Plagiarism Today (PT) is a site targeted at Webmasters and copyright holders regarding the issue of plagiarism online. Though it deals with many legal issues, in particular the DMCA and copyright law, it is not a legal blog and is, instead, a blog regarding a societal ill the effects may never be fully understood or comprehended.
The allegations come from Nick Ruggia and Ryan Hoffman, the founders of the troupe Temple Horses. Since 2011, the duo have been filming a variety of comedy sketches, and uploading them to their YouTube channel.
However, the controversy with SNL deals with two specific SNL sketches and how they overlap with two earlier sketches by Temple Horses.
The first is the SNL Sketch The Pumpkin Patch, which deals with a pumpkin patch owner that is forced to fire three employees after they are caught having sex with some of his pumpkins.
Pumpkin Patch - SNL - YouTube
According to Ruggia and Hoffman, this sketch closely mirrors a sketch they put on Youtube in October 2014 entitled Fucking a Pumpkin, which deals with a group of pumpkin patch customers simulating and discussing having sex with a pumpkin until the owner throws them out.
Fucking a Pumpkin - YouTube
The second pair involves the SNL sketch Pound Puppy, which involves various couples trying to have sex but being interrupted by their dogs. This sketch proposes a giant dog-shaped pet blinder that they can have sex in.
Pound Puppy - SNL - YouTube
Ruggia and Hoffman compare this to a September 2011 sketch they uploaded entitled Pet Blinders where the problem of pets interrupting sex is solved by a blindfold made for the dog.
Pet Blinders - YouTube
Ruggia and Hoffman felt strongly enough about the similarities that they had an attorney send a letter to NBC about the issue. The letter, which did not threaten any specific legal action and took care to say that NBC nor SNL were likely aware of the plagiarism, did request a response by March 4, 2019.
According to a report from Vulture, NBC did respond to the letter but to say that an internal investigation had found that SNL writers “had independently developed the ideas for those sketches and found no similarities to the Temple Horses sketches that would be protected by copyright law.”
But this raises an interesting question: Is there actual plagiarism and, if so, does it arise to copyright infringement? The internet, at least judging from YouTube comments, seem to be divided.
However, that’s likely because it’s a thorny question and one that doesn’t have a clear answer and there may never be one to be found.
Examining the Allegations
The similarities between the sketches are pretty easy to see. With the first pair, both sketches feature pumpkin patch owners who are dealing with people having sex with (or discussing/simulating having sex with) pumpkins until they are thrown out.
Likewise, the second pair both deal with the issue of sexual intimacy being interrupted by dogs and offering a fake product to stop the issue.
But, for all of the similarities in the premise (and smaller ones point out in the letter), they also have many differences.
SNL’s Pumpkin Patch focuses on employees who were caught in the act by the groundskeeper the night before. They are ultimately fired but the owner winds up being sympathetic to their desires. This is different from the earlier version, which focuses on a group of customers acting out the deed before being thrown out by and irate owner.
Likewise, Pound Puppy features a different product, namely a large blind that couples can have sex in, and much of the humor from the sketch comes from couples trying to have sex in such an unusual space.
In short, while there are similarities between the sketches, there are also key differences. To make matters worse for Ruggia and Hoffman, some of the ideas they are saying were plagiarized are not unique to them.
For example, others have pointed out at least two similar sketches to Fucking a Pumpkin that predate Temple Horses.
I’d like to submit “Pumpkin F**ker,” a sketch uploaded by @themidnightshow before Temple Horses’ The Pumpkin Patch. The Midnight Show sketch is closer to the SNL sketch and evidence that neither Temple Horses nor SNL stole material. It’s parallel thinking. https://t.co/QEro2B2P9Z
This is on top of the fact that the SNL sketch made reference to American Pie, a 1999 movie that featured sexual acts with a pie.
While it’s entirely possible that SNL writers (Note: NBC said the two sketches were written by different writers) took inspiration from Temple Horses, it’s going to be impossible to prove and, even if they are able to prove it, its unlikely anything that’s taken would rise to the level of copyright infringement.
That’s because copyright does not protect ideas. It only protects the expression of those ideas. Though the ideas may be similar, the expression is very different between the works as the exact jokes and implementation are very different.
Though Ruggia and Hoffman may argue that the number of dogs featured in Pound Puppies or the ending of Pumpkin Patch point to a stronger similarity, the truth is that the differences matter as much as the similarities.
When making an argument of copyright infringement, it’s not enough to show that two works have similarities. You have to show that the work involved used copyright-protectable work that could have only come from the allegedly infringed work. It’s a high burden of proof and much stronger cases have failed to meet it.
In the end, NBC and SNL is likely right. Even if SNL’s writers did plagiarize from Ruggia and Hoffman, which there is no conclusive evidence of, it almost certainly doesn’t rise to the level of copyright infringement.
To be clear, I don’t think that Ruggia and Hoffman have any bad intentions here. As we’ve discussed before, it’s very easy for creators who are intimately familiar with their work, to see it when looking at other media.
The simple truth is this: There are going to be similar works and plagiarism isn’t required for two or more works to have a great deal in common.
It’s unlikely that this story would have gotten the attention it has if not for the fact it involves the most popular sketch comedy show on television. SNL and its perceived quality has been a punching bag for jokes for decades and the idea that its writers are plagiarizing YouTube-based sketch comedy only feeds into that meme.
Whether SNL writers drew inspiration from those sketches we will likely never know. It’s simply impossible to prove one way or another. However, even if it is true, the likelihood of succeeding on a copyright infringement claim is very slim.
Simply put, the onus to prove plagiarism is on the shoulders of Ruggia and Hoffman and they have not met it at this time.
