Friday, June 26, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Hassett vs. Hasselbeck: What A Plagiarism Lawsuit Reveals About Writers' Fear of Theft

Writer Beware often gets correspondence that goes something like this:

Dear Writer Beware,

I [wrote/self-published] a book about [topic/plot synopsis]. I sent [the manuscript/the book] to [name of agent/publisher]. Next thing I know, there's a book on the market just like mine! I'm sure that someone plagiarized it. What can I do?


My answer (couched, of course, in much more tactful terms): Get over yourself.

Theft is an incredibly common writerly fear, but for book writers, it's almost completely unjustified, especially where unpublished work is concerned. A good agent or publisher won't risk his or her reputation by stealing; a bad agent or publisher isn't interested in your manuscript at all, only in your money, or else is too unskilled to do anything with your manuscript even if they were stupid enough to try and steal it. Also, if your writing is marketable (the biggest "if" in the quest for publication), it's a lot less trouble just to sign you for representation or publication than to expend the effort of filching your work and pretending it was created by someone else. In the long catalog of things that book writers need to worry about, theft truly is at the bottom of the list.

I was reminded of this by a recent news story about a self-published author who has filed suit against TV personality Elisabeth Hasselbeck, her publisher, and "John Doe" (I'm guessing this is Hasselbeck's ghostwriter). The author, Susan Hassett, alleges that Hasselbeck plagiarized Hassett's book, Living With Celiac Disease, in writing her own book, The G-Free Diet: A Gluten-Free Survival Guide.

These claims are detailed in a letter to Hasselbeck from Hassett's lawyer (the letter was obtained by gossip website TMZ.com). The letter alleges that Hassett sent a copy of her book to Hasselbeck, care of ABC Studios, in April 2008. (Hasselbeck's book came out in May 2009--which all on its own could refute Hassett's allegations, since, given the timeframes in publishing, Hasselbeck's book may well have been complete or mostly complete by the time Hassett's book arrived at ABC.) "Subsequently," the letter indignantly, and somewhat ungrammatically, notes, "Ms. Hassett never received a response or than [sic] even an acknowledgement [sic] of any kind." (No surprise. I'm quite sure the book went into the bin along with the other unsolicited items that Hasselbeck and her co-hosts on The View probably receive every day; it doesn't seem likely that Hasselbeck ever saw it.)

The letter goes on to quote both books, in order to identify what it calls "glaring similarities" between the two. The examples chosen are neither glaring nor, really, very similar. (Most are also, as pointed out in this post from Gluten-Free NYC, a celiac-focused blog, restatements of common advice that was widely available long before either book was published). But they do suggest, no doubt unintentionally, that Hassett's book may be somewhat lacking in the style and grammar department (example: "A person with celiac disease should only shop in the outer isles [sic] of the supermarket. The reason being is the only thing down the other isles [sic] is things you can't have"). Which makes it still less plausible that Hasselbeck or her ghostwriter plagiarized Hassett.

For me, Hassett's lawsuit demonstrates both of the basic misapprehensions at work in writers' fear of theft: first, that theft is common (i.e., it's a more likely explanation than simple chance for why someone else's book is similar to yours); and second, that the book is worth stealing (the hard truth is that, most likely, it isn't--which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with quality). These unrealistic assumptions are often coupled with a lack of understanding of commercial publishing (the timeline confusion noted above) and, as in this case, with the misguided belief that celebrities actually look at the stuff that regular people send them.

Most theft-obsessed writers never get beyond stewing in their own paranoia, but Hassett has taken it a step farther, into court. For her sake, I hope her lawyer is working on contingency.

Courtesy of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog, you can see Hassett's complaint here. Not surprisingly, Hasselbeck and her publishers have denied Hassett's allegations.

26 comments:

BuffySquirrel said...

Seems like Hasselbeck plagiarised Hassett's name, too.

;)

BuffySquirrel said...

Okay, having read about half to two-thirds of the letter, I am Amazed and Horrified that both lists of symptoms should be so similar.

