Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Great Minds Think Alike--or, I Don't Own My Words

Years ago, another lifetime ago, I wrote a book. It was about kids in commercials and it was published by Doubleday. Cool, right? Eh, not so fast. My title, The Commercial Kids, was axed by the sales staff in favor of How To Get Your Child Into Commercials and Modeling. The former was kinda cute; the latter was to me, a serious journalist, an embarrassment. But at least in those days, Doubleday did not give mid-list writers much choice. Grin and bear it, I was told; bend over and smile--all the way to the bank. But that trip to the bank never came, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that after my book was published, a deluge of similar works came off the presses. I tried to ignore them; what else could I do. But I would check each one out as it was published and one day I picked up the latest version and started to read the Introduction. And the words sounded familiar. Very familiar. I'll never forget that kick in the stomach feeling I had when I realized that my words, my writing had been stolen. First, I was incensed. Then I felt the futility of doing anything about it. And then I was depressed because not only had my book turned into an embarrassment for me, but it had been plagiarized. Talk about a double whammy. I could have gone through that second book, highlighted every sentence that duplicated one in mine and taken it into a court of law. The choice not to sue was mine, and I made it because I didn't want to spend an inordinate part of my life looking backwards and being bitter. So I said, "Whatever...", hoped the second book would tank (it did, they all did) and marched off bravely into the future. I haven't forgotten, but I have moved on.

As one who has spent the better part of her life as a writer, I have some fond, perhaps archaic feelings about my ideas and the words I use to express them. Before the internet existed, before everyone and their uncle was a blogger, that had some meaning. Now? Not so much.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post in which I took the words Blogito Ergo Sum as my motto. Since then I've used those words and/or their translation, "I blog, therefore I am" as a constant on my site. I was a Philosophy major as an undergraduate; Descartes was drilled into my head and so it was not all that creative when I gave his words a spin because they said so perfectly what I feel about my blogging. But I went a little nutsy the other day when I saw them as a title of a session at BlogHer DC. Obviously I was not one of the panelists and obviously there are a lot of other former philosophy majors out there, but still--

Another instance: A month or so ago, I wrote a post called John McCain versus the GOP. In this week's Newsweek, Jonathan Alter has a column called, "Crushed by the Elephant." We both said pretty much the same thing. My line was "John McCain--the Hanoi Hilton didn't break him; the Republican party did" and Alter's was "a man who survived five and a half years as a Vietnam POW and a thousand political battles is being crushed by a dying elephant." Did Jonathan Alter grab my idea? Don't be ridiculous. I prefer to think of it as, great minds think alike.

The good news about blogging is that it has given a voice to me and many others who would stand shrieking in their closets if not for the internet. The bad news is that a lot of other people can hear you now. That means that ownership of ideas is impossible. I'm sure a mathematician could come up with the odds of how many people would have the same idea at relatively the same time. I'm seeing the Alter-ByJane coincidence as a teachable moment for myself, one that's allowing me to put the I blog, therefore I am incident into perspective.

Yet, there are definite consequences in the marketplace. For one, Alter got paid for his column and umpteen thousand readers (Newsweek hopes) read him, while I got bupkus and my stat reader rarely goes above double digits. But I don't think there's anything to be done about that, short of deep breathing, marching bravely into the future, and moving on.

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