First off today, Jonathan Stempel at Reuters reports that a judge has dismissed the lawsuit filed by Dr. Seuss Enterprises against the makers of the parody book Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
The book is a Star Trek-themed work that parodies the work of Dr. Seuss by mashing it up the two universes. Dr. Seuss Enterprises filed the lawsuit, claiming that it was a copyright infringement. However, the judge has now dismissed the case saying that the book is a protected fair use.
According to the judge, the work took no more of the original content than was required for the parody and that some of the elements the plaintiff were claiming to have been infringed can not be protected by copyright. Dr. Seuss Enterprises has said it may appeal the ruling but ComicMix, the makers of the book, have said that they are looking forward to finally publishing the work.
Next up today, Jem Aswad and Chris Willman at Variety report that Spotify, Google, Pandora and Amazon have filed an appeal of the Copyright Royalty Board’s (CRB) recent rate increase for songwriters who have their music streamed via digital services.
The CRB determines the royalties owed to songwriters when their music is streamed. In January, it handed down a significant rate increase for songwriters, saying that the amount would be raised from 10.5 percent of revenue to 15.1 percent over the course of the next four years. The decision was widely celebrated by both songwriters and publishers alike but streaming services complained that the increase was simply too much.
Spotify, Google, Pandora and Amazon are all now filing separate appeals of the rate increase, saying that it harms both licensees and copyright holders. However, Apple is not and is supporting the new rate.
Finally today, Eriq Gardner at The Hollywood Reporter Esquire reports that VidAngel will have to face liability for its role in circumventing encryption on DVDs and Blu Rays when creating its family-friendly streaming service.
VidAngel was a service that allowed users to stream major Hollywood movies but filter out objectionable content such as nudity of swearing. The major studios sued in 2016, alleging copyright infringement and the case has been rolling around in court ever since. Recently, the Ninth Circuit denied an appeal of an injunction against VidAngel saying that the studios were likely to succeed in the case.
To that end, the lower court judge has now agreed issuing a summary judgment on the issue of liability. This means that any trial would focus exclusively on the issue of damages, meaning the question is how much VidAngel owes for its infringement, not if it infringed. The judge also ordered the deposition of a VidAngel executive and rejected a request by VidAngel to modify the injunction against it.
The Department of Justice says the operation is the “largest college admissions scam ever” and has resulted in some 50 people getting charged in a scandal that involves at least eight schools.
To that end, the story was practically custom-built to generate very splashy headlines. It’s a story involving millions of dollars in alleged bribes, some of the nation’s top schools, including Yale and Stanford, and at least two major celebrities including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who were among the 50 charged.
So what actually happened in this scandal and how were students able to bribe their way into major colleges and universities. The answer is both amazingly complex and surprisingly simple at the same time.
In short, while it was an elaborate scheme, it wasn’t extremely difficult. However, the impacts it will have on education as a whole will be both significant and long-lasting.
How the Scam Worked
The scam centers around a man named William Singer who ran a business called Edge College & Career Network, sometimes referred to as The Key. The Key’s stated goal was to help high school students prepare for their college applications so that they could get into the school that they wanted.
However, the Key went above and beyond helping students prep for their SATs or polishing their application essays. Instead, for very large sums of money, The Key would provide guarantees that a student would be able to get in.
If that seems impossible, it’s because it is. To make good on those promises, Singer would employ a wide variety of tactics with varying degrees of illegality.
For some students, this appeared as cheating on the SAT or ACT tests. This included bribing proctors, which worked at two institutions, to give the student more time under the pretense they had learning disabilities, correcting the answers after they were submitted and/or even having someone else take the test for them.
However, sometimes Singer would take a more direct approach. One common strategy was to approach coaches at universities and bribe them to take in his client, even though the student never played the sport involved. This included the women’s water polo coach at University of Southern California and Stanford University’s sailing coach among others.
To achieve this, Singer would often go to great lengths including photoshopping the student’s face onto images of other athletes to make the claims more believable to others at the college.
For his efforts, parents are alleged to have paid Singer some $25 million between 2011 and 2019. Much of that money was funneled into a charity associated with The Key as a means to avoid paying taxes on the money.
What is unclear at this time is what those beyond the fifty already charged knew. The parents have claimed that their children were unaware of what they had done. However, in many cases it seems unlikely that they weren’t aware that something was amiss.
Similarly, schools are claiming that their admissions offices were equally unaware and that the scandal starts and stops with the coaches involved.
While the story is still somewhat evolving, it does seem that the primary actors in this scam were Singer, the parents, the proctors and the coaches. If the students and universities were aware, they likely weren’t decision makers.
However, it’s important to remember that the story is still unfolding and that it is very possible we could learn even more in the days and weeks to come. Unfortunately though, what we’ve learned already is probably enough to do significant damage to the reputation of not just the schools involved, but the entire U.S. higher education system.
The Damage is Done
Singer, who is cooperating with investigators, referred to operation as “a side door” into a university.
According to Singer, every university had three doors for admission.
The Front Door: The main way students get in, by applying to the university and (supposedly) getting in under their own merits.
The Back Door: Where students or their families make large donations in hopes of gaining admission but are not guaranteed success.
The Side Door: Singer’s network of cheating and bribery.
The truth is that confidence in the fairness of college admissions are at an all-time low and, whether or not Singer is right about the “Back Door” approach, there is widespread belief that wealthy students have an extreme advantage when it comes not just to paying for college, but to gaining admission.
This story only furthers that sense of unfairness and further erodes trust in the admissions process. Even if we assume the scheme only involves the 50 people that have been charged, it’s still a mammoth operation with a huge budget.
