Why Can’t I Plagiarize Myself?

twinsYesterday I got spammed by someone trying to sell me software to help me keep from plagiarizing myself. Huh? What’s the big deal? Why can’t I plagiarize myself? Who’s going to sue me if I do so — me?

Coincidentally, I’ve been planning to write a facetious post about plagiarizing myself, thinking to be clever — I mean, really. Self-plagiarism? Is there such a thing? I did a bit of research, and it turns out there is an epidemic of self-plagiarism going on. Successful authors who combine bits and pieces from different articles or previous books into one supposedly new article without citing the original sources. Fiction writers who copy and paste descriptions of characters and places from one novel to the next. Academics who use sections of old papers for new ones. (Called double-dipping.) Researchers who recycle old research into new documents. (Called salami-slicing.) Bloggers who repurpose old posts.

If someone is paying for new articles or new books, either as an editor or a reader, and they get recycled hash, there is a matter of ethics involved. But blogging? Who even cares?

A couple of times I have recycled old posts, and that’s what my facetious confession was supposed to be about — going back to some of my early posts that got a few views when they were first published and none since, updating or adding to them, and posting them as new. Why should my old writings go to waste? I wrote some good pieces that no one read. Why should I have to let such treasures get lost in the depths of the blogging garbage dump? They were my words. I should be able to dig them out and recycle them if I wish.

Sometimes I cut and paste a paragraph or so from a previous post to maintain consistency from post to post, especially if I’m writing about how I felt back then. I’d trust my blog posts more than I’d trust my memory. Is that self-plagiarism?

Occasionally, I’ve sent other bloggers an old post to use as a guest post (they knew it was an old post — in some cases they chose the article themselves). Is that self-plagiarism, too?

In my novels, I have been very careful not to reuse any part of one book in another (except in the case of Light Bringer where I paid homage to More Deaths Than One by letting Bob Stark appear briefly). Readers pick up echoes in books — if writers repeat themselves within a novel, readers sense the echo even if they are not consciously aware of it. And readers can pick up echoes from one novel to the next, which is why I don’t like series — too often, the writers recycle bits from one book to the next and the echoes are deafening.

But blogging? Does anyone really care? There are a handful of people who have read almost all 1111 of my posts, but most people who have stopped by read only a few. So who, besides me, would ever even notice if I repeat a section of a previous post for consistency’s sake or rework one of my first bloggeries?

Still, now that I’m aware of the problem, if ever I rewrite an old post, I will either link to it or mention that it’s a revision. You never know — someday I could get litigious and decide to sue myself, and I couldn’t afford the lawyers since I’d have to foot the bills for both sides of the case.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

19 Responses to “Why Can’t I Plagiarize Myself?”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Self-plagiarism, huh? Well, what do you know, you can learn something new everyday and not have to pay tuition to do it.

  2. cgparkin Says:

    Great concept – sounds like something out of a Phillip K Dick story – your ‘older’ self comes back to demand royalties from your present-day self!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      You’re right — a great concept for a story. What if the older self had squandered all the money, so wanted to get more. What if they got in a fight and one of them killed the other?

  3. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing) Says:

    Good heavens, Pat ~ who knew? I suppose I’m just as guilty as you are of plagiarizing myself, although this is the first time I’ve heard of it. Since it belongs to me, I’ve always felt free to re-use any of my own writing as I see fit without seeking my own formal permission(unless, of course, I’m submitting something to a professional journal, where such a practice is a major no-no). Anyway, if you ever do decide to sue yourself, perhaps we could file some sort of class action suit against ourselves, so as to cut down on expenses ♥

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      That’s the way I see it — it’s not as if a blog is a professional journal or as if we were getting paid for what we write. Apparently the latest chapter in the whole “self-plagiarization” contretemps came about because some New Yorker staff writer used paragraphs from previous articles in a blog post without citing the sources. I don’t see that as a problem since he did it in his blog, but apparently it was a big scandal.

  4. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    When I am writing off the cuff and not being paid for it I don’t really give much of a damn if I do recycle ideas I’ve mentioned elsewhere. If paid I am much more careful.

    I like the idea of creating ongoing storylines or having ongoing characters in my fiction. I think finding new ways to describe characters you enjoy working with can be an enjoyable challenge.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Yes, it’s a challenge, but a necessary one. I’ve read series books where all but a few chapters were taken from previously published works.

