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Sampling, Borrowing, Homage, and Plagiarism (Writing Essentials)

November 1, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 29, 2013

This article is part of Writing Essentials,
in-depth coverage of the elements of fiction and writing basics.


I once assumed that everyone who made it through junior high (middle school) understood what plagiarism was and also understood that you don’t do it. Ever. Not at all. Not one sentence.

But if reports out of our schools and newsrooms are any indication, then plagiarism is thriving.

I’m not going to make you wait until you get to the end of the article for the conclusion on this one. The conclusion is, you don’t take the work of others and pass it off as your own. You don’t borrow or sample. You don’t write in the style of another author—not even one that you love, love, love—by using her phrasings. No, it’s not an homage or a tribute. It’s theft. And that author, as well as everyone else, knows it’s theft. And if you borrow or sample or steal the words or ideas of another, you are a thief.

Was that clear enough?

If you’re a student, please take this as your notice—you can’t take even one line from someone else and present it as your own. If you’re writing fiction, the story must be your words. If you’re writing an essay, you can refer to the work of another using either direct or indirect quotes, but you must include attributions in your essay. Whether your footnotes are in the body of the text or included at the end, you have to provide references for your source materials.

And if you do refer to the works of others, those references should only bolster your own words. That is, you are the author of a report or essay, so the major part of any writing project should be your words—your questions, musings, and conclusions. Quote only short sections of someone else’s work, not paragraph after paragraph.  (There are limits to how much can be quoted of a single work, even for non-profit educational purposes. For more information, check the Fair Use provision of copyright law.)

If you quote directly, without a paraphrase, you must use quotation marks. And include citations.

If you paraphrase, using indirect quotes, you don’t use quotation marks but you still include citations.

If a thought isn’t original to you and is not common knowledge, you must cite your source.

This one should be easy, but apparently it isn’t. So I’ll find another way to say it.

If you use someone else’s words, no matter where you got them, you must put them in quotation marks and report the source. (The format for reporting source information depends on what you’re writing. Reference info typically includes author name, title of book or article, publication name, publisher’s name, date of publication, and page number. Internet sources have their own requirements. Make sure you know what’s required and the format you should follow.)

If you paraphrase, you must actually paraphrase—restate the meaning of something in different words to either clarify or summarize. Taking one or two words out and removing the quotation marks is not a paraphrase. Merely changing a few words—using synonyms—is not a paraphrase.

Each writer has a style. The way they craft sentences and arrange words is peculiar to every writer, so substituting words, especially for adjectives only, is no way to paraphrase writers. You need to change not only the words but the sentence construction and layout as well.

And if you paraphrase, you still cite your sources. Why? Because you must give credit where it’s due. If you use someone’s words or ideas, you tell where you found those words or ideas.

The Internet has made it infinitely easier to discover information, but that doesn’t mean that everything you find on the Internet is yours for the taking.


Let’s consider examples of a paraphrase appropriate for essay or report or non-fiction article. (This entire example is made up, therefore there are no sources for me to cite.)

Journalist Juan Edgar wrote a book about naturalist Josiah Teasdale. In Edgar’s words—

Teasdale is an expert on the flora that flourishes near waterfalls. When he invited me on his next expedition to the Snake River and Black Serpent Falls, I never thought to say no. Only as we approached the crest did Teasdale tell me that more than two dozen hikers had been killed by the Black Serpent in the previous 18 months.

Blind to the danger, Teasdale knelt near the very rim of the falls. Soaked from the sharp spray in just seconds, he watched, entranced and unmoving, as the cataract tumbled blindly, lushly, violently, over the summertime boulders, impatient to plunge into the frothing pool below. As for me, I not only didn’t go near the edge, I scrambled back five or six yards. Away from the pounding water. Away from the power that vibrated the earth under my feet.

Next, a few attempts of another writer to paraphrase Edgar that are actually examples of plagiarism—

Edgar reported that Teasdale seemed blind to any danger and knelt near the rim of the waterfall to watch as the cataract rushed blindly, violently, over the summertime boulders, eager to reach the frothy water of the pool below. X

Soaked from the water’s spray, Teasdale watched, unmoving, as the cataract tumbled over the boulders, impatient to plunge into the pool below. X

Only as they approached the crest did Teasdale tell Edgar that more than two dozen hikers had been killed by the Black Serpent in the previous 18 months. X

Oblivious to the danger, Teasdale knelt near the edge of the falls. Soaked from the stinging spray in seconds, he watched, without moving, as the water raced violently, loudly, over the rocks and into the churning pool below. X

These examples don’t work because they are primarily the words and ideas of Juan Edgar, not those of the writer who’s trying to paraphrase him.