As such, it’s likely not the only such operation out there and there are probably other shoes waiting to drop.
That reality, as much as the story itself, will do great harm to what little faith there is in the admissions process.
Mathematically, the number of students involved is likely fairly low. A few dozen students whose parents bribed them into universities represent a small amount of the estimated 20 million students enrolling for college this year. Even when we look just at the universities directly involved, they are only a tiny fraction of a percent of the student enrollment.
However, as a symbol, they are much more damaging. At a time where faith in admissions process is already this eroded, this story is a hurricane of mistrust slamming onto academia’s shores.
While there is no simple answer to the tough questions surrounding university admissions, this story certainly isn’t doing anything to help improve the situation or restore faith.
The best we can hope for is that those involved in this scandal, including Singer himself, are punished appropriately and that it dissuades others from participating in similar schemes.
But, even if that’s the case, it’s still likely that this story will be a stain on college admissions for many years to come.
This past weekend the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) held its annual international conference right across the river from me in New Orleans. I was fortunate enough not just to attend, but to participate in/give two separate talks at it.
All in all, the conference was two and a half days some of the best minds in academic integrity coming to talk about plagiarism, contract cheating, honor codes, building an atmosphere of academic integrity and anything else related to the topic.
With the conference over, I have around 20 pages of notes, tons of people to reach out to and a lot to think about. While there will definitely be a slew of posts on this site that stem from the conference, I wanted to first talk about some of my broader takeaways and lessons from the conference.
Because, while it’s hard to pull away some general thoughts from such a variety of great work but, both in the presentations and the conversations that surrounded them, there were definitely some themes that seemed to bear repeating.
To that end, here are seven key takeaways that I, personally, got from the 2019 ICAI Conference.
1: Contract Cheating is Bigger and Better Organizes Than Most Realize
Much of the conference focused on the topic of contract cheating and that included a great talk by Thomas Lancaster, where he highlighted not just how big contract cheating has become, but how advanced the businesses behind it have grown.
While it’s easy to dismiss contract cheating as places to buy low-quality essays at inflated prices (which is still somewhat true), the truth is that the organizations offering essays are more advanced than ever.
This means several things. First, the price of an essay is dropping considerably. Online, an essay often sells for around $30 per 1,000 words, making it practical for most students. Second, these companies are more and more aggressive with their marketing, often targeting students on social media, including in supposedly private groups.
They’ve also expanded into new lines of business, one of the most notable is student blackmail, where they extort more money from their own customers or just from random students.
Still, much of the expansion has involved online learning, which brings us to:
2: The Challenges of Online Learning
Though most of the attendees were very excited about the potential for online education, many even working for online-only schools, almost everyone acknowledged that it raises new academic integrity issues.
One of the biggest is student impersonation. This is where a student turns their login credentials over to a third party, often a contract cheating company, so that student can take the class and/or turn in the assignments for them.
Part of the problem schools are finding is that the organizations that are putting this service together are, as mentioned above, extremely advanced and can evolve quickly. A technique that catches such students today might not work next school year.
3: The Need for Education to Evolve
One of the responses to this isn’t just that detection and enforcement needs to improve, but that education itself needs to evolve. Whether it’s about Karen Gardner from the University of Alabama talking about new course structures that get students to work collaboratively on a project or more radical solutions, such as Western Governor’s University, which has completely dedicated assessment team that’s separate from the faculty.
There seems to be an understanding that education needs to evolve though there is a lot of debate and discussion about the direction. Whether it’s a push to ditch the essay as an assignment format, a plan to restructure how grades are given to reduce student fear or simply new remedial plans to help students left behind catch up, there’s a real push to change education in a lot of directions.
4: The Progress in Academic Integrity Research
Just a few years ago the volume of research on plagiarism and other academic integrity issues was thin and, even worse, most of the research that was there didn’t really give us many answers because we couldn’t see trends over time.
That has changed in a MAJOR way in the past 5-10 years. There were many great studies related to academic integrity to be found. For example, Brenda Stoesz from the University of Manitoba and Anastassiya Yudintseva from McMaster University shared research on the effectiveness of plagiarism tutorials.
While the study did show that such tutorials are, in general, relatively effective they were unable to determine what kinds of tutorials work best. Also, their first attempt at their study was foiled by students who literally cheated the assignment on cheating, saying they had completed the required coursework when they had not.
Another study by Valerie Denney and Zachary Dixon from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University used the Turnitin Plagiarism Spectrum to determine what instructors and students alike though about the different kinds of plagiarism. They learned that, in almost every case, students treated the plagiarisms more seriously than the instructors.
But, despite the new wave of research, a lot of it still isn’t broadly useful as findings are often very different from school to school. Though we can get some broad generalizations, things vary enough from school to school that it’s difficult to draw conclusions about a specific place without first directly testing it.
5: The Focus on Instructors
One accidental theme that came out of the conference was a renewed focus on the instructors and their role in academic integrity.
This was highlighted nicely by Darrin Nelson, also from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, who conducted a survey of his faculty and found that they rarely submitted academic integrity reports, even when learning of potentially serious infractions.
The reason is that the instructors preferred to handle this in the classroom rather than going through the university’s system. However, that meant that students were able to repeatedly break the rules and receive only slaps on the wrist since there was no centralized tracking. It also indicated to students that the instructor didn’t take the issues seriously and made cheating more likely.
The need to educate instructors and encourage both detection and reporting of academic integrity violations is a crucial one and, at many schools, it’s a key missing piece.
