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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Edwards, for her part, says she never believed she was doing anything wrong or unethical. The author, who previously has declined comment to the media, agreed to a telephone interview from her Mattoon, Ill., home. Still distraught by allegations in published reports, Edwards wanted to tell her side. "When I write these Indian novels, I research to try to get everything authentic for the reader, every detail," she says. "I would never purposely lie or cheat. That's not the way I was raised. I want it all to be true. What I take from books are merely descriptions. The research is research. I don't want to put in things that are just made up."Skip to next paragraph
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Edwards, who has 10 million copies of 100 books in print, has been a romance novelist for 25 years. She has always relied on other sources to make her historical novels accurate, she says, and was never asked by any editor or publisher to cite them. "No one ever told me I should be doing it differently." Still, she adds, "from now on, I will let my editors know where I got the research," submitting a list of her sources with every manuscript. Edwards is under contract for two new books.
When the controversy first erupted, her publisher, Signet Books, an imprint of Penguin Group, said the accusations against Edwards were without merit, and that under the fair-use doctrine, an exception to copyright law, "anyone may use facts, ideas and theories developed by another author, as well as any material in the public domain." The statement also said that the practice of meticulously footnoting and citing every source was "virtually unheard of for a popular novel aimed at the consumer market."
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.
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.