Rewording that does work—

Edgar seemed surprised by Teasdale’s indifference to the power of the water rushing over the falls. Teasdale sought out that power by moving closer while Edgar reported that he himself moved away.

Edgar reported that Teasdale ignored any danger inherent in standing at the edge of a violent waterfall, that he actually didn’t note the danger, so caught up in the moment was he.

When Teasdale took journalist Juan Edgar to Black Serpent Falls, Teasdale ignored the danger inherent in standing at the edge of a waterfall. In fact, he seemed oblivious to any danger, so caught up in the spectacle of water rushing over the rocks was he.

Such rewordings allow you to not only report what another writer said, but to also turn the focus toward a particular section of the referenced material. You get to show, by drawing a conclusion about the words you’ve referenced, what’s important in those words.

You can thus use a reference to prove or disprove a point. But the reference standing alone doesn’t do that. You can’t just quote or paraphrase and think, Ta-da! You have to point out the connections for your own readers. You have to connect the source material to your point or conclusion. At the same time, you need to make sure your conclusion truly derives from the source material. That is, you can’t make a connection where none exists.

Paraphrasing is not a matter of changing the word order or cutting out a word here or there—you don’t get to take advantage of the word choices and rhythms and sentence constructions of others. What you can use paraphrasing for is to put the meaning of a section of text into words that mean something for your writing project.

So our paraphrases that did work focused on the responses to the power of the waterfall but did not borrow Edgar’s words and visuals. You could have used the same source material to draw other conclusions as well.

Maybe Juan Edgar later died when he fell from the edge of a waterfall, and the police suspect foul play. If the only witness, a neighbor found to be having an affair with Edgar’s wife, said that Edgar brazenly stood close to the edge of the waterfall, an investigative journalist might take Edgar’s report and focus on the fact that Edgar stepped not closer to the edge but farther away when he’d been to a waterfall with Teasdale.

For your own paraphrasing, try this: rather than simply changing another writer’s words, pull out one key word and build your paraphrase around it. For one of my examples I focused on the word danger. For the other two, power.


Fiction is different.

Quoting others and paraphrasing their words is not something we do in fiction, especially in the body of a story. (For the most part, that is. There are always exceptions.)

You may need information straight from a source for essays and term papers and school reports and non-fiction articles and company reports, but fiction stands on its own. Even if you have to research an era or need to know about weapons or clothing or scientific principles, you do not drop the research, whole, into your story. You learn the information and then put it into the head and heart and words of your characters, or you use it to create a realistic setting. If one of your characters offers an insight into space travel, that insight shouldn’t come out in the words or sensibilities of Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking or an uncredited writer at Wikipedia. The words, the attitude, and the intent behind the words should sound like your characters. The style should fit this one story.

An example of plagiarism used in fiction. (Assume that the terms for measurements are real, something the author found in a book on astronautics. Again, this was created for this article and was not taken from a real story. )

As his Astropod zipped past the Xiklam quadrant, Braintree estimated the distance and time to Piqot. Tongue caught between his teeth, he made the calculations—there are five bodats to every dat and the speed necessary to achieve bodat is 9600 boodles. Boodles are the space standard, decreed so by the Treaty of Ghar in 2765. Before that, jenz and pla-ang were used, but only by the members of the United Galaxy. Minority members eventually convinced the others of the supremacy of boodle calculations.

Pretty awful, isn’t it? But that’s how bad a passage can get when you drop research, verbatim, into fiction. Not only are you inserting words that aren’t your own, which we’ve already said is theft, but the words and phrasing and tone don’t match the story. These sentences will stop your readers and pull them right out of the fiction.

If you have a character who starts to lecture, chances are you’ve thrown some research, perhaps word-for-word research in someone else’s words, into your story. You’ll definitely want to change such sections in your fiction.

Yes, you want to make the story sound real and, yes, you may have to do some research to learn something you don’t know. But just as you wouldn’t stop to explain how a car runs, you don’t need to go overboard just to prove you did your homework. Use the facts, but work them into the story in a way that reveals character or advances the story.

As his Astropod zipped past the Xiklam quadrant, Braintree estimated the distance and time to Piqot. Tongue caught between his teeth, he made the calculations. When he saw the estimate—all five different estimates—he flung his blip screen across the cockpit. Damn boodlian projections! What was wrong with the old system when you could estimate, just once, and be accurate within a half jenz?

What About Exceptions?

What if you want to quote from a song or poem or another fiction work in your fiction? Are there allowances or exceptions? You would, of course, reference the source of your quotation.

