I used to regularly join in with some of the discussions on Talkback, the message board of Writers’ News and Writing magazine: but earlier this year, a thread I began there about a reputable charity auction attracted several negative comments (I’m afraid you’ll need to be a member there to gain access to most of these links). The allegations that the literary agency behind the auction was only taking part in order to gain publicity and benefit financially were bad enough; but the discussion became farcical when one long-standing Talkback member stated the spirit-world had told her that the motives of the people involved were sinister.
There ensued a bit of argy-bargy, much of which has now been deleted by the forum administrators, and I decided that I was wasting my time at Talkback.
Months passed, and when I wrote my recent article about the BWA I remembered Talkback. I’d wondered at the time what the odds were for so many writers from one small message board to be shortlisted for awards which had attracted over 21,000 entries. Most of the Talkback threads about the BWA were in a private section of the board and so couldn’t be quoted: but one thread in Talkback’s public area encompassed many of my worries about the BWA and so I linked to it, and quoted it in my BWA blog post.
That blog post began to get hits from Talkback; and then a few of the friends I’d made there warned me that something was up. Eventually, I followed the link they’d sent me: although the thread mostly discussed the issues which had haunted the BWA, some of it was very critical of my use of that Talkback quote.
It was alleged that I hadn’t attributed the quote I’d used; that because I hadn’t asked permission from the writer of that post, my use of the quote concerned was plagiarism; and that bearing in mind the stand I’ve taken against plagiarism and copyright infringement I was being hypocritical. The discussion spilled over onto Facebook and goodness only knows where else; a few people expressed their anger at my apparent duplicity; hackles were raised. I shall now do my best to address these points in an effort to make amends.
First: that question of attribution. I put a link in my article which led directly to the discussion in which the quote I’d used featured. I would have preferred to link directly to the comment but I’ve been unable to discover how to isolate a single comment on Talkback. My original draft of the article gave the user-name of the Talkback member whose comment I excerpted but I edited her name out of my final version, as I was anxious not to make her the focus of any negative attention my blog post might attract: my purpose in using the quote was to illustrate the problems which were faced by some of the people who attended the BWA’s gala event, not to force negative attention towards any of the individuals concerned.
The Talkback member I quoted has stated that she has no objection to my use of her quote: nevertheless I apologise to her unreservedly for any distress I’ve caused her. I’m still not going to name her here as original my concerns still stand: but if at any point she decides she’d like me to edit her name into my original post and / or this one, she only has to tell me and I’ll do so.
Next: should I have asked permission to use the quote? It simply didn’t occur to me to do so. While I do get permissions for the quotes I use in books, I tend not to for short quotes in articles as they’re allowable under the guidelines of fair use, so long as you make no secret of the source of the quote. I would have sought permission if I had wanted to quote a long extract or a full article: for example, I wouldn’t have proceeded with these analyses without Mr Rozansky’s prior permission to reproduce his original piece in full. But to quote a small extract from a discussion on a public forum, and to link back to that extract? I’m happy that’s allowed as fair use, but agree that it is a nebulous area. There aren’t any black and white rules when it comes to fair use: just guidelines and suggestions. I have checked with a legal friend who has confirmed that my use of the quote was, in his opinion, perfectly acceptable under fair use: but you can be sure that in future I’m going to be even more careful than I usually am to ensure that I stay well within the boundaries of what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Now, the big question: was my use of that quote plagiarism? Definitely not. Plagiarism is the act of passing off the work of another person as your own and at no point did I do that. It was clear that I was quoting someone else. My use of that quote could have been copyright infringement, which doesn’t involve that element of passing off: except that as I’ve already discussed, I’m confident that my use of the quote came under the guidelines of fair use: and if you’re not convinced, then do please provide me with your reasoning behind your opinion, and no—I’m not being snarky here: if I’ve done wrong, then I’m keen to correct that wrong-doing, and to apologise for each and every problem or hurt that I’ve caused.
I’m grateful to everyone who warned me of the unpleasant allegations made against me; and I am saddened, but not at all surprised, that not a single person behind those allegations has contacted me to express their concerns, and in so doing give me the chance to respond or make amends. I want to be clear about this: if anyone is troubled, angered or upset by something I’ve written here, please let me know: you can add your comment on the posts or if you’d rather proceed in private you can reach me via my contact form. It’s not difficult to get a message to me; and even though it might not be pleasant, I really want to know when there’s a potential problem so that I can attempt to put things right.
I’m nearly done here: but I have just one more point to address. A few people felt that I was being hypocritical in having stated my case against plagiarism and copyright theft so strongly, so often, and then apparently indulging in those acts myself. I’m happy that I didn’t plagiarise anything or infringe anyone’s copyright in my use of that quote, and I strongly suspect that the suggestions that I did were motivated by sour grapes, and not in the interests of fair play.
You’re welcome to quote up to 100 words from my blog so long as you link back to me, and credit me properly. If’ you’d like to quote more, contact me at “HPRW at tesco dot net” for permission. You’ll almost certainly get it.
Guess what? I used more than one hundred words of the quote I took from Talkback, and so am hoist by my own petard. Hypocrite? Me? Yep. Based on that evidence, I am.
(There now follows a short break while I fling myself about the kitchen in search of a consoling cup of tea.)
Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going leave things as they are for a few days so that interested parties can go and look at my old blog and point and laugh at me for a bit, and then I’ll change the message on that blog to a more appropriate one; and as I’ve already said, I’m going to make doubly certain that I do things right in the future.
Meanwhile, I send my sincere apologies to everyone I’ve upset, misused, damaged or otherwise hurt by my wanton over-quoting: I really am sorry. My grateful thanks go to all of you who warned me of what was being written about me on Talkback, Facebook and beyond. And to those of you who have gossiped and accused and pointed accusatory fingers at me: I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a much more positive new year. Life is too short to bear grudges, and I hope you all find true happiness and contentment in the years to come.