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December 11, 2012

Can Writers Reuse Their Own Work?

Printer control screen with text: Can We Copy Our Own Work?

On the surface, this might seem like a clear-cut question. Unless we’ve turned the copyright over to another entity, it seems like we should be able to reuse our own work. However the issues surrounding what is sometimes termed “self-plagiarism” are more complicated than they might first appear.

Many of us who blog will occasionally rerun blog posts, sometimes with updates and sometimes without. If we don’t acknowledge that we’re re-posting material, are we misleading our readers by implying the post is new and original? What about when we post material we’d previously submitted for a guest post?

I’ve rerun and re-posted blog articles. Granted, I think I’ve always acknowledged and updated the previous post, but I have to wonder how wrong it would be if I forgot. To a great extent, that depends on whom you ask.

Is “Self-Plagiarism” a Problem?

We saw this issue in the news several months ago with Jonah Lehrer, a former writer for The New Yorker. Although his problems turned out to be deeper than mere recycling of content, the fact remains that the discovery of his unacknowledged reuse of material started his downfall.

Many people reacted as though Jonah recycling his content was fraudulent. Some saw it as a lazy shortcut. And others didn’t understand why it was a big deal.

In other mediums, we expect that recycling. Workshop presenters, stand-up comedians, artistic painters, etc. all repeat their insights regularly. Why are those circumstances okay while repurposing the written form is not?

All Authors Reuse Ideas

The Slate article linked in the last paragraph above tries to make a case that Jonah Lehrer had become an idea person and that’s why he plagiarized himself:

“Lehrer has moved into the idea business. This is the world of TED talks and corporate lectures, a realm in which your thoughts are your product. For the idea man, the written word is just one of many mediums for conveying your message and building your brand.”

However, those of us who write books (non-fiction or fiction) are almost all idea people.

Non-fiction book-length authors usually try out their ideas ahead of time. Maybe their book is even a repackaging and updating of blog posts, anecdotal stories they’ve shared, or lectures they’ve given over the years.

Fiction authors frequently re-use ideas: themes, worldviews, character goals, etc. We might repeat turns of phrase from one book to another. Heck, I can think of several bestselling authors who reuse the same premise for Every. Single. Book.

Author Bob Mayer shared in a workshop about how he’d written a USSR spy story, and then the Berlin Wall came down and no one was interested in USSR stories anymore. He took the same idea, changed the characters and the location to China, and rewrote the story. Same idea, new story.

Yet even with that understanding, there are some circumstances when it’s not okay for a writer to reuse their work—at least not without significant rewriting. Enter fan fiction authors and the pull-to-publish movement.

Is There a “Right” Way to Pull-to-Publish?

Pull-to-publish (P2P) is when a fan fiction (fanfic) author pulls their work off a fanfic site (like fanfiction.net) and publishes the story for profit. If you’ve followed my other posts about the ethics of fan fiction or what authors should know about fan fiction, you can probably guess that a writer profiting off the fans, characters, or worldbuilding of another author doesn’t sit well with me.

Most P2P cases involve a fanfic author “self-plagiarizing” to publish their fanfic story with character names changed from those of the original author’s story. As I’ve previously pointed out, name-change-only stories don’t pass my ethics test.

However, in all those posts, I also stated that I thought there was a “right” way to publish a previous fanfic story. Like how Bob Mayer tackled his problem, fanfic authors can take their unique premise, change the characters, and rewrite the story.

Now some fanfic authors are doing (or claiming to do) exactly that. This has led to interesting discussions about all the reasons why P2P is ethically wrong and what exactly it takes to do it “right.”

The Many Shades of Pull-to-Publish

The P2P issue is typically described with one broad brush, but I’ve seen fanfic authors take different approaches, so I don’t think they should all be lumped together. At one end, we have the P2P stories that most would agree are unethical and other end, we have the P2P stories where the fanfic authors tried to do things “right.”