For the most part, if the other work is not in the public domain, you must obtain permission to use the words of another writer in your fiction, even if you cite the source. The reason is that you have no right to make money off the words or ideas of other writers and they have the right to say what their words and works can be used for. The copyright holder gets to determine where his words are used, who or what is affiliated with his words and ideas, and who gets to make money off his work.

Fiction is typically considered for-profit, whether you actually make a profit from it or not. Thus the different allowances between writing done in schools, for educational purposes, and commercial writing. Quotations used in educational settings can typically be used without the author’s or publisher’s permission (yet you must still cite sources and must use quotation marks for direct quotes—citing sources and obtaining permission are separate issues).

Note: Publishers of non-fiction books that quote and refer to the works of others routinely obtain the permission of both author and publisher and include source citations. Such is the nature of non-fiction books, where references to source material are expected and commonplace.

The Fair Use section of copyright law deals with this issue, explaining how much of another piece of writing can be quoted without permission, but the specifics and allowances aren’t easy to discern. There are a couple elements to consider and they must be weighed to see if wording constitutes fair use or not. Even though Fair Use might allow for a few lines of a song or poem or story to be quoted without permission, publishers are rightly wary. They have no desire to delay a book’s release if a copyright case goes to court when the original author wants to pursue copyright infringement. They have even less desire to defend such a case, so they’ll often discourage the use of quotations from copyrighted sources.

Is there an absolute law (in the U.S.) that says you can’t include a few words from another source without permission? In those terms, no, there is not. But there are limitations.

Note: If you are self-publishing, read the Fair Use section of the copyright laws and consult a lawyer if you intend to quote the work of another. Yes, you could be sued if you include someone else’s words in your stories without permission.

Limitations mean no inclusion of the full lyrics of your favorite songs. They mean no collection of Maya Angelou poems—nor the quoting of any whole (copyrighted) poem at all. They mean no quoting the speeches of favorite characters from other books.

You could, of course, get permission of the copyright holder. And that could cost you some big money. It will probably cost you some big time as well. If you’re close to your deadline and haven’t secured permission for your quotes, it’s likely that your publisher will encourage you to drop them.

This doesn’t mean you don’t have options.

Have a character refer to the title of a song or book—yes, that’s allowed.

Have characters refer to a line from a song, poem, or book without actually quoting it. This is actually easier than it sounds. I urge you to try it.

Write your own songs or poems or novel quotations in the style that fits your story. If you can write the novel, you can try writing the quotations as well.


Common Knowledge and Public Domain

So what about common knowledge? How is that handled in writing projects?

Common knowledge has to do with information known to a wide body of people or information that can be found in a variety of places. It can be something we all know or something a great many people know. So while a child may not have knowledge of something, that doesn’t mean it’s not common knowledge.

We know the sky is blue, that two plus two equals four, and that the Super Bowl is played by football teams, the World Series is played by baseball teams, and the World Cup is played by football (soccer) teams.

Even if an individual didn’t know these facts, they are common to a large population. Therefore you wouldn’t need to cite references to such information.

Also, even if knowledge isn’t widely known, if it’s information that’s available from a variety of unrelated sources (and not simply one source that’s quoted again and again), it’s considered common knowledge.

For example, the Nama-Herero war of 1880, in what is now Namibia, can be referred to without a writer having to cite references, even though many in the world might never have heard of the war. The insights of one historian in regard to the war, however, would need to be referenced. It’s the general facts of the war that don’t need to be cited.

In the same way, if you researched the World Cup and found some interesting insight peculiar to another writer and used that insight, you would need to cite your source. If you quoted him directly, you’d also need to use quotation marks.

If a story or song or other information is in the Public Domain, that means it doesn’t belong to anyone. There is no copyright on it or the copyright expired. You can make reference to works in the public domain, even quoting from them, without having to get permission from anyone, but you still have to cite your sources. And you still have to use quotation marks or otherwise indicate which words are not your own.

For example, some novels open with a quote from a poem, the Bible, or other material from the public domain. Often the words are not in quotation marks; you may instead find them italicized. You’ll always find the reference cited with the quote.

Note: While some versions of the Bible are public domain, newer translations are not. Contact Bible publishers for their allowances for quoting their versions and for instructions for citing Bible references.

While you can use information and material from the public domain without permission, you can’t treat such material as if it were your own. You still can’t include passages from the works of others in your writing without giving proper credit to the author.


Don’t be the high school graduate who gets to college and flunks a class or gets kicked out for using a source that you don’t identify or for using someone else’s words verbatim. And please don’t be the college grad who gets a job with a newspaper, presents articles as your own, and then loses that job because you borrow a phrase here or there from other writers. Even obscure ones. Even dead ones. And don’t be the novelist who samples from other writers, pretending that the practice is a compliment to the other writer.

