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Journalist gains readers when his copy turns up, unexpectedly, in a romance novel

Elements of Paul Tolmé's piece on black-footed ferrets end up as dialogue in a book by bestselling author Cassie Edwards, yielding new readers for him and charges of copying his prose for her.

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Although the terms plagiarism and copyright infringement are used interchangeably, they are different. Plagiarism is primarily an ethical issue; copyright is a legal matter. To plagiarize means to take the work or ideas of another and pass it off as your own. This in itself is not illegal, unless there's also a copyright violation.

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Still, for some observers, when it comes to use of another's words, the question of legality is secondary to ethics. "Even if it's legal, it's still in my eye completely unethical to pinch another's language without attribution in a novel," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at New York's Columbia School of Journalism. "A clear lift of dialogue by a novelist is a violation of the implied contract with the reader."

Allison Kelley, executive director of Romance Writers of America, agrees. "If you're using someone else's words, you're using someone else's words," she says. "And it's not acceptable to have that in a romance novel without permission or attribution."

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While others in Steamboat are enjoying the snow-gauzed slopes this afternoon, Tolmé, clad in Levi's and a fleece zip-neck, is marveling at all the attention the incident has attracted. At one point, he wrote a commentary about it for Newsweek.com. "I spent most of the next few days answering e-mails," he says. "I was getting hundreds per day. They came from educators, librarians, authors, wildlife lovers, and naturally, romance fans."

Some romance readers chided him for deriding the genre. But most were sympathetic – and a few even "frisky." "I suddenly became the focus of adoration of all these women romance readers," he says, with a combination of embarrassment and wonder. "They wanted to see pictures of me shirtless." Preferably holding a ferret, and sporting Fabio-like long hair.

But he is grateful to romance fans – not just for the compliments about his aquamarine blue eyes and comparisons to Justin Timberlake. "I reached more readers than ever before because of the romance community," he says. "Isn't that what every writer wants – an audience?"

The ferrets, too, received an unexpected boon. Romance fans have raised more than $10,000 in donations for black-footed ferret conservation efforts. The fundraising idea came from novelist Nora Roberts, who pledged to match donations up to $5,000. The romance blog's Ms. Tan, who helped spearhead the drive, says, "We wanted to transform something that had left a bad taste in our mouths and turn it into something positive," she says.