  • Name-Change-Only Stories

The fanfic author takes their story, including the characters they copied from the original author, and changes the names. The infamous Fifty Shades of Grey falls into this category. The Turnitin plagiarism software found an 89% similarity between Fifty Shades of Grey and its fanfic version Master of the Universe, meaning only the names were changed and some very minor rewording was done.

Stories like these typically appeal to the fans who loved the story in fanfic form and want the print version to keep. In other words, the ethics of this situation also includes issues about exploiting (or at least borrowing) fans of the original author.

Also, fanfic is more collaborative in nature than non-fanfic, so the hundreds, or even thousands, of reviewers (similar to beta readers in non-fanfic circles) have often significantly added to and/or changed the story. However, the ego and ethical issues of the fanfic authors who have taken this approach mean that many ignore the contributions of the fanfic community.

  • “Re-Worked” Stories

The fanfic author does some amount of reworking to the story. This might include deeper character changes, plot changes, and/or heavy editing. One Twilight fanfic story, The Office, recently sold in a two-book deal. The Turnitin analysis showed a 20% similarity between the to-be-published version and the fanfic version. However, no one is claiming the story itself is different, as one reason the fanfic authors decided to pursue publication was that several copycat stories were attempting to go the P2P route.

The fact that the publisher announced the deal in connection to Twilight and the fanfic story shows they’ve chosen to appeal to those fans of the fanfic. Some people will accept a 20% similarity as different enough and some won’t, and some will protest the release regardless, due to the fan exploitation issue.

Depending on the nature of the changes, reworked stories might still have benefited from the work of fanfic reviewers who added to the story. And depending on the ethics of the fanfic authors involved and how much they’re attempting to do things “right,” some might acknowledge those contributions and some will not.

  • Completely Rewritten Stories

The fanfic author keeps the premise and ditches virtually everything else. Like Bob Mayer’s approach, the author creates new characters, who no longer evoke—or are meant to evoke the original author’s characters. These new characters react differently to the inciting incident of the premise, which in a domino effect, completely changes the rest of the story, from turning points to plot events.

On Thursday, I’ll be interviewing one such author, and the Turnitin analysis shows only 1% similarity between the published version and the fanfic version of her story. In this case, the story itself is completely different, so the collaborative nature of fanfic reviewers is likely irrelevant, or nearly so.

Some fanfic authors who take this approach choose to maintain their ties to the fanfic world—possibly leaving themselves open to charges of exploiting the fandom—and some choose to leave the fandom in an attempt to make or break their story on their own. Whether or not we all agree on if there is a “right” way to do P2P, these fanfic authors have put in the time and effort to make the attempt.

Opinions Vary on How to Do P2P “Right”

In a Twitter conversation, agent Pam van Hylckama and I were talking about how much would need to be changed in a story before she’d consider it a new story. For agents, this could refer to P2P or to the idea of when they’d be willing to take another look at a story they’d previously rejected. Her response:

“Pretty extreme. Idea the same but reworked bones.”

What percentage qualifies as “pretty extreme”? Anything over 50% reworked? Only something close to 1% (which any two random stories in the same genre might trigger)?  Everyone might have a different idea about what percentage is necessary to avoid the ethical issues.

In my polling of several anti-P2P people, some saw the 20% case as acceptable, some thought only a 1% case would be acceptable, and some didn’t accept even the 1% case because the entire idea of removing a story from the fandom is disrespectful to the fans (especially to those who put in the time and effort to leave comments and reviews, all of which are deleted when a story is pulled).

The Problem with Lumping All P2P Together

Several places list Twilight P2P books, such as TwiFanfictionRecs and a Goodreads group, but these lists don’t differentiate between name-change-only, reworked, or rewritten stories. They’re all being treated as equally bad, regardless of the intentions and ethics of the fanfic author.

Most fanfic authors don’t have the benefit of knowing and being able to point to their story’s Turnitin percentage of similarity. And I’m sure many more fanfic authors claim they’ve reworked their stories than have actually done so to a significant extent.

However, as I said last March when I was first aware of the P2P issue, I personally don’t think all fanfic authors deserve to be tarred with the same brush. If some have taken the time to attempt to do things “right,” I think we should allow them the opportunity to reuse their unique premise. A premise does not a story make, and I wouldn’t even call that situation a P2P story.

