer is only a tool. Despite some foolish lawmakers' attempts to carve out special exemptions or prohibitions for the intertubes or alternate penalties for computer crime, most experts agree that crime is an activity, not a tool. Theft is theft, whether the object is a 52 Chevy, an obscure 1987 article from the now-defunct Civil War Historian, or a Wikipedia entry about huskies.
It's the act that's the offense; downloading George R.R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons that someone scanned and put up on a website is no less an act of theft than it is to swipe it from your friendly neighborhood Barnes and Noble. The rules don't change just because it's bytes and not pages that are stolen. And the downloader is no less a thief than the person who scanned and posted the book--both are culpable; both have committed an act of theft against the author.
The vast majority of Kossacks would not dream of stealing anything, not in the physical world, nor in the virtual one. But clarity and distinctions help in illustrating what can be confusing. One of the reasons there's so much misinformation about what is and isn't ethical use of information is because those distinctions are on the small side. And in a world where sampling, fanfics and mashups are everywhere, where Photoshop can put your closest frenemy in a compromising position with your favorite Kardashian and yet Disney can buy a perpetual lock on ol' Micky, it does feel like the rules have, not only changed, but gone utterly out the window.
Here's a rundown on what's what.
Whenever you write non-fiction, you write from sources. The articles and books you've read that inform your opinions, those niggling little details you turn to Google to nail down--they're all source material. With two important exceptions, they should all be referenced.
Online resources should be linked directly. If your sources are not online, you should include Author, Publisher, edition, publishing date, and page number. It doesn't have to conform to MLA, APA, Turabain or any other formal style (although it's a nice sign of competence to pick a format and stick with it) for publishing online, unless the blog owner expresses a preference.
References do much more than give the copyright police things to chase. Everyone who's done serious research knows that providing references is, ultimately, good manners.
If you're interested enough to read an article, you may well be interested enough to want to learn more about the subject. The writer's references to both printed and online sources provide you with a gps for tracking down more information. In real life as well as in scholarship, providing references enhances your credibility as a writer. It demonstrates that you've done a thorough and fair job of researching your subject, you know what you're writing about, you're courteous enough to acknowledge your source and respectful enough to your readers to show them where else they can go to learn more.
Those Two Important Exceptions: Facts and common knowledge.
Facts: verifiable events that did or didn't happen, or things that do or do not exist. A species of toad, a form of t'ai chi, the date of the Normandy invasion or the Beatles' first U.S. concert. Facts don't need references; however, if a fact is obscure, it's good form to provide a source--again, so your interested reader can look at an illustration, map, photo, more complete explanation or definition than you provide.
Common knowledge: a little more slippery, but it comprises the body of information that we assume is possessed by the average reader who knows something about your subject.* Here's a good rule of thumb for deciding whether or not something is common knowledge: if you can find the same interpretation of fact in three separate and unrelated sources (sources that don't derive from each other or depend on each other) it's pretty safely common knowledge. For example: Winston Churchill was a mediocre Prime Minister in times of peace, but during World War II, he was the leader best suited to keep Britain in the fight.
That's common knowledge. You might not know that if you don't care for history, but if you read even superficially about World War II, you'll see this interpretation just about everywhere.
Interpretations have to be cited. Facts don't , but if they're obscure it does enhance your authority to provide that courtesy for the reader. Any kind of interpretation, unless it's so common that it's common knowledge, has to be sourced, whether you're writing about Chaucer anticipating psychological profiling in the Wife of Bath, or the motivations of Bruce Wayne. Doesn't matter.
What else has to be referenced? Quotations, paraphrases, and certain combinations of words associated with certain subjects. In other words anything that, left uncited, opens you to the charge of plagiarism.
If you're a beginning writer, I'll let you in on a little secret: almost all writers plagiarize, at least in a first draft. It's unavoidable.
All writers, fiction or non-fiction, are subject to the influences of other writers. Writers read, and read incessantly. Most writers will read anything you put in front of them--magazines, novels, cereal boxes, diaries, poetry, etc., and will soak up words like sponges. Not only facts, but words--cool words, the cadence and nuance of great phrasing, the description of rain falling on ice in winter , or dust crossing the sky in threads high in the air, the deep pang in the soul of remembering hurting someone. We can't help it; it's in our blood to respond emotionally to the sound and meaning of word combinations. If you're reading Joyce's Ulysses your writing will develop a stream of consciousness vibe, but if you're reading Harry Turtledove's The Guns of the South, it's more likely to take on a dialogue-driven shoot 'em up aspect.
Now, influence is not plagiarism. Still, if you're not careful, if you don't revise adequately, you'll unconsciously plagiarize. Say you're writing the Southern American style, a deeply-reflective meditation on the influence of the past; if your fictional world contains canny rednecks and exquisitely sensitive protagonists and is set in a rural Southern county, you're plagiarizing.