If you’re writing a story or an essay or a poem—if you’re writing anything—then you need to write it. Your ideas. Your conclusions. Your words and flavor and styling.

It’s simple.

Use your mind and experiences and questions and even your inexperience to frame your writing projects. Use your style. Use your ideas. Write sentences as you, not anyone else, would write them.

For non-fiction, make research material work for you. Use references that prove or disprove a point. Draw conclusions from what you read and include those conclusions, in your voice, in your projects.

For fiction, put research into the context of the story. Make even common facts fit the story era, the character, the plot, and the emotion of the scene.

Make your writing reflect you, not some other writer. Trust yourself to write your own words.

The take-away—

Use quotation marks for direct quotes

Cite sources for direct quotes and paraphrases

Get author and publisher permission for quoting other materials in commercial and for-profit books

Use the fewest words possible from another source

Pick one word or idea from a quotation and use that as the base of your paraphrase

If you’re taking research notes, use quotation marks in your notes when necessary and note all info needed for the citation

While you can’t buy the work of another (from essay mills or your best friend) and pass it off as your own, you can hire an editor or ghostwriter and use the words that he or she suggests

Sampling and borrowing are not homage or compliments but plagiarism

The story you have to tell or the writing project you have to deliver is worth telling in your words. Use them, those words of yours. We want to hear what you have to say. If we wanted the words of another, we’d read their work. Tell us your story and your grand or fascinating or unique ideas as only you can.

If you need help, there are plenty of people to help you. But don’t give us someone else’s words in your story. They won’t fit. They won’t be as compelling as your words and your slant and your style.

Words that aren’t yours simply aren’t right for a project that bears your name.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Beginning Writers, Writing Essentials

36 Responses to “Sampling, Borrowing, Homage, and Plagiarism (Writing Essentials)”

  1. lee says:

    My protagaonist uses two literary figures as role models: Robert Parker’s Spenser and Alex Berenson’s John Wells, both tough guys with major attitude. I refer to them with attribution. “Marvin thought Robert Parker’s Spenser, the great Boston PI, would just rip his head off.” (paraphrase of my own work) I don’t this is palagiarism; am I wrong? Is it actionable? Thanks. Your blogs always up my writer’s consciousness.

  2. Lee, the short answer is that you’re allowed to mention other characters and titles of books, songs, and poems in your fiction. You’re allowed to mention living people and trademarked products by name as well.

    However, characters from copyrighted works and living people cannot become characters in your stories, not without permission from the appropriate sources. And if you intend to portray real people (living or dead) or trademarked products or actual companies in a negative way, be prepared to face challenges and/or lawsuits.

  3. The Internet makes plagiarism easy. Copy and paste: so many assume it’s okay. When I taught in a small college in the 1970s, there was no Internet, so students had to laboriously steal from books in the library. Now, well, supposedly colleges have some very good anti-plagiarism software to help profs catch the culprints.

    I’ve loved your blog for a long time and frequently link to it in my BOOK BITS blog or readers’ and writers’ links. I’m glad to see this post.

    I disagree with one point: Briefly aping another author’s style has, for years, been an accepted literary device as well as a mainstay of satire and parody. Let’s not muddy the waters and call it theft.


  4. When I was teaching at New Braunfels High School, we had a social studies teacher who insisted that it was okay for students to copy directly from a book when they wrote their term papers for him. There was no need for quotation marks. When I cautioned him about this practice, he argued with me (Head of the English Department) about it. He finally went back to his professor at Texas A&M to get ammunition to use against us. The professor said we were right, and he was wrong, but he had been teaching for over twenty years. Appalling!

  5. Malcolm, the Internet does make it easy. And not just the Internet. We’re used to copy and paste through our software programs, so it may simply feel natural to do the same thing with other materials. Perhaps if we can point out why plagiarism is wrong to today’s students, fewer writers will do it. Cheating was a big deal when I was in school—everybody knew it was wrong, even those who did it. Today, there doesn’t seem to be the same attitude toward taking from others.

    I understand your comment about style. Writing in another’s fashion is one way to teach style, and parody is definitely a legitimate practice. I was trying to emphasize that using another writer’s phrasings—word choices more than anything—is not right.

    Yet a writer’s style, the way he approaches story and the way he frames sections of a work and even his sentence structure, is intrinsic to that writer. These things belong to him, make him the writer that he is. Make him different. Were another writer to simply change the major words of a passage—the nouns, verbs, and adjectives—he’s still taking something from that first writer. Rhythms, patterns, and word order in sentences distinguish one writer from another. Isn’t taking those peculiarities the same as taking the words?

