Plagiarism: Stopping word thieves


(CBS News) "In your own words" is an admonition students hear a lot in school. But as long as people have been writing, there have been plagiarists, too. Some take their offense to an art form, only stopping after they get caught. We asked Lee Cowan to put the topic of Plagiarism in HIS own words, for our Sunday Morning Cover Story:

"His step had an unusual silence to it. It was late morning in October. ..." Those are tempting words to begin MY story about the man you're looking at - they fit perfectly - but they aren't MY words, they're HIS.

Quentin Rowan penned them to open his very first novel, "Assassin of Secrets," a spy thriller published under a pseudonym last year.

Problem was, those first few words were about the only ones he didn't steal.

"There are stretches that go for maybe 10-15 pages, where the only thing changed are the names," he said.

Pick a page, almost any page, and you'll find it a carbon copy of someone else's work - an astonishing mash-up of as many as 20 different books (many of them James Bond novels) all rolled into one.

Book A: "The first move was to lose himself in the swelling throng."

Book B: "The first move was to lose himself in the swelling throng. "

"I know, I mean, it's wild, looking at it," Quentin said.

"I mean, it seems like a massive word puzzle, sort of," said Cowan.

"Yeah, well, I was, it felt sort of like making a collage."

The tale of Quentin Rowan's literary tailspin began with the best of intentions. He started writing poetry as a teenager. He was good. His work was even chosen for an anthology - "Best American Poetry" - in 1996.

Back then, his words were proudly his.

But soon, like a dangling participle, self-doubt was creeping into his writing. So he began replacing his words, with smarter ones he found in S.A.T. prep books.

"When did it switch from replacing words to then replacing phrases to replacing sentences to paragraphs?" asked Cowan.

"It was a slow progression," he said. "At a certain point, I started thinking I wanted to write stories, to write fiction, and that's really when I started stealing sentences and paragraphs and stuff."

He did that - successfully - for 15 years. The young, seemingly hotshot writer even fooled the highly respected Paris Review, which published not one, but two of his stories - both with portions lifted from other authors.

So did he sense, as he was doing it, that it was wrong? "Oh yeah," Quentin said. "Even when I was just taking words from poems, I already felt like I was a criminal, you know?"

Accusations of plagiarism have plagued writers for centuries. Shakespeare was accused of it; so was Oscar Wilde.

T.S. Elliot famously stated, "Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal."

The Beatles' George Harrison was sued for lifting the melody of "My Sweet Lord" from the Chiffons song, "He's So Fine."

Ray Parker Jr, who wrote the "Ghostbusters" theme, was taken to court by Huey Lewis for allegedly ripping off "I Want a New Drug."