Those authors might still make missteps, like reaching out to (and possibly exploiting) their fanfic readers more than some are comfortable with, or like pulling their fanfic stories to avoid those exploitation issues without realizing that’s disrespectful to their reader-reviewers. But those missteps are not—in my opinion—on the same level as stealing characters and blatant exploitation of the fandom. I do see shades of gray in the P2P issue. *smile*

Do you think a writer can reuse their work? Have you ever reused some of your writing? What do you think about P2P? Is there a “right” way to do it? If so, how? Or are all P2P stories equally bad?

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What do you think?

54 Comments on "Can Writers Reuse Their Own Work?"

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Taurean Watkins
Jami, I used to write fanfiction, but that was for fun, and never took it to the extremes of what you cite above, and put it behind me when I started writing my original stuff. I’ve got enough problems in my life without the weight of federal litigators kicking down my door. I want to feel good (Both ethically and personally) that my name’s on something I wrote because it’s 100% ME, not dovetailing on someone else, that’s why I struggle with people who compare my work to X author in my genre when I’m trying to do my own thing. But I’m trying to be less extreme in my reactions, if only to stay civil and sane. (NOT always easy…) But I’m touchy on this issue, but for WAY different reasons- 1. I’m fed up with thinking about anything related to FSG. Period. 2. I’m struggling with people accepting I’m NOT imitating such and such book or author. As opposed to the opposite thing that Jami cites above. While I don’t advocate lying and scheming, I strongly believe some (Not all, of course) of these extreme cases come about from the mixed messages agents, editors, and various authors sometimes who stress how we have to play the “comparison game” (when we go from writing to selling our writing), and I think to some extent that’s wrong. I mean, as much as writers get told over and over that we need to embrace our uniqueness and not let bestsellers dictate… Read more »
Kimberly Gould

Hi Jami,
I’m always interested in the ethics surrounding fanfiction and pull2pub. My fanfiction (fanfiction.net/~kimmydonn) is almost entirely canon. I couldn’t pull2pub if I wanted to. Recently, however, I wrote a short story for the Word Count Podcast (rbwood.com) that had summer and winter fae and a forced marriage between the two. I’m thinking, if I expand it to a novel, I can pull some of my ideas (maybe a couple whole scenes) from my story about a werewolf imprinting on vampire. Throughout that story, I reference hot/cold. The vampire is like ice, the werewolf runs hot. I don’t think that’s a problem. It will be a few scenes largely re-written.
No, my real question is about my serial on picprompt.blogspot.com that I posted on TheWritersCoffeeShop (http://www.thewriterscoffeeshop.com/library/viewuser.php?uid=19228) I’m thinking about editing this story to release under my erotica penname. Is that a case of pull to pub? Especially if the blog has been inactive for six months and the read count on TWCS is only 140? It’s not like I’m drawing on a big fan base. It’s also not possible to simply brush it off and publish it. I don’t think it makes a novel right now, it needs work.
So, based on your post, would this be that middle “re-worked” story? Does it matter if it was widely read or not? Just curious what you and others think.

Thanks as always for the great blog content.

Angel
Angel

I was just talking about this the other day. I’ve written fanfiction and used an original element in one of my short stories a year or so ago. I thought that this characteristic would be interesting with a character I’m writing in an original work. I asked a couple of fanfic friends if they thought this was cheating. All of them said no. I don’t think it IS cheating but it’s funny how some of us are really willing to do our best to create wholly original works while others are spending a lot of time reworking something that was never fully theirs in the first place.