    I’m imagining a software program that could go through a novel and subsitute words—character names, place names, verbs—and change the story without changing the framework. Yes, it would no doubt need some other rewriting, but it could be done. Then whose story is it?

    Good points to consider. Thanks for keeping me and the readers here thinking.

  6. Marilyn, isn’t it funny how we’re sure something is true? I’m glad you kept at it with him. It’s sure to be a lesson he won’t forget, and I hope it’s one he’ll pass on to his students.

  7. Marilyn says:

    I’m SO glad I found this site. As soon as I revise the first 30 pages of my funny female detective story, I’m sending it to you. It’s well worth $120.00. I am inspired.

  8. Marilyn, I’m glad you found the site inspiring. I look forward to seeing your work.

  9. ds says:

    “Plagiarism is thriving.”
    “It’s theft. And that author, as well as everyone else, knows it’s theft.”
    “Was that clear enough?”

    No, but perhaps more hyperbole would help.

    • Marilyn says:

      It is not hyperbole. At Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, education students discovered, during their research, that passages were quite similar in two documents. One was the dissertation written by the president of the university. The other one was the dissertation written by his wife. The students notified the president’s university of the similarities. The university did an investigation. Since the president’s dissertation was published second, his university found him guilty of plagiarism. They took away his doctoral degree, and SWTSU fired him.

  10. DS, sometimes you just gotta tell it like it is.

  11. Jessie says:

    Hi! I have a question…before I even get started on this novel…I had an idea to do a gender reversal based on a Hitchcock story. It would be the basic premise for the first chapter, but I think it will go in a much different direction with a female character as the lead. Would that in itself be plagiarism? Would it be possible to maybe clearly state my intention in some way? I don’t want to paraphrase or quote or use the same writing style. I know I could do something similar if it was a parody, but I really don’t want to follow the story that closely. Just more of a “what if” take (in this case, male instead of female lead) on the story. Do you know of any books that may have tried this? I know there are some movies that do a “re-imagining” instead of a remake. Sorry my intention is not to plagiarize, but I think it would be a good twist on a classic story. I’m seeing it more as a writing prompt. Where is the line on this?

  12. Marilyn, that would be awful. You’d think they would know better.

  13. Good questions, Jessie. Ideas, including plot, can’t be copyrighted. So the plots of many stories may sound the same as the plots of many other stories or movies. You can definitely do twists on another story. And you can do homage as well. And yes, stories make great prompts. We read books or watch movies, think “what if,” and then we’re off.

    What you can’t do is feature someone else’s characters in your plot, as if they were your creation (though you can mention another character). You also couldn’t simply change the names and/or setting but leave everything else the same, such as the action incidents and dialogue.

    Let’s look at The Da Vinci Code. If you told the same story, only changing Langdon to a female, you’d be plagiarizing and violating copyright. Yet, if you wrote a story about a female symbologist out to discover a secret at the Louvre, you could write a story nothing like The Da Vinci Code and not be plagiarizing in the least. Of course, readers and critics might connect the two stories and claim you’re riding on Dan Brown’s coattails. You’d have to prove them wrong, not in court, but through your writing.

    I’m sure many books have done the same. And fanfiction is thriving. But in fanfiction, authors don’t claim to have created the characters or the story worlds. And most of the time they don’t try to make money off the stories, writing just for the love of it. But there are potential legal issues there as well.

    I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t offer legal advice, but I’m guessing that you might see a greater link between your idea and another story, because that other idea sparked your idea, than others might see. If you’re writing your own story with your own characters, you should have nothing to worry about.

  14. I agree with everything Beth Hill said. Don’t forget that WEST SIDE STORY was ROMEO AND JULIET set in New York with two gangs in place of the Capulets and Montagues. I saw a plug for a book recently that said WUTHERING HEIGHTS set in space. Interesting concept. The trick is to be different enough.

  15. Jessie says:

    Thank you Beth!!! That is such a wonderful response! You answered all of my questions. That is exactly what I needed to know.

  16. Patrick says:

    What about lines from films or TV? I’ve got a pop culture savvy secondary character who occasionally quotes obscure and not-so-obscure things, nothing more than a few words. I get that quoting large sections of a song or another book is bad, but how much of a film could you get away with?

  17. Marilyn, being different is indeed the key. There are plenty of stories to go around.

  18. Jessie, you are most welcome.

  19. Patrick, your example falls under the Fair Use doctrine of the copyright law. The ultimate answer is that no one knows for sure how much is too much, although a few words of a large work is usually assumed to be allowable. Songs and poems are too short, so any words, especially memorable ones, may be the heart of the song or poem. That’s a big reason why we can’t quote songs or poems, even a line or two.