6: Looking for Holistic Solutions
Schools are increasingly looking outside the traditional academic integrity process to try and find more holistic solutions to the issue. This includes finding ways to cultivate an atmosphere of academic integrity, redesigning classes to better engage students and using automated tools to make cheating in online courses more difficult.
However, one area that came up multiple times using legal recourses, in particular the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to remove course material from sites like Course Hero.
In one talk Christina Gee and Amy Williams from Western Governor’s University discussed how they were using DMCA takedowns to remove copies of their assignments from all over the web and had both a small team and a custom web crawler on the job. They have successfully removed more than 18,000 URLs from the Web.
In short, the battle for academic integrity is going way beyond just checking for plagiarism and watching for cheating, it’s a fight that’s literally leaving the walls of academia.
7: No End in Sight
Finally, for a conference about academic integrity in 2019 there was very little “the sky is falling” mentality. There was no panic even as the attendees were discussing the difficult, often intractable, challenges that they are facing.
That said, no one had any delusions about this fight being over any time soon. Academic integrity has been a battle since way before the internet and it’s going to be one for as long as we have an education system that involves teaching and assessing students.
Everyone is dug in, but everyone believes that this fight is an important one.
All in all, the conference was a doozy and has left me with a lot to chew on. I have more than 20 pages of handwritten notes (due to a laptop keyboard in desperate need of replacement) and a lot of people I need to reach out to.
Expect a lot more from this conference over the next weeks and months. In the meantime, these are the key takeaways that I’m seeing right now.
The case looked at whether a rightsholder could file a lawsuit for copyright infringement after the for a copyright registration or if they would have to wait until they actually received or were denied their certificate.
You also have the option of preregistering the work, but once again that’s only for certain kinds of works and it costs an additional $140 on top of the regular registration that you’ll have to pursue.
The best time to kill the registration requirement was decades ago. The second best time is today.
A Failure in Every Way
In the United States, copyright is attached to a work the moment it becomes fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Every time this post autosaves as I type it, the work I’ve done becomes copyright protected.
However, if you want to do anything with that copyright (other than send takedown notices) you have to register the work with the USCO. This is because only federal courts can hear copyright cases and a registration (now a completed registration) is required before such courts can hear the case.
This means you can’t get injunctions to stop infringements, can’t sue for damages or do anything requiring a court until you receive your registration (or refusal).
One of the key reasons given for this requiring copyright registrations is the deposit requirement. When submitting a physical work, you’re required to also submit two copies of it. Those copies are then placed in the archives at the Library of Congress, which the USCO is part of.
While this requirement was fairly sensible in a world filled with printed books and physical CDs, most works are digital today. Though the Electronic Copyright Office (ECO) system allows you to “deposit” digital works, the process is basically just uploading it to their servers. You are still required to mail in two copies of primarily physical works.
However, as infeasible as that was, it’s still far better than the situation today. After a rule change in 2014, required that every post on a website be registered separately. Previously, creators would just register their site once ever three months to ensure timely registration. This rule change forbid that and made it so that every post required a separate registration (and a separate $35 fee).
In short, the stated goal of helping the Library of Congress grow its collection falls apart as the USCO is actively discouraging registrations. By making such registrations more expensive and more difficult, it does nothing to fulfill any of its stated goals.
However, the frustrating part is how the USCO impacts smaller rightsholders, the ones that can least afford it.
Hurting Small Creators, Hurting All Americans
The worst part about the registration requirement is that it harms two types of creators the most:
Creators that are ignorant of the rules
Creators that can’t afford to register, whether due to time or money.
While $35 for a simple registration may not seem like much money, it can be a tremendous cost barrier for those putting out a large volume of work, such as daily blog posts. However, that $35 also doesn’t account for the fact that most people need help with their registration (at least the first few times) tacking on at least $100 for that service.
This isn’t a problem for major record labels or big Hollywood studios. The cost of registering (or even preregistering) a work is an incredibly tiny part of their costs when creating and publishing new content.
You can rest assured the latest Drake, Lady Gaga or Ariana Grande album are all going to be properly registered. It’s the upstart or local acts that are unlikely to have all of their ducks in a row.
The registration requirement punishes smaller creators, the ones that are often in the greatest danger of being exploited. It also punishes those who put out a large amount of work, adding a flat fee to every work they want to protect.
But then comes the part that no one wants to talk about: The registration requirement makes it so that, by default, every American’s copyright is worth less than those the copyrights of foreign-created works.
To put it bluntly, due to the registration requirement, a newly-created and unregistered American work has less protection than a similar foreign one. It’s that simple.
In short, the registration requirement, and the USCO by proxy, is hurting American creators, giving them second-class protection within their own country. That impact is felt most strongly by smaller creators, the very people that need the USCO’s help the most.
A Not-So-Modest Proposal
The solution to this problem is remarkably simple: Do away with the registration requirement.
Other countries did away with theirs and, along the way, either got rid of or modified the function of their copyright offices. There’s no reason that the United States can’t do the same.
This isn’t the first time I’ve proposed this. I’ve made the exact same suggestion at least a half dozen times including in 2006, twice in 2007, twice in 2009, 2010 and on and on and on.
However, every time I did so I received pushback. Surprisingly, not from groups that want to weaken copyright protection, but groups that describe themselves as pro-copyright and pro-creator.
To them, the registration requirement was a small price to pay for a filled out Library of Congress and the record keeping the USCO provides. While that argument has never been particularly strong or convincing, in wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling, there can be no doubt that the registration requirement hurts all creators and disproportionately harms smaller ones.
There is simply no way to be both pro-creator and pro-registration requirement.
It’s time to abandon this archaic requirement and join the rest of the world.