      • ROD MARSDEN Says:

        Now that is cheating. I hate it when whole pages are just lifted from previous works.

        Meanwhile you have series books like Harry Harrison’s Steel Rat. Each book is complete within itself so you can buy one and enjoy it thourouly or get the whole series. It’s up to you. The same can be said for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Me? I’d love to follow in the footsteps of these great writers.

  5. Katharine Trauger Says:

    Hmm. So if you write without being paid,and if the original editors rights are over in one year, you cannot use the material after that? It’s yours. Someone only borrowed it for a year, right? Hmm. Wouldn’t it be like a reprint?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Yes, it would be a reprint. The way I see it, if you didn’t get paid for it, then who cares? It would only matter if someone paid to read it a second time, or if an editor paid to print it thinking it was new material.

      • Katharine Trauger Says:

        So, although I wrote it and I am just allowing it to resurface on my blog site for those who missed it six years ago, must I give attribution to the first magazine? I suppose I could word it in a bragging way . . .
        Also, they still have all this donated work on their Internet archive (only subscribers can access it) and I wonder about robots and SEO. So many things to think about. If you’d rather deleat this and answer privately, I’ll understand. 🙂

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          There’s no reason to delete your comment. You bring up good points, and there are a lot of things to consider. If we post the same blog article on different blogs, are we supposed to link to the first time it was posted, even though chances are no one who reads the second article will have seen the first one? The way I see it, if no money is involved, there is absolutely no reason to cite oneself. I’ve seen articles that were posted in two places at once and it never occurred to me that there was anything wrong. And there isn’t. Who is the victim? The lone person who happens to see the same thing in two different places? I don’t think so.

          The one thing to be aware of, though, is that once something is posted on the internet, it’s considered published. If you were to post a short story on your blog, for example, you couldn’t also submit it for consideration to an anthology of unpublished works.

  6. Jerry Last Says:

    Pat: From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: ‘Plagiarism is defined in dictionaries as the “wrongful appropriation,” “close imitation,” or “purloining and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,” and the representation of them as one’s own original work’
    Note that the concept of plagiarism includes stealing words or ideas from someone else, not from one’s younger self.
    I think the discussion of self-plagiarism confuses the moral and ethical offense of plagiarism with the legal offense of copyright infringement.
    My $0.02 worth…..

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Jerry, You’re right, there is no legal copyright infringement, but there is the ethical matter of professionals who pass off old work as new. Luckily for me, I’m not a professional blogger!

      • Katharine Trauger Says:

        So, if I use articles someone else once owned the rights to (magazine), and who is still using them (Internet), should I ask them to take it down? Should I rewrite? What? I am talking about copyright infringement, here, I know, but so often that topic falls under the topic of plagiarism because the academic world makes that confusion. I realize I own my own stuff that I post on my site and am free to repost. My question is about something I wrote years ago, for gratis, giving a one-year copyright to someone who still uses it on a web archive that I’ve just discovered is not accessible to subscribers only, but is freely available to anyone. I now have someone else interested in using my old works and I think I should have the freedom to relocate it. I also have SEO questions about all this, but mostly want to stay out of trouble with the law. Imagine. Sighs.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          If you gave someone rights to an article, and those rights have now reverted to you, it is definitely copyright infringement for them to still be making the article public. Ask them to take it down.

          If you own the rights, you are free to do with the work whatever you want. If the people who are interested in your old work don’t know it’s old work, however, you could have a problem, especially if they want only unpublished work. But if they know what they are getting, then there is no problem.

          • Katharine Trauger Says:

            Yes, they read it first, in the old magazines, and figured it good enough for their new readers who’ve likely never read it, or forgotten. (Harried moms are the target audience.) I am eager to have a new audience since the first one liked me lots and I think the current location for my work is a dead end. I never get referrals from it, ever.

            Okay, I’ll work on getting it taken down. Thanks for your help, here. 🙂

          • Pat Bertram Says:

            Best of luck getting it straightened out.

  7. Carol Wuenschell Says:

    I think you have the right idea on this. It’s really a matter of are you trying to deceive and also are you trying to profit from that deceit. If the answer is “no,” then, what really is the problem?

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