    Check out this link for the fair use doctrine—Fair Use

    What it always comes down to when quoting someone else is that a novelist is using someone else’s words for a commercial purpose and that someone has the right to control how his words are put to use.

    You can always ask permission. For a movie, that may mean approaching producers and/or script writers. They are no doubt asked dozens if not hundreds of times a year about quotations, so they might have a standard policy.

    Always give credit and cite references for words not your own, no matter the source.

    An easy work-around is to simply make up movie quotes (and movies) just as you do everything else. Doing that doesn’t always create the instant identification that true quotes give the reader, of course, but that very fact proves that the story is relying on the words of someone else to create an impact. If you’re relying on the work of others, using the goodwill and identity they established, shouldn’t you seek their permission first?

    This is definitely a dilemma for writers, but not an insurmountable one. And if you are seeking traditional publication through an established publishing house, they will let you know their rules and limitations.

    Have I muddied the waters even more? I wish I could give you a one-size-fits-all answer, but there really isn’t one.

  20. alastair says:

    Hi Beth,
    Another helpful post as always. I’ve got a question about using a character. I’m writing a SF novel where we can lay a “skin” over reality in the same way that one would change the theme on your cellphone. A couple of the “skins” used are old video game scenarios and characters (the Mario Brothers) being one of them. In essence they are like costumes that characters wear, or in another case, the characters play a 3D version of an old game. Do you know if this is legal?

  21. Alastair, I can’t advise you about the legality of such a practice, but I’ll remind you of copyright law and fair use. Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive article on Fair Use. You might want to read it, see where your situation might fall under some of the categories.

    My first impression is that you’d be using recognizable characters in a way not authorized by the owner. That could get you into trouble. Also, I’d guess that the Mario Brothers characters are trademarks. If you use the trademarked characters in a way not approved or authorized by Nintendo, you could face legal challenges for that as well. Trademark infringement is an issue separate from copyright.

    If your characters are playing at Mario Brothers, just mentioning that they feel like Mario and Luigi being repeatedly attacked by King Koopa or Bowser may not be a problem. But calling to mind the scenarios and taking on the characters? I’m guessing that’s not going to go over well.

    What this amounts to is you using the goodwill and familiarity Nintendo built up for the characters in order to draw readers to your story. In addition to that, what if Nintendo doesn’t want their characters associated with something in your story? Let’s consider an extreme, althought I’m sure this is nothing like what you’d do. Say that your Mario character, or the character taking on his persona, is a serial killer or pedophile—such a characterization might easily damage the Mario Bros. reputation. Nintendo has the right to protect their property from such a connection. In order to protect their property from the extreme, they may also have to protect it from even benign infringement.

    If this is a big part of your story, consult a copyright and trademark lawyer. Or consider rewriting a bit. Why can’t you make up the video games for the skins they’re putting on? Why use a real game such as Mario Brothers when you could use Zeke’s Travails instead? Zeke and company could have had just as many wacky adventures as did Mario and his friends. The only difference is that Zeke’s adventures would be solely in your imagination.

    Let us know how this goes for you.

  22. A. Burt says:

    I’m wondering.

    “I love you,” he said.

    That phrase has been written before. Hundreds of times. Why isn’t it plagarism. What if I wrote the following:

    He came towards her, violence hung in the air, bound to drop.

    I just made this up as I’m typing this. What if another writer has written that before? Is it plagarism? How do you prove either side?

    • A great question. In our discussion, plagiarism and copyright infringement have to do with taking and using the words of another writer with or without giving that person proper credit and without getting permission (the two are related but separate issues). Simply happening to use the same words isn’t plagiarism.

      As you pointed out, many phrases are used by writer after writer. Common phrases are just that—common.

      According to the U.S. Copyright office, short phrases can’t be copyrighted. So they don’t belong to any one person.

      Plagiarism is when someone intentionally or accidentally uses the words of another. But it’s not likely anyone would accuse another writer of plagiarism of common phrases (and likely the court wouldn’t entertain such a case) unless those phrases were used in a way that showed they were taken from another writer’s work.

      So a single common sentence or phrase wouldn’t make a case for plagiarism. But two pages (even a paragraph) worth of common sentences—for example, arranged into an argument or conclusion, or used as description or dialogue—would.

      Also, it’s likely that thousands of writers might use “I love you,” he said but not likely that more than one writer would write a page on the elegant flutter of oscillating Jintzen fans, beginning with The girl’s bangs brushed against her cheek—again and again and then again—as she lifted her face to the air, seeking the flutter from the smoothly oscillating Jintzen fans and ending with Reginalossa’s ordeal was shut down at the same attosecond those oscillating fans ceased their timeless repetition.