The simple truth is this: The registration requirement no longer serves the purpose it was supposed to and instead now only punishes creators that either don’t know they need to register or can’t afford to register all of their work timely.
These problems have been compounded by a USCO that, at almost every turn, has made the process more expensive and more difficult, shutting out even more creators.
Even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bater Ginsburg, who wrote the opinion, lamented that registration times have increased dramatically but said, correctly, that these are administrative problems the court can’t address.
As disappointing as the Supreme Court decision is, it’s also the correct decision. This requires a legislative solution and the best one is to get rid of the registration requirement, ideally altogether but, at the very least, as a prerequisite for filing a lawsuit.
Father Thomas Rosica has built a reputation for himself as an amazing communicator for the Catholic Church in Canada.
The CEO of Salt + Light Media, a Toronto-based Catholic media organization, a regular guest columnist in many of the nation’s major newspapers and a former president of St. Michael’s College, Rosica has been heralded as one of the best and most important English-language communicators the church has.
But as bad as one heavily-plagiarized speech would have been, the story was about to get much worse for Rosica.
As others began to dig through his work, they found more and more instances of plagiarism involving everything from newspaper articles, blog posts and more. The story also began to get picked up by secular media, which took a special interest in the columns that Rosica had written for them.
As for Rosica himself, he apologized for the plagiarism, saying in an interview with the National Post, “What I’ve done is wrong, and I am sorry about that. I don’t know how else to say it.” However, in the same article, he also attempted to minimize the plagiarism saying that, “I realize I relied too much on compiled notes,” and the he, “will be very vigilant in the future.”
He also put some of the blame on interns and material prepared by his staff.
In the end, there doesn’t appear to be much that he wrote that wasn’t plagiarized in some way. It seems that plagiarism was (and may still be) very central to his writing process.
Still, as the story winds to a close, it appears that Rosica’s career as a communicator is, most likely, over. However, two very important questions remain: Why did Rosica plagiarize so heavily and why was it just detected now?
A 30-Year Mystery
The peculiarity of Rosica’s plagiarism is that none of it is well-hidden at all. He routinely plagiarized lengthy passages from other, well-known Catholic authors and well-recognized secular sources and he did it in very public places including columns in major newspapers.
Matthew Schmitz, the senior editor of First Things, was so gobsmacked by the plagiarism he saw in Rosica’s work for the publication that he took to Twitter so say that he couldn’t recall a more extreme case.
It’s also worth noting that Rosica is not universally beloved by Catholics. He holds several positions, including on LGBT issues and abortion, that many in the faith are opposed to. In fact, the scandal was initially uncovered by an opponent to Rosica’s views.
All of this begs a difficult question: How did Rosica last so long? Did no one notice the plagiarism? Did some see it and not think it was a big deal? Did someone see it and doubt their findings? Was there an attempt to keep this a secret?
While Rosica wouldn’t be the first plagiarist to have built a long career out of other people’s words, plagiarism is typically a crime with a limited lifespan.
For example, Cristiane Serruya may have plagiarized over 30 books, but she did so in a relatively short six year window. Furthermore, her plagiarism was much more difficult to detect, involving shorter passages, and far less public works, namely books that were for sale rather than posting it on the open internet.
How was Rosica only caught now? He plagiarized extremely flagrantly and extremely regularly for nearly three decades. In an era of plagiarism detection software and search engines, this seems improbable.
The easy answer is to say, “Obviously, no one checked.” Even a cursory check would have found at least some of the plagiarism.
But this also means that no one recognized the words, despite them often coming from adjacent authors. If they did, they either assumed they were remembering wrong or that it wasn’t a big deal.
The fact that plagiarism so flagrant, so easy to spot and so open went on for as long as it did is both mind boggling and troublesome.
That, in turn, is what I find most disturbing about this story. Not the plagiarism itself, but the fact that there wasn’t even a cursory glance at his work for nearly three decades.
It opens the door to questions about how many other plagiarists like Rosica are out there and when/if are they going to get caught? After all, if Rosica can make this kind of plagiarism work for nearly 30 years, what’s stopping anyone else?
The answer is nothing. Nothing other than luck and, perhaps, being in a position of trust. That may be the scariest part of all.
There are two elements of good news in this story. The first is that Rosica was eventually caught. It may have taken far longer than it should have, but it did happen.
The second is that Rosica may have been helped by his age. His academic work was in the 90s, before plagiarism detection software was widely available (Turnitin launched in 2000) and, by the time the tools and technology were available to check on his work, he was already in a position of trust.
In short, he likely wasn’t scrutinized because of his stature even though he only got to that level because no one could check his work for plagiarism as he was coming up.
That may put a limit on the number of similar plagiarists that are out there but it still makes this case deeply troubling.
To that end, it may shed new light on just how plagiarists like Rosica are able to get away with it for so long. That, in turn, may help us prevent it in the future.
First off today, Braudie Blais-Billie and Matthew Strauss at Pitchfork reports that Nicki Minaj has responded to Tracy Chapman’s lawsuit by claiming that Chapman lacks standing in the case and that, even if she does have standing, that Minaj’s use was a fair use.
The legal case is over the unreleased Minaj track Sorry, which used a sample from Chapman’s 1988 track Baby Can I Hold You. According to Chapman, Minaj repeatedly approached her for a license for the use of her song but Chapman repeatedly refused. Minaj used the song anyway and, though her song has not been officially released it, was shared by Funkmaster Flex, putting it into the public.
This prompted Chapman to file the lawsuit but Minaj has now hit back saying that Chapman has not properly registered her claim on the composition and that she is not the owner of the song. As such, they argue that she lacks standing in the case and, even if they’re wrong on that issue, the use was a fair use.
