May 25, 2000


Plagiarism sucks. Just ask someone who knows.

Three or four years ago  --  when AOL first began inflicting its stoopid and irritating "You've Been Idle" pop-up warning on unsuspecting customers  --  I wrote a silly little post for the Members Helping Members message boards. As posts go, this one wasn't particularly profound, or particularly well-written, or particularly original, even: within weeks there were similar posts springing up all over the AOL universe. But mine was first out of the gate. It got some chuckles, and it allowed me to vent a little, and I enjoyed my status as Flavor-of-the-Moment on the MHM boards ...

... until someone else came along, the next day, and wrote something newer and more interesting, and my fifteen minutes of glory passed, and that was the end of that. 

Or so I thought.

Not long afterwards, I visited the (then) brand-new Boomer Message Boards ... and there, to my utter astonishment, was my crappy little "You've Been Idle" piece. It had been posted practically verbatim  --  with only minor tweakage, here and there  --  by one of the board regulars. He was claiming it as his own. Even more galling, he was receiving an avalanche of huzzahs and ROFLMAOs and "spitting coffee through my nose onto the keyboard" comments from the other posters on the board.

I was pissed.

I wrote a blistering post directed squarely at him ... all about plagiarism, and about respect for the craft of writing, and about the protective feelings that I, as an aspiring writer/lover of wordswordswords, have toward even the most inferior of my creations. "My words are my children," I scolded him. Who the fudk was he, to take credit for something he didn't personally squat in the rice paddy and give birth to?

He offered up a limp and insincere "apology," along with a predictably snarly comment about how I needed to get a life. He then proceeded to mock my "words are my children" comment for weeks afterward.

I HATED this guy. I wanted him to get hit by a BUS. More or less IMMEDIATELY.

But I also understood that the intensity of my reaction was out of proportion to the perceived offense. (I further understood that this guy was simply a dick, and that wasting precious *anger molecules* on him was both toxic and counter-productive.)  So I posted my protest ... I got it out of my system  ... and then, wanting to show at least a modicum of class, I let it drop.

The thing that disturbed me the most about the whole thing  --  the thing that left a bad taste in my mouth for months afterward  --  wasn't his lunk-headed response to my author's outrage. It was the reaction from so many of the other posters on that board, who immediately sprang up in his defense: the consensus being that what this guy did wasn't any big deal, and that I needed to get over it already. It was "only" a post on an AOL message board: therefore, who cares if he lifted it?

Or if he tried to pass it off as his own?

Or if he faxed a copy of it to Bonnie Fuller at Cosmopolitan magazine with a cover sheet that read 'Send the check to *my* office address, OK?'

Who cared? 

*I* cared.

It doesn't matter to me whether the words are on an AOL message board or in a handwritten letter to Grandma ... on the Internet in an online journal, or scribbled on a goddamn POST-IT NOTE.  If I wrote the words, they're mine.  And it is just plain wrong for someone to *borrow* them without permission and try to pass them off as their own.

I quit reading those particular message boards shortly after that. Not only because of the You've Been Idle incident  --  although that had a lot to do with it  --  but because my life pointed itself in a different direction (and a handful of different Zip Codes) for the next couple of years. It wasn't until David and I hooked up that I began reading the boards again, mostly over his shoulder.  These days, as I've said before, I am merely an observer of the message boards. I fondly watch The Mighty Ю僱êrvØ¡ discuss his alien abduction ("They let me drive the saucer") and send people scurrying for their dictionaries ("ratiocination") and do battle with unctuous AOL Hosts.

I proofread. I cheerlead. I offer up commentary.

(I sit on his lap and *help* him type.)

But I don't post anything myself.  I'm totally fine with my lurker status. I have zero desire to get into the middle of any of the shidt-storm.

This past week, however, the issue of plagiarism has once again reared its troubling little head on the message boards ... and like a puppy who was hit once by an ice cream truck, trembling now whenever he hears the Good Humor Man down the street, I instantly go on the alert whenever the subject of word-theft comes up.

One of more prominent posters on the Boomer boards  --  she's either wildly popular or wildly UNpopular, depending on who you ask  --  was caught plagiarizing material from another message board.  She didn't just *borrow* one post  ... she lifted an entire SERIES of them. And she didn't steal them from just anywhere, either, but from a board frequented by professional writers. Angry professional writers, who don't like being ripped off (and who clearly know how to use the Message Board Search Feature).

The ensuing fracas is making last month's Invasion of the AOL "Hosties" look like a taffy pull.

Mind you, I feel no particular animosity towards the person who was caught stealing. I don't know her. David has met her in real life, and he's quite fond of her, but I don't even read her, as a rule. She's not my style. I'm probably not her style, either.  I think what she did is offensive. I think she showed appallingly lousy judgement.  I'm glad that she got busted for it, and that the writers from whom she stole had an opportunity to vent their displeasure.  I'm glad that she had a chance to offer up her own version of the limp, insincere apology.

But I wish her no personal ill will.

And I agree that the backlash is completely out of proportion to the offense. (Death threats? Please. As David put it, that's akin to a police officer "firing ten 'warning shots' into a jaywalker's spine.")  It's past time to put the issue to rest.

But the thing that has got me all wound up again today ... wound up enough to break my own taboo against responding to ANYTHING on the message boards, even if my "response" is coming from the safe (and utterly chickenshidt) vantage point of my website ... is that, once again, we're starting to hear the chorus of "What's the big deal?" comments from people rallying around the offender, rather than the offended. Stuff like:

  • There is no such thing as an original thought.
  • Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
  • If I change a couple of the words, it's *mine.*
  • It wasn't that good anyway.
And ... most sinister of all:
  • It was "only" a post on an AOL message board.

I don't know about you, Dear Reader, but I find that more distasteful  --  and more frightening  --  than all of the TOS violations, illiterate AOL Hosts, bad poetry, whiney journal entries about Franz and overblown flame wars combined.

You have my permission to quote me on that one.

throw a rock