On Genealogy Plagiarism, Libel and April Fools

VIC5315It seems to be the season for genealogy foolishness. Yes, long time genealogists, including myself, are keenly aware that over the past thirty-five years (and before that) writers have been stealing other people’s stuff. It is just not right. Its thievery.

On the other hand, think back a bit. Have you ever read something bad about someone, and you knew it wasn’t true at all? Yes, I have too.

With the advent of blogging and social media, genealogists have opened a wonderful door, that is both a blessing and a curse. We now have access to a wider audience, but also to much more mis-information.

Such is the case, recently, where a person [to remain unnamed] published a genealogy book, reputedly using already copyrighted text to create it. Why do I use the term “reputedly” when several genealogy bloggers show side by side examples, proving they say, that plagiarism was committed?VIC4845

I am cautious, because I have no first hand knowledge of this situation. I was not there when the “original” writer penned their entry. I don’t know if the original writer was 100% creative, or if they had outside inspiration. Ditto for the second person who reputedly used that information, compiled a book and was selling it online.

The writer could be guilty, or could be innocent. Why am I so vehement about this? A true story follows. In high school I was approached after class by a social studies teacher who wanted me (and my twin sister) to re-take an essay exam. When I looked surprised, the teacher reassured both of us that he did not THINK we cheated, but since we sat side by side in class, and our ESSAY answers were so very close to the same, that he hoped we would agree to his request.VIC4736

We did agree. We took a second exam, a completely different set of general essay questions where the answers were wide open for interpretation. We sat in different rooms to take these tests, both monitored by different teachers. The following day in class, the instructor offered us a public apology, and explained to our classmates what had occurred, and what he had suspected. He read aloud a sample question and our essay answers. These essays, broad in scope, were almost identical to what the other had written.

Yes, I realize that what happened to us was an unusual occurrence, but obviously not an impossible one. And by most reasonable person’s standards, a person is innocent of a crime until proven guilty. Or has the world gone mad and we’ve forgotten this?

Yes, yes I know. The “genealogy situation” was resolved when the original creator pursued action with the publisher. She had apparently instigated appropriate legal action against the same person in an earlier case. Good for her. Glad she did. It was exactly the right thing to do. VIC5301

Is it, however, my role, or yours, or anyone else’s to jump on the “get him/her” bandwagon and call someone a plagiarist or worse, in a blog post, or in a FaceBook group? And then is it okay to call anyone who thinks you should be cautious about that action, a pro-plagiarism pro-evil, bad-guy/girl? I’m glad my social studies teacher didn’t jump to conclusions.  He was thinking, “these girls sit next to each other, they had exactly the same responses to an open-ended essay, therefore they must have cheated [and plagiarized].”  We hadn’t.   Regardless of my opinion in this matter, writers will write and express themselves.  Good for them.

I guess a bunch of folks have forgotten about the libel laws. I’ll just post them here [see some great links below] so you can be reminded of them. They are important, a real time and money saver, especially if you ever find yourself dangling at the end of a lawsuit. Some of you will probably be thankful I’ve reminded you. Others will just be screaming that I’m trying to put a damper on those who want to prevent plagiarism.

I am offering some good advice, and the safe and reasonable truth about defamation and the potential harm that can be done to people. I am advising that, unless you have personal, first-person proof that a law has been broken, you are better off not saying or typing (anywhere) that it was. I know that many of you are sticklers for primary evidence when it comes to genealogy research. Why should it not matter to you when it comes to writing about living persons?VIC4738

Finally, to get to the topic of April Fools. April Fool’s Day’s origin is unknown, but most of us know it is a day for some to make an innocent person feel like a nit-witted victim. As a child, I admit I had fun trying to play jokes, taping the kitchen faucet and asking for a drink of water, or putting petroleum jelly on the door knob and telling my brother his friend was outside. Hopefully those involved have long forgiven me these pranks.

As an adult I learned that these seemingly small events can hurt. People can feel betrayed, or if their feelings are already fragile, to feel the brunt more harshly. As an adult, I have learned that these “jokes” are not really in my best interest to perpetuate. They do nothing for me, could easily be avoided, and could potentially hurt an innocent person.

I think you see the connection. Enough said.

I’ve said what I felt needed to be said.  I’ve uncovered the elephant in the room.  Comments to this post will not be published (my right as the author).


Legal Guide for Bloggers: Online Defamation Law

Bloggers Beware: You’re Liable to Commit Libel

Libel Vs Slander

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