Next up today, Lucas Shaw at Bloomberg reports that Warner Music Group has filed a request for an injunction with an Indian court to block Spotify from offering its songs when the service debuts in the country.
According to Warner, Spotify has not obtained a license to use its music in India but is planning to move forward without one. Instead, Spotify is said to be relying on a local law that covers radio stations. Warner claims that this comes after Spotify backtracked on an agreement between the two that would have licensed Warner’s music in the country.
Since Warner Music Group includes the music publisher Warner/Chappell Music, this lawsuit could impact artists that are not on the Warner Music’s record label. This includes artists such as Katy Perry, who is on Universal Music but licenses her compositions through Warner/Chappell.
Finally today, Adi Robertson at The Verge reports that Epic Games is facing yet another lawsuit over a Fortnite dance routine, this one by two former University of Maryland basketball players that are accusing the company of stealing their “Running Man” dance for a Fortnite emote.
The lawsuit was filed by Jaylen Brantley and Jared Nicken who claim to have created the dance behind the “Running Man Challenge” and that their routine got them invited onto The Ellen Degeneres Show to perform the routine.
The duo join Alfonso Riberio, 2 Milly, BlocBoy JB and several others in filing similar lawsuits against Epic over emotes. However, Brantley and Nicken may have an extra challenge to their lawsuit as they didn’t actually event the Running Man Challenge. Instead, it was invented by two high school students though they are attributed with popularizing it and creating their specific version of it.
Though self-publishing has been a boon for many authors and a great way to either get started or to grow an already successful career, the Cristiane Serruya Plagiarism Scandal has shown how easily abused the system can be.
Serruya, despite having published some 30 books, does not appear to have wholly written any of them. Instead, according to the editor she hired for one of her works, she simply cobbled together a mess of material from other sources (likely getting help from low-cost ghostwriters) and then paying others to edit or clean up the resulting mess.
The problem is that, as horrifying as Serruya’s story is, she’s likely far from alone. Serruya is simply the author that got caught and, much like a fish caught on a hook, is just one part of a thriving ecosystem below the surface.
Authors and readers alike have known this for some time but Serruya’s case has brought a new attention to it.
One such example of that attention is the popular author Nora Roberts who, in a recent blog post, said to such plagiarists, “Enjoy it while it lasts, because it’s now my mission to turn over the rocks you hide under, then stomp you deep in the muck you breed in. To the black hats who exploit, steal, tutor others to do the same, your day of reckoning’s coming.”
But, even as she promises reckoning to those who plagiarize, she also acknowledges the likely futility of it saying that, “If they’re caught, they simply go under, regroup, come back and do it all again.”
But, while authors may struggle to combat this kind of abuse, there is one company that does have the power to take action: Amazon.
Unfortunately though, Amazon is also the least likely company to actually do anything. This is because Amazon doesn’t just want to avoid the labor and cost addressing this issue, but it actively benefits from the system being as broken as it is.
How Amazon Could Tackle Self-Publishing Plagiarism
When it comes to self-publishing, Amazon is uniquely positioned to address the issue of plagiarism. As both the owner of the largest book store and the largest self-publishing platform through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), it’s an extremely powerful gatekeeper.
The problem is that no one is actually keeping the gate.
They are legally free to produce and sell books, physical and digital, regardless of whether they are plagiarized, copyright infringing or otherwise illegal.
Though these protections play a role in enabling this marketplace to exist, it also enables the widespread abuse of it. Plagiarists like Serruya could easily be prevented but Amazon has no obligation to do so and, given the money they’ve made off of her books, have even less reason to do so.
Still, it doesn’t have to be this way. Amazon has a very simple solution right in front of it that would greatly reduce plagiarism. However, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever take.
The Easy Answer
Amazon doesn’t just control two of the most important platforms when it comes to self publishing, it also has one of the largest databases of content in the form of its Kindle library.
With such a large library, it would be relatively trivial to add a plagiarism detection layer to the submission process. The process, most likely, could be largely automated as most books shouldn’t raise any red flags through an automated analysis. However, the report should always be available for any human editor that is working on the book as sometimes a low percentage can hide a much bigger problem.
For books with a larger percentage, it shouldn’t mean an automatic ban. There are many legitimate reasons why a book might have a higher value of matching content including:
Author republishing their own work, either material that was available online or in a previous book. Possibly a new edition of a previous work.
Public domain works that comply with Amazon’s policy.
A new work legitimately based on a previous work, such as bringing on a new co-author.
Computer error or other technology issue.
A case where the original work entered the system after a plagiarized copy.
In short, this would require a human to step in, look at the plagiarism report, work with the author and determine if the work is a plagiarism or if it’s something innocuous. Either way, it’s not going to be a quick process.
And that’s where the problem comes in. To make this work, Amazon can’t just apply a technology layer and wash its hands. It needs to hire people dedicated to this task. However, that is famously out of character for Amazon.
Amazon, the site that may need this standard most of all, won’t be held to it.
In short, Amazon has the ability to curtail much of this problem but is unlikely to ever do so. There’s simply no reason for them to and the odds of that changing are slim to none at this time.
To be clear, this wouldn’t completely fix or stop the plagiarism problem on Amazon. There are types of plagiarism that detection services can’t spot and there are ways to circumvent such services.
However, this layer would still be an important one. Serruya wasn’t just able to slip a few books by Amazon. She was able to publish dozens of books that were, in general, well-liked by her readers. She didn’t just publish a bunch of garbage in hopes of finding a few rubes to purchase it, she built a career.