      Even these two sentences alone, without a page of other material between them, would likely be enough to prove plagiarism.

      So either unique text or long stretches of common text could be shown to be plagiarized.

      Plagiarism cases go to court because of the laws against copyright infringement. But if plagiarism is suspected, all it might take to “prove” the plagiarism for many people would be to compare the suspect passages against the other text. That court of public opinion can be very quick to judge.

      You can see an example of suspect passages in a New York Times article from today (Wed.) that purports to show plagiarism by Sen. John Walsh in a paper for his master’s degree.

      If you are simply writing a story, not using other sources as you sit in front of your computer and work, it’s likely you have no worries regarding plagiarism. If, however, you are using research materials, then you want to be very sure that you are not copying words or conclusions from your sources.

      I’m not sure how they prove plagiarism in court, if there is some minimum number of words or a percentage of text or a comparison of common words to the unique—you may want to read up on some real-world cases. But unless you are actually plagiarizing, I would suggest it’s not an issue to worry about. It would be very hard to use the same unique words another writer uses in such a way that would suggest plagiarizing unless you were really plagiarizing.

      Now, I can see how a writer might accidentally copy research materials into his text without paraphrasing them if he thinks he already paraphrased when he was writing his notes, thus my suggestion for paying attention to what you do with research materials. Even accidental plagiarizing is plagiarizing. Instead of dropping information into the text whole, make the characters use the info in a personal way, a way that makes sense for the story. In this way you’re not teaching the readers, you’re entertaining them. They might learn something new, but it will seem to be incidental and not as if you’re feeding them research.

      Does that get to the heart of your question?

  23. daemon says:

    What is your opinion of this scenario:

    Mary writes a fanfic from the perspective of an original character who interacts with main characters from the source material.

    Sue likes the story but thinks the writing could be much better and the story could be written just as easily in the form of a novel (not fanfic). The story has the potential to become excellent literature that wins the praise of critics and of millions of readers. It does not reach that potential because it is fanfiction (therefore, it limits itself to a niche readership) and it is not written very well (therefore, it does not win praise from critics). Sue wants it to reach that potential. She is willing to work for free, and for no recognition, to benefit readers’ lives by making a good novel available to them.

    In order to help the story reach its potential, she reworks the story significantly to turn it into a good stand-alone novel, maintaining the basic premise, story arc, and conclusion, but slightly changing the characters’ backstories and relationships with each other, merging some characters together, adding some characters, removing some characters, choosing a different setting, changing plot details, etc. This is done for the sake of improving the story and making it work without the context of the original source material, not just for the sake of making it different from the fanfic.

    Sue posts the novel free to read on the web. She does not put her name on it, leaving it as an anonymous work. This is all done without notifying Mary or asking permission.

    Is that plagiarism or unethical in any other way? Would it make a difference if there is a note on the first page that the novel is derived from Mary’s fanfic?

  24. Rach says:

    Thank you for this article.

    I wrote a short story based on a writing prompt in Steven King’s “On Writing”. I was thinking of trying to publish it but I’m afraid that it would be considered plagiarism. Can you offer any help or advice?

    • Rach, did you actually use words that King used or did you just follow a general prompt? That is, did he give you a paragraph to get you started and then you wrote the rest of the story beyond that point or did he just suggest that you write a story about a ball rolling across a town?

      If you’ve included his words, you’ll need to change them. If you simply followed a prompt to create something wholly your own, you’re fine. If it’s something not quite either of these, let me know.

    • daemon says:

      If you are really that concerned, then there is always a way to guarantee you are not plagiarizing: cite your source. Plagiarism is defined as not citing your source when it should have been cited, so problem solved.

      However, there is no reason to expect someone to cite a simple writing prompt. Therefore, even if you do not cite your source, you are not plagiarizing.

  25. Richard says:

    Hi –

    Great article thanks for that. Wondering if you were back in Isaac Newton’s time, after he identified “gravity” and gave it a name. It is Newton’s idea and word, yet it is also a feature of reality. Could a writer of that time–but constrained by our current laws–use the word “gravity” without plagiarism?

    In my work, I want to use shamanic concepts defined by a famous writer. His defined words–analogous to gravity in the example–are used by other writers and really cannot be improved upon or substituted with synonyms. To a certain culture, they are defined features of reality. Now, of course, my intention is to cite the other author’s contributions, a metaphysical scaffolding for the reality in which the book is built. What say you?