Stephanie Scott

Very interesting thoughts. I admit I didn’t know much about the fanfiction world until recently–other than it being the butt of a joke (dismissing someone’s writing as fan fiction quality). I realize that fan fiction is so much bigger than I ever realized, and it’s actually pretty cool how the communities are built around it. I’m conflicted on whether fanfic writers should profit off of work based on someone else’s creation; as you said, 1% similarity vs. 89% is a huge difference.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc
This is fascinating, Jami. I’ve never heard of P2P. I have heard of fan fiction, though, and I’ve also heard of the similarities between 50 Shades of Grey and Master of the Universe. 89% is HUGE to me, and very, very wrong. I actually think that 20% is too close as well, but 1% gets iffy for me. There are no new stories. Everything has been told before in some shape or form…it’s just that authors worth their salt must take a premise (a very basic premise, mind you) and add their own twist to it in order to craft what reads as an entirely different tale. That being said, I tend to stay away from reading novels by authors I really love for exactly the reason that you do. I don’t want to accidentally pull something from the plot, character, GMC, whatever, in their writing that might taint my own work. That’s someting that’s on my mind all the time. I feel very strongly about plagarism in fiction. I’d hate to write something and then realize I inadvertantly stole bits and pieces from another writer. So I haven’t read a novel in quite a while. 🙁 Getting back to fan fiction, I’ll be honest. If an author of fanfic, let’s say Twilight, decides they want to pull to publish by simply changing some names and the basics of the plot, I think it’s wrong. And I also think it’s wrong for the publisher who might ultimatley buy that work.… Read more »
Marcy Kennedy
I have to admit that all the fan fiction debating gives me a bit of a headache. Aside from the ethics of it all, I often wonder how it influences the public perception not only of writers but also of how difficult it is to come up with good ideas and turn those good ideas into a compelling story. My husband and I were just talking last night about where the “intellectual property” lines fall because if you gave three writers the same idea and told them to independently execute that idea, you’d come up with three very different stories. Definitely not a cut-and-dry area. In terms of reusing old blog content, I don’t have a problem with that at all as long as we’re still producing fresh content as well. Life happens. For example, Lisa and I shut down Girls With Pens last spring. I’d written a lot of posts for GWP that I was proud of. I didn’t want to feel like they were disappearing because we weren’t maintaining GWP anymore, so I’ve been slowly updating them and reusing them on my new site. Because it’s my content, I feel I should be able to use it however I please. I try to make sure that at least 90% of the content on my site in any month is fresh content though. I also don’t have a problem with writers taking their blog content and expanding it into book form. I know Kristen Lamb has done just that,… Read more »
Avery Cove

Wow! Really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for writing it Jami!

zkullis

Jami,

I’m a newbie author, so I don’t have too much experience in any of this to have much of a voice. My work is “young” enough that I find myself going through a seemingly never-ending circle of writing – fixing – writing – fixing.

But, I also have very strong feelings about plagiarism. This is my opinion; cannibalizing another person’s writing, without the other individual’s permission, especially when a profit is made, is simply wrong.

I would like to thank you for writing this post. It never occurred to me that the amount/timing of changes to one’s own work could constitute a form of plagiarism.

Zack…

Kimberly Gould
Hello again, I wanted to make another comment after reading the comments. I hate to think that writers aren’t reading for fear of plagiarism. We write because we love stories. Also, reading is part of how we learn to be a better writer. Yes, you might have an idea that was sparked by something you read in another book, but if you’ve really taken that idea, worked with it for 60 000 words, it’s not the same idea anymore. And in terms of my book is like X, I think we as authors need that for marketing. You need to know your audience to find them. I know this because I SUCK EGGS at it. I write in many genres and styles and so my audience is constantly changing. It helps (a lot) to be able to say, if you liked X you might like Y. Otherwise you run the risk of snagging readers who aren’t into your thing and getting a bad response because of it. Oh, this was a fantasy, but it wasn’t a unicorn fantasy. Oh, this was sci fi, but it wasn’t speculative like I wanted. Oh, this was dystopian, but it focused on kids instead of teens. etc. etc. etc. I use similarity in my signings all the time: *teen walks by* Hey, did you like the Hunger Games? You might like my book! Is my book a rip off of the Hunger Games? No. Is my book written in the same style as the… Read more »
ChemistKen

I discovered how much I enjoy writing fiction when I began writing an HP based story a couple of years ago. Now I’m using that story to develop my writing skills. I’ve never had any illusions about publishing it, although I’m sure I’ll upload it to fanfiction.net when it’s finished (assuming it ever is). My critique partner has suggested I take out the HP references so that I could publish it, but that would require a massive rewrite to remove all traces of HP.