That should not be possible. Sure you can circumvent plagiarism detection tools but it is nearly impossible to do that while having well-written content that’s easy to produce. You either have to plagiarize less, spend far more energy editing the content or risk your writing being incoherent.
In short, Amazon may not be able to stop plagiarism but it can stop this kind of plagiarism. It’s an egregious kind where, with minimal effort, a “writer” build a real career for themselves until they are called out and it all comes crashing down.
First off today, Elizabeth A Harris at the New York Times reports that The U.S. Copyright Office has rejected an attempt to register “The Carlton Dance”, saying that it is a “simple routine” and is not complex enough to receive copyright protection.
The registration was attempted by Alfonso Ribeiro, who played Carlton on the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. While on the show, Ribeiro created the dance, which became synonymous with the character and, later in his career, Ribeiro himself. However, when the dance began to appear in video games including Fortnite Battle Royale and NBA 2K16, Ribeiro, along with creators of similar dances, filed lawsuits.
As part of that lawsuit, the filed a registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. However, the Copyright Office has rejected that registration. Still, this does not mean the end for the lawsuit as the law only requires that a registration be completed or rejected and the courts are not bound by decisions of the Copyright Office. Still, the decision does not bode well for Ribeiro or the others who have sought similar registrations and faced identical rejections.
Next up today, Ashley Cullins at The Hollywood Reporter Esquire reports that a magister judge involved in the Miley Cyrus We Can’t Stop case has recommended that the lawsuit not be tossed at the motion to dismiss phase, moving the case one step closer to a possible trial.
The lawsuit pits Cyrus against Jamaican singer and songwriter Michael May, who claims that Cyrus’ 2013 song is an infringement of his 1988 song We Run Things. Cyrus had sought to have the case dismissed on grounds that it was past the statute of limitations and that the similarities at issue were too simple and basic to qualify for copyright protection.
However, the magistrate judge has recommended that such a dismissal is inappropriate at the motion to dismiss phase and that those arguments should be heard during the summary judgment phase. That said, the judge did recommend that the damages be limited to the past three years to comply with the statute of limitations.
Finally today, Foo Yun Chee at Reuters reports that the European Union Countries have endorsed the bloc’s new copyright directive, leaving just one final vote before it becomes law.
The new directive addresses a wide range of issues related to copyright in the EU but has drawn high levels of controversy over Article 11 and Article 13. Those articles deal with the use of snippets and headlines from news content and the filtering of infringing material respectively. The directive seemed to be stuck last month over a conflict involving Article 13 but, after a surprise agreement was reached, the directive has been moving forward steadily.
This recent vote was widely seen as little more than a formality as the advancement of the directive likely meant this vote was secured. The next and final vote is before the full EU Parliament and that is expected some time late March or early April.
Up until yesterday, Cristiane Serruya’s story seemed to be a compelling one for a romance authors to get behind.
After 22 years of practicing law, the Rio de Janeiro-based Serruya decided to take up then pen. After after 6-7 years of writing, had churned out more than 30 works and had one of her short stories published in a best-selling collection.
However, in less than 24 hours, all of that was gone.
As of this writing, her site is down, her books, though online, likely won’t be for long and all of her social media presences, including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, have either been deleted of have fallen silent.
Like so many authors before her, Serruya had become the center of a rapidly evolving plagiarism scandal. It’s a scandal that’s left her reputation in complete tatters and made her a pariah among romance authors and readers alike.
However, what’s so amazing about this story isn’t just how quickly Serruya’s downfalls was, but her handling of it. It’s a rare situation where a plagiarist, once caught, managed to make the scandal worse not by denying the allegations, but by admitting to something that many see as even worse.
The post highlighted over a dozen passages where she alleged that Serruya had copied from her in Serruya’s book Royal Love. The passages ranged from short sentences with moderate rewriting to whole multi-paragraph sections that were near verbatim.
Soon, other authors, including Tessa Dare, as well as fans of the genre began noticing still more similarities. They began using the Twitter hashtag #CopyPasteCris to keep track of their findings and the discussion around it.
Dare was particularly engaged in the hunt, searching through Serruya’s work and finding more and more examples.
I am literally 9% into ONE book “by” @CrisSerruya (ROYAL LOVE), and have found text plagiarized from at least 5 authors. #copypastecris
Through most of this, Serruya herself had been quiet. According to Serruya, it’s because she’d been asleep and was surprised to learn about the controversy when she woke up.
However, her response to the controversy after she learned about it may have ended up hurting her more than it helped (Serruya has since deleted her Twitter account, thus the reason for the screenshot of the tweet).
In short, she said that she was not responsible for the plagiarism. Instead, she put the blame on an unnamed ghostwriter she hired from the site Fiverr, a site that’s best known for enabling the hiring of low-cost freelancers.
Though some had suspected a ghostwriter much of the time the scandal was unfolding, others have remained skeptical, noting that Serruya has failed to identify who the person is or provide any proof, other than to say their Fiverr account is now closed.
But, even those who do tentatively believe Serruya often struggle to see why this confession is better.
Is it just me or does saying you paid a ghostwriter $5 to write your bestselling novel without bothering to read their work so much worse than saying you plagiarized the work yourself?#CopyPasteCrishttps://t.co/HgZJw0XUMO
This, in turn, sparked a new and separate debate about the use of ghostwriters in the genre. One with sharp opinions on both sides of the issue.
Author @courtneymilan calls out a plagiarist (the plagiarist @CrisSerruya is blaming a ghostwriter on Fiverr–which raises whole other questions about writing and authenticity–people who run author "businesses" by hiring others to write books they then put their own names on) https://t.co/a3NQdffR2E
Just want to say, I have no problem with writers who write for hire, aka ghostwriters. It's hard to make a living writing, and writing for hire is an honest paycheck–unless you're plagiarizing. (Not that I necessarily buy #CopyPasteCris's ghostwriter claim.)