    • Richard, single words can’t be copyrighted, though a person could get trademark protection for them. Still, trademarked words and phrases can be used by anyone as long as that use isn’t for a business or service use of the trademarked name.

      As for using the information itself, that’s where you might run into the plagiarism issue. So it’s not in using the coined phrase but in using someone’s ideas that could be a problem. Still, if the information is out there in public, it can be referred to. However, you wouldn’t use the information from the source verbatim and you wouldn’t somehow imply that the idea was your own. Under some conditions, you wouldn’t use someone else’s idea without a nod to the creator of the idea. This would definitely be true for a nonfiction work.

      That’s general advice. There may be more prohibitions if you’ve got other issues to consider.

      If you’re saying that a writer came up with some cool concepts and already used them in his own stories, you’d likely have a copyright issue.

      If you’re saying that a researcher came up some some cool concepts and wrote them up in scientific or news magazines or as research findings and you want to feature such findings in your fiction, I think you have much more leeway.

      If you’ve seen these cool concepts but the finder/inventor of them hasn’t shared them publicly, then it’s likely that you have no right to use them.

      Your ability to use this information probably has a lot to do with how public the information is, how it’s already been used, and what uses the finder/inventor of the information plans to do with it. So if he shared this information with you and yet he was planning to write a series of books featuring his theories/findings and yet you also featured his theories in your books, it’s likely you’d find yourself in a problem situation.

      Using widely disseminated public information is one thing, but using information that only a few know about, especially if the information was gained through research or study, would be a totally different issue.


      You say that others have used these terms—are we talking something similar to terms used in psychology? A character can use terms such as id, ego, superego, negative reinforcement, cognitive learning, and self-actualization without needing to make any reference to those who coined such terms. These are public concepts and therefore fictional characters can refer to them. The same would be true for scientific concepts such as string theory, the big bang, the many-worlds interpretation, and so forth.

      Is any of this helpful? You can put public information to use in your stories. You can even use specialized information that maybe only people familiar with a certain industry or topic would know about. Yet you can’t take someone’s developing research and run with it, treating it as public knowledge.

      Using concepts that another fiction writer developed and used in his own stories? That’s a tougher call. Typically it would likely be an issue of copyright infringement. Yet maybe not in all cases. Writers who use the traditional lore of vampires for their horror stories are using common knowledge—the vampire can’t see his reflection, can’t tolerate sunlight, must drink blood to survive. (And your famous writer’s shamanic concepts might one day be in this category or might even already have reached this status.) But a writer who uses specifics about vampires that another writer developed for her own series—vampires can’t fly if they weigh more than 160 pounds, vampires can catch chicken pox (and it’s fatal) if they haven’t had chicken pox before they’re turned into vampires, and vampires develop the allergies of the people whose blood they drink, leaving them vulnerable to ragweed, peanut allergies, and cat dander—is appropriating the ideas of another writer.


      Not knowing how common these terms are among writers and whether they’re real or simply used in fictional settings, I’m not sure what other information I can give you.

  26. Hannah says:

    This is a great, informative article. I am writing a piece set in a world which draws a lot of inspiration from Persian and Arabic culture. My protagonist is a lover of romantic poetry, and I want to have him quote the poet Rami, “The beauty you see in me is a reflection of you.” Obviously Rami is long dead, and his work is Public Domain, but how would I go about crediting him? Do I need to credit him and, more importantly, should I do so?

    Thank you so much for any help you can lend, and once again, you have a wonderful and informative blog!

  27. If I name a minor character Poldark (in homage to Poldark of BBC fame) is that copyright violation?
    It’s easy for me to find a Cornish surname, yet I would like to include a homage…

    • Wouldbe, you can use names of characters without being in violation of a copyright, but you typically can’t write a character from a copyrighted work into your story. So if you’re just using the name Poldark for some character who is nothing like Ross Poldark, you shouldn’t have any problems. You can also mention famous characters by name—“Billy just told me that Severus Snape is his favorite bad guy.” You just can’t take established characters—from copyrighted works—and write a new story that features them.

      One reason is that some characters are protected by trademark protection. While we can’t copyright characters, the trademark owner gets to decide what trademarked characters do and say.

      Still, just using a name and not trying to include the character in your own story usually causes no problems.

      However, the use of a famous name could bring up connotations for your readers that you hadn’t intended. If readers will always be distracted by the name of your character, you may want to choose a different name. Or you may want to give the character a name in homage to someone else but also give him a nickname that others always use for him so that he becomes his own person and not an extension of an existing character in someone else’s story.

      There are plenty of online articles written by lawyers regarding copyright. You may want to check out a few of those as well.