Perhaps if no one pays any attention to the fanfic version, I might just go ahead and attempt that rewrite, but I’d always be afraid it would sound too much like the original.

ChemistKen

Jami, I knew that JKR has gone after people who wrote and published Harry Potter Guides that involved lifting and copying material off the Internet, some of which was written by JKR herself. Do you know of any instance in which she went after someone who tried to publish a fictional story based on her world?

Vanessa
Vanessa
Hi Jami, Wonderful post as always. This is a very big subject in terms of publishing and fanfiction. As per your previous post, the ethics of publishing fanfiction, that’s were it comes down, the ethical decision. In every fandom I was in, I wrote canon, sometimes a Canon AU like What if Edward was too late to save Bella when Renesmee was born, what would Edward’s relationship be like toward Renesmee? I wrote things like that. I don’t write as much, while it’s fun writing stories continuing the adventures, it’s not my world. However, now and days you really can’t re-work a fanfiction without the fandom suspecting it’s direct p2p. And when an author announces p2p some feel like the Gabriel’s Inferno incident. There are fanfic authors who have one chapter of the fanfic posted, and then when they write more of it, they begin to realize the story is not a fanfic, so they take down the current chapter that is posted, and begin to make changes to change the story from it’s origins. However, Beautiful Bastard is a prime example, here is a review from a book reviewer who got a copy http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/467729895 Once again no on in the HP fandom really p2p because about 90% of the fanfics all follow the universe of JKR. Only one HP fanfic has been published and I will not reveal reveal it in comments. But when I read that book/fic, it does not relate to the universe of JKR so it… Read more »
Carradee

I actually have a short story that’s technically fine as-is, but it’s short and of a style that suits one of my pennames. I started tweaking it to fit in one of my urban fantasy worlds of my main penname, and I’ve ended up with plans for a 3-novelette trilogy.

So I’m seriously looking at publishing both, though I have the added difficulty of the two pennames being intentionally unconnected, so someone who read both stories might think me a plagiarist. I can’t change the setting or too much of the wording without changing the mood, tone, etc. that produced the story to begin with.

That said, my perspective on the 20% fanfic is that I’m okay with it, but I think that the opinion of the original fandom’s author regarding fanfic should be taken into account when considering “How much is too much?”. An author who doesn’t like fanfic to begin with is different from one who just ignores it is different from one who enjoys it and is (or has been) active in the fanfic community.

With E.L. James, her story was a fanfic, and now it magically isn’t, on account of some name changes. If she’d started her story from the outset as a work triggered by the question “What if Edward was a rich Dom, and Bella…?” etc., I’d have no problem with it.

But it was a fanfic. Someone waved a magic wand, and now it suddenly isn’t.

Kat Morrisey
This is a tricky question, the one about re-using one’s own work. I’ve had students in my writing class ask if they can hand in an essay they’ve done for other classes and argue with me about whether it’s plagiarism or not. The area is gray and oddly, the administration at the school I teach at wasn’t quite sure how to approach it. I’ve since put in my syllabus that only original work for MY class would be accepted in terms of handing in assignments. I require this mainly because I want the students to do the action of writing; not because I think one can ‘self-plagiarize’. (Well, technically of course someone can. What I mean is, that though there might be ethical questions of this, I don’t see any legal implications of someone re-using their own personal work for their own purposes.) When it comes to blog posts and such, I think re-using a post and just noting at the top that is was used before (or that it’s been added to) would be the best approach. But I say this not because of the act of re-using it, but more as a courtesy to readers. On a somewhat related note (related to the comments at least), I will admit that though I’m somewhat active in the blogosphere and on twitter, I had no idea about the fan fiction issue and p2p until recently. In fact, and this may make me sound stupid, but when I read 50,I had… Read more »
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[…] Writing Stuff Last time, we discussed the different options for publishing a story that had its genesis in fan fiction: name-change-only, reworking, and rewriting. Whether we believe there’s ever a […]