In the meantime, Serruya was busy shutting down much of her online presence. As of this writing, her website and Twitter are both offline. Though her Instagram and Facebook pages remain active, neither have new content nor do they have statements about the story.
Whether they stay up or not, it seems very unlikely that Serruya has any future in any literature field, let alone romance. Especially since others are continuing to work through her books and are finding more and more examples of plagiarism and more authors that she pulled from.
Okay, because the other post has been overly edited here is yet another updated list in alphabetical order for…
However, the story does raise a lot of interesting questions, some of which do not have simple answers.
Breaking Down the Plagiarism
Serruya’s plagiarism is about as straightforward as it gets. The many examples provided by Milan and others on Twitter showcase countless passages, some small and some large, that have been lifted from other romance authors, sometimes with rewriting and sometimes without.
As with many such plagiarism stories, the proof is in the quantity. One or two examples of similar passages could be explained as coincidence, cryptomnesia or simply taking too much influence. However, when you compile a list of this number of passages, many of great length, the evidence speaks for itself. No expertise needed.
There’s not much doubt that Serruya, or her ghostwriter(s), copied and pasted from a variety of other authors in field and provided no attribution. It’s also clear that the copying is extremely pervasive in the books and pulls from a large number of other authors. Without simply copying and pasting the whole book, it’s about as serious as such plagiarism can get.
The only real wrinkle in the case is Serruya’s explanation, that it was her ghostwriter.
That added an odd but important layer to this case and one that has to be explored separately.
The Battle Over Ghostwriters
Ghostwriters are, almost automatically, a divisive subject among readers and authors alike. Many authors shudder at the idea of ever using a ghostwriter. The thought of publishing someone else’s words under their name simply feels too dishonest.
However, the practice is common in publishing. In non-fiction writing, many, if not most, celebrity autobiographies are ghostwritten. This is also true for other kinds of books written by celebrities not known for their writing, including lifestyle books, cookbooks and so forth. This behavior is not just accepted, but expected much of the time.
But when dealing with fictional works, things get more complicated. Fiction is a wholly creative expression and people generally want to know who created the work much the same way they want to know who directed a film or made a painting.
Similarly, most of the works of Edward Stratemeyer (Hardy Boys) were produced as part of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which employed ghostwriters to crank out the stories, including the Nancy Drew stories. The same is also true for the Baby-Sitters Club series of books, which had Ann M. Martin as the author for the first 35 but were then ghostwritten after that.
So when is it acceptable to employ a ghostwriter? It’s difficult, if not impossible, to say.
The reason is that it comes down to audience expectation. It can be difficult to know what the audience at large, let alone any single person, is expecting. Though hopefully not, it is theoretically possible someone could read this post and be completely unaware about V.C. Andrews, Edward Stratemeyer or Ann M. Martin even though they’ve all been open secrets for decades.
In short, I may be disappointing someone here.
One thing that is pretty consistent is that, when it is more accepted, it’s the publisher hiring the ghostwriter, not the author. Though Stratemeyer hired his own ghostwriters, he was also his own publisher and clearly saw himself as a publisher first. The ghostwriters that took up for Andrews and Martin were both hired by the publisher as are, in general, the ghostwriters for celebrities and their books.
That, in turn, is one of the key differences with Serruya. Serruya not only hired her own ghostwriter, but did so on Fiverr, a site dedicated to hiring low-cost freelancers for a wide variety of jobs. In short, it’s probably the least personal and least artistic way to hire a ghostwriter. It also shows the least amount of care.
Also, since Serruya hired the ghostwriter, it means she is completely and fully responsible for the plagiarism, just as if it were her own hand. She chose to become a romance “author”, she hired ghostwriters and published work under her name. She is responsible for what she puts out there, including plagiarism.
However, that’s perhaps the most bizarre thing about Serruya. No one forced her to become a romance author. She was an attorney for 22 years and began writing supposedly out of her love for the genre. Why would anyone become a romance author if they were just going to hire ghostwriters?
To that end, Jason Chu at Turnitin once said, “Plagiarism is about putting outcomes ahead of processes.” Simply put, Serruya valued the idea of being a romance author more than the process of writing romance books. That, in turn, is a big part of why so many find her admitted use of ghostwriters so offensive.
In short, it feels as if Serruya loves the idea of being a romance author but does not love or respect the genre itself. At least, not enough to write her own books.
In the end, it’s unlikely that Serruya will have any kind of literary career in the future. The plagiarism plus the admitted heavy use of ghostwriters means that there isn’t likely much hope for her future.
Likewise though, there likely isn’t much hope for litigation against her. With her being based in Brazil, any lawsuit against her will likely prove difficult, expensive and not worthwhile. The nature of this kind of plagiarism simply makes litigation impractical.
When it’s all said and done, the legacy of this story may not have anything to do with Serruya at all. This story shines a particularly ugly light on the world of modern self-publishing. While it’s enabled many authors to find an audience it’s also made it possible for people like Serruya to feign a career through plagiarism and/or ghostwriters.
In short, for authors like Serruya, publishing has become a quantity game rather than a quality one and they are going to great lengths to make it happen. It’s highly unlikely that Serruya is the only author, likely not even the only romance author, doing exactly this or even doing worse.
As such, this likely won’t be the last such revelation we see. It may simply be the first of many to come.
However, until the publishing industry changes, it’s unlikely that this particular bad behavior will go away.