You have to work out of imitation and into a vision that is uniquely your own. This is done in revision. Again and again and again, chasing the vision that is uniquely yours. Even if you will always retain the glow of Faulknerian prose, the glow is great, it's okay. You're standing, after all, on Faulkner's shoulders, but your vision and scope should be substantially different from your Faulkner's vision and scope.
Plagiarism and Non-Fiction
Plagiarism is the theft of another's work. There's nothing admirable about it. In fact, it's despicable.
I've never understood what makes someone deliberately plagiarize. It runs directly counter to the impulse that makes writers write, which is to leave something behind, a monument, a bid for immortality. Part of it may be jealousy, or haste, or just plain intellectual laziness. All of which are awful excuses for an unforgivable offense.
Avoiding it involves different steps. Know where you are in relation to your sources. Change font type or color when working with sources. Keep scrupulous note. Version control (numbering your drafts so you know which version you're working on) helps to keep things clear.
You can expect that your first draft will contain plagiarized passages. When you've read deeply in your research, you soak up phrases, keywords, essential ideas that catch in your brain and stick. The way to make sure they're gone is to revise, again and again. Revise: to see again, to see anew. You check your notes, reread your sources, reread your draft and make sure you're either quoting exactly or paraphrasing completely, and either way, you cite the source.
Most plagiarism that people fall into is unconscious, where the writer has forgotten sources or where a particular detail or turn of phrase comes from. It doesn't really matter how it happens, but the deal is that you will be found out and your good name, once gone, will never come back.
If you write it, you own it. If you photograph it, paint it, compose it, it's yours. Period.
One exception: if you produce the written/visual/aural work as part of your job, if you get paid to create it. Then it's a work for hire and it belongs to your employer.
As copyright owner, you decide how your work get published, performed or displayed.
At the heart of it, it's very simple: you own your writing (and although I refer specifically to writing, the general rules apply to all creative works). The words, in their particular combinations referencing their particular subjects, are copyrighted as soon as you produce them.
If your work is commercially published, your publisher will usually register your copyright. A huge part of the publishing contract spells out the rights the publisher will own and ones you'll retain. If you don't want to wait for that, if you want to protect your copyright now, the only one way to do it and is to register it. In the U.S., you register at the Copyright Office. It's simple. In fact, the government's Copyright Office's user-friendly website will walk you through all the steps to register your copyright, if you decide you want to, and it'll also answer almost any question you might have about copyright. It costs $35 to register a work. Most people wait and register collections of work as opposed to individual pieces, because to register every piece of writing individually gets expensive fast.
Why might you want to do register? Even though your work is already copyrighted and belongs to you, registering the copyright gives you certain advantages, like the right to recover damages and attorney fees if your work is infringed (that we might all be so lucky one day!)
What doesn't work:
--Mailing a copy to yourself and leaving it sealed, using the postmark to prove it was yours first. This does nothing to enforce your copyright.
--Depending on your computer's digital timestamp. Yes, it establishes ownership, but it's not a substitute for registration.
--Putting the little © symbol in front of your work. All this does is piss off readers, especially in a forum like this , because it demonstrates your distrust of them.
Your work is protected under your own copyright. Automatically. Registration gives you additional benefits, but really it's already yours. You can give it to someone else, sell it, divide up the rights and assign them to different people or companies (when you publish this is essentially what you're doing, except lawyers are involved and the unwary writer has to be careful not to get screwed.)
If you want to use someone else's work but don't have permission to quote it, the only way you can is to employ Fair Use, which is defined more fully here. Fair Use is less a formula (less than 10% of the text and don't take "essential" parts of the work) than a guideline whose parameters the courts still have to define. Some particularly well-done explanations of Fair Use (and Copyright in general) are:
And I would highly recommend anyone to check out the U.S. Copyright Office's eminently usable and comprehensible website.
Ultimately, Fair Use is not a workaround that gives one writer the right to use another's work (and, by the way, even if you're safely within Fair Use parameters, you still have to credit the original writer). It's a carve-out to copyright that allows for critics, reviewers, scholars and other writers to quote legally without having to request and/or pay for the chance to quote someone else's work.
Good Use of Sources
Really good writing does more than reprise someone else's ideas. It takes the source materials and synthesizes them, uses them to support your argument, your own unique position. It takes time, it takes work and thought, it's labor-intensive; it's a combination of inspiration and sweat, craft and art blended together and made to look easy, as all writing is. It takes revision, changing a word and seeing how that changes the thought, the paragraph, the section, the whole piece. Again and again and again, until everything is right. This particular diary, which boasts far more craft than art, has gone through six drafts over two weeks, and at least a dozen separate editing sessions. I probably didn't have to take all this trouble and revision for what is essentially a technical diary, but to take any less care would risk wasting your time and showing you, a reader, sincere disrespect.
* Writing teachers hate passive tense, but it has its place. In this sentence, what's important is not who possesses the information (the reader) but the kind of reader that possesses common knowledge in a given subject area. To make this sentence active voice would separate the subject and verb so far apart as to render the sentence deeply confusing.