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[…] Speaking of 50 Shades, Jami Gold explores the ethics of the pull-to-publish phenomenon in fan fiction. […]

Jeanne
Jeanne
I think there are a couple of problems with this entire argument. The first of which is the title of the post. Can Writers Reuse Their Own Work? Already you’ve implied the answer in how you’ve formed the question. After all, how can you not own what is your own work? Yet, you’re ignoring some key aspects of publishing fan fiction, or rather REpublishing fan fiction, that counter this argument which misrepresents what’s actually happening. The reality is that when a person posts (shares) their fan fiction online it has been published. The story has been read, often copies have been made and it is now in the greater consciousness of an audience. It could be argued, from a legal standpoint, that because the story was published as a derivative work the minute the author publicly declared it a fan fiction they relinquished all claims of ownership over the work. Most traditional fan fiction authors spell this out very clearly in the disclaimers they put on their fan works (something many Twilight fan fic authors never truly understood or ever consistently used). Let me frame this in a different manner to make the issue of ownership a little clearer. What if an author was commissioned to write a novel set in the Star Wars universe? They are given the legal rights to utilize these trademarked characters in a new “original” story of their conceiving. They write the novel and it is published. Now, if/when that novel goes out of print… Read more »
Vanessa
Vanessa

Jeanne,

Your comment is everything I have been wondering about myself. It’s true once something is online, it stays in cyberspace. And I’ve also wondered if some of the writers really understand about the disclaimer in fanfics.

Thank you for giving a professional insight.

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[…] Can Writers Reuse Their Own Work by Jami Gold. Excerpt: On the surface, this might seem like a clear-cut question. Unless we’ve turned the copyright over to another entity, it seems like we should be able to reuse our own work. However the issues surrounding what is sometimes termed “self-plagiarism” are more complicated than they might first appear. […]

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[…] Marcy Kennedy had a great post yesterday about the etiquette of reblogging, which is the blogging of something previously posted on another blog. I found it interesting to come across the topic of reusing someone else’s work so soon after we had the conversation about reusing our own work. […]

Sefton
Sefton

Here’s an in-reverse question for you: I have an original story which I’d like people to read. (Currently languishing unread on my hard drive). I would like to change its characters’ names to be those from one of my favourite fandoms and post it as an AU (alternate universe) fanfic on ffnet. My aim: I want people to read and enjoy it! I will be using the fans, in I hope a non exploitative way, to see what they think of my story.

Is that ethical?

Can I still keep my original fic and publish it later?

Your thoughts would be much appreciated.
-Sef

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[…] to build up to writing original fiction. The recent stampede to Pull-to-Publish (P2P) fanfic (changing the names of characters in a fanfic story and publishing it as “original fiction&#822…) doesn’t appeal to them. They recognize that they don’t own the characters and ethics […]

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[…] If they do any writing at all, they’re merely adding transitions between a section from plagiarized book A and a section from plagiarized book B. If they get enough acclaim—and don’t get caught—they might try publishing the stolen story for money, changing the character names yet again, in what’s known as pull-to-publish. […]

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[…] Can Writers Reuse Their Own Work? by Jami Gold […]

daemon
daemon

“self-plagiarism” is an oxymoron. Plagiarism is, by definition, claiming credit for someone else’s work. Claiming credit for your own work is therefore not plagiarism, whether or not you recycle your own work.

Using the term “self-plagiarism” is more than just an ignorant mistake that reflects poorly on the person using the term. It is toxic. “plagiarism” is a Bad Word. It shuts people up. It makes them gasp at the horror. It poisons the well. It instantly changes the mood of a discussion by getting people riled up and ready to attack anything that threatens their moral dogma. What could have been a rational discussion is suddenly a witch hunt. Even a rumor of plagiarism can ruin someone’s reputation.

Therefore, as with any other term that carries so much weight, it is the responsibility of the person using the term “plagiarism” to use it accurately.

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