I said I was done with the Cassie Edwards portion of this issue, and I am. But over at Dear Author, Janet raises the question about what is and is not plagiarism. It's an interesting question, and one I don't mind thinking about (the comment thread is also good because the hairy specter of fan fiction gets raised, though it doesn't derail the essential issue). Because just yesterday, as I'm working on revisions, I wrote this line: If only there were world enough and time.
And then, because I'm hyper-sensitive to the issue now, I added this: as the poem said. Which seems clunky, but dammit, world enough and time is a phrase from someone else's work. Simply a phrase, but a pretty famous one (not so famous as to be immediately recognizable to all, however, which is where my dilemma stems). From the 17th century, no less, so definitely out of copyright. Some folks have intimated that using sources out of copyright isn't plagiarism, but I think all the English majors (at the very least) who read my line will instantly know where it came from. Maybe they'd get that I know it's a reference. Maybe they'd think I was cribbing.
Truthfully, the line probably won't stay, because the qualifier is going to bug me to no end and I'll decide it isn't worth it in the end. Here are the first few lines from the original, btw:
HAD we but world enough, and time / This coyness, Lady, were no crime / We would sit down and think which way / To walk and pass our long love's day. (Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress.)
I Googled “world enough and time” and Marvell came up instantly. It's four little words, but put together in such a way as to be recognizable. OTOH, in the comment thread to the post up above, people discuss pop culture phrases such as “Here's Johnny!” and “the usual suspects.” What is fair use and what constitutes plagiarism?
Probably, my use of the phrase isn't plagiarism and I can leave off the qualifier. It's a phrase that's moved into the lexicon, just like “we're not in Kansas anymore” and “something's rotten in Denmark” (that last being paraphrased, but recognizable nonetheless) and “sea change.” Probably, because those phrases are so recognizable, everyone knows you aren't plagiarizing but are instead either paying homage or simply using words and phrases that people use in real life because they ARE so recognizable.
But still I second guess my choices. *sigh*
Have you had any second thoughts when you write something lately? If you write historicals, have you gone running to your research books to make sure you haven't inadvertently lifted whole phrases? Have you deleted, reworded, or added qualifiers to protect yourself?
Come to my blog. You won an ebook!
When I took a course on how to write historical fiction the intructor said that lawyers and librarians were the worst candidates for writing that particular genre because they were overly concerned with truth, rules, accuracy, privacy, and law. Maybe he should add English literature scholars, too.
What passes into public and common use is so fluid. But if it’s in the dictionary, it’s almost always fair game.
Interestingly, I just did a piece on public domain and images on my blog. Public domain photos doesn’t mean free use. It gets so complicated.
Actually wikipedia has a pretty good review of the topic, with some excellent links. However, Jimminy Cricket still stands over the writer’s shoulder and whispers whatever you choose to hear.
Now, as for your sisterly email re: blogs. I’m still working on the first step–being consistent for 3 months with posting. That’s all I can handle right now.
Dee (who is soon to be in Hawaii—I miss the warmth)
It’s a sticky guessing game. Honestly, there are only so many ways in this world to put together a sentence. (Trust me, I’ve run lots of student papers through Google to check for plagiarism.)
I think knowledge and intent would come into play. (And, sorry, even my 6 year old knows not to copy other peoples’ stuff.)
Thanks, Tanya! Too cool. 🙂
Dee, I love having your perspective! As a historical researcher, and a librarian, you’d definitely know what constitutes plagiarism. I can see where some folks might get too overwhelmed with rules, and yeah, I think literature folks are in that group some of the time.
Keep on posting. You’re doing a fine job, and I find all the info you’ve got on the cookbook very interesting. Have fun in Hawaii! I miss the warmth too, especially this week — we actually had snow, though it didn’t last and didn’t stick.
Thanks for the perspective, PC. I think intent plays a large part too, and in the case of a couple (or 4) words, it’s probably not plagiarism. I was a fanatical citer back when I was writing papers. 🙂 Old habits die hard, I guess.
I find myself rushing to Chicago Manual of Style, the indexing of which makes me want to scream. The rules for what constitutes your own phrase vs. what is someone else’s read like an equation in quantum physics. Given the number of words in the language and the infinite ways of putting them together, I don’t think we can expect to catch everything. All this having been said, I do find myself, if a phrase remains a nagging doubt knocking about my skull, trying to Google my way into enlightenment. If I find that a few words do appear elsewhere even though my phrase looks like it is “likely: to appear in any given construction, I try to alter it by changing a single word or two. So time consuming!