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Copyright, Plagiarism, and Fan Fiction Norms

While broadening my literary horizons, but still remaining firmly in the pre-teen science fantasy camp, I’ve recently discovered a series of books by Cassandra Clare – the Moral Instruments trilogy (soon to be many more books than a trilogy).  She writes for pretty much the same audience as Stephenie Meyer of Twilight fame so I haven’t strayed too far from my teenage girl tastes.

The interesting thing about Cassandra Clare is that her name is a pseudonym derived from a name she used as a popular fan fiction author online (Cassandra Claire).  As a fan fiction author, she was both very popular and somewhat infamous for being involved in a contentious plagiarism debacle.  Some of the commentary surrounding the plagiarism episode can be found here.

What struck me reading through some of the commentary was that it seemed that the concern about plagiarism was not generated by the authors/creators whose work Claire had allegedly plagiarised, but rather from other members of the fan fiction community who were disappointed with what they perceived to be a fellow author’s lack of ethics.  Claire had borrowed lines from a number of sources – other writings, TV shows, movies etc – and maintained that she thought she had given appropriate attribution, but her attributions were not full or complete because she maintained that she couldn’t always remember exactly where she had seen or heard a particular line she had used. Others questioned whether she could have engaged in such large scale copying without intentionally and directly copying someone else’s work, so some people didn’t believe her defense of her own actions.

As someone who spends a lot more time thinking about copyright than plagiarism, this struck me as an interesting story because it does not deal with copyright holders protecting their economic rights, but rather with members of an online community concerned to enforce shared norms relating to morals and ethics.  This is a side of the “creativity coin” that many of us don’t think about all that often.  I found it to be useful food for thought.

I also wonder if this episode has had an impact – either positive or negative – on Clare’s popularity as a mainstream fantasy fiction writer. Her Mortal Instruments books have maintained a high position on various best-seller lists for many months.  I wonder whether her history helped or hurt her as a mainstream author.