Obviously Hasselbeck should have created some Entirely New symptoms for her book.

PS...surely symptoms of coeliac disease have been, yanno, listed elsewhere too? why stop with Hasselbeck? sue medical encyclopaedias too!

(word ver: fized -- what Hassett may be if/when this suit is thrown out)

G said...

Interesting post, but you might want to clarify one point.

If Ms. Hassett sent a copy of her book to Ms. Hasselback in April of 2008, and Ms. Hasselback's book came out in May of this year, doesn't that put the burden of dispproving plagiarism on Ms. Hasselback?

Also, just because Ms. Hassett's grammar is less then stellar, should that be another reason to claim that no plagiarism was involved?

Think about it. Would cleaning up the grammar but keeping the basic sentences/paragraphs intact still count as plagirism? It may not be a moot point, but it is possible, is it not?

Jane said...

Plagiarism in any form whether it be books or web content should be viewed seriously.

MisterChris said...

PLagiarism by definition is taking exact excerpts of someone's work and claiming them as your own in your own work -

By not giving proper credit, citing your sources, etc.

Ideas and diseases are not copyrighted or copyrightable. It's the actual text that would have to be verifiably similar (similar to the point of 'correcting grammar').

In the case of non-fiction, isn't it SOP to create a bibliography in the back and cite the works where your information came from?

Unless Hassett can demonstrate her work was quoted by something other than a random sentence or two, there's no case here.

Janet said...

Aren't lawyers smarter than that? I'm assuming the lawyer is NOT working on contingency, because he/she must be aware that there's no case here.

G, publishing moves very slowly. There's no way somebody could receive a manuscript, rework it, shop it around, and get it on bookshelves in just a year.

If just a little grammar was cleaned up, but everything else stayed the same, yes, it would still be plagiarism. But the similarities would have to be really striking. But from what I've seen of Hassett's writing, she's barely coherent. If she can't handle the structure of simple sentence, it's unlikely the larger and more complex structures of paragraphs and chapters would be worth stealing.

G.F.Veg said...

Am I mistaken, or did the "isles" example you quote appear, misspelling intact, in both bks?

SB said...

This is a great point for aspiring writers out there - myself included. I actually had that fear for my own writing in the past, but luckily I got over that idea rather quickly.

It's especially true considering how many similar ideas are out there by sheer chance. The important thing is to beat those other people to the punch. Heheh...

Victoria Strauss said...

Am I mistaken, or did the "isles" example you quote appear, misspelling intact, in both bks?

That's how the lawyer letter makes it appear, but the lawyer letter is pretty poorly written all on its own, so I'm wondering if it's the lawyer's mistake. At any rate, it would be interesting to know for sure.

C.E. Petit said...

After having read the complaint, I understand perfectly well why Ms Hasselbeck's lawyers ignored prior communications. Leaving aside the typos in the complaint, it has more than a few substantive errors in it (such as asserting that attorney's fees might be due under 15 U.S.C. § 1117 without any allegations that this is an exceptional case, let alone allegations supporting the conclusion that it is an exceptional case). It is just barely competent enough to avoid dismissal on the copyright count, although the trademark count is missing two critical allegations and should be dismissed pretty rapidly.

One of the first things that one learns in law school is how to spell "Jurisdiction." That it is misspelled in a heading in the complaint — and, worse yet, without appropriate allegations supporting personal jurisdiction over the defendants — says some very disturbing things.

ALC said...

I just read a portion of the lawyer's letter. Jeepers?! This guy must be getting paid up front.
The samples that were used in comparison??? Uh, well, most of them were "facts" which do not change from one day to the next, so unless one of them decided to fabricate facts, of course they're going to have the same facts. Dingbat!

What a some people don't seem to get is that "ideas", "concepts", & "facts" cannot be copyrighted. Also, one cannot fault another writer for using a commonly known, understood & frequently used cliche. If it pops into YOUR head when considering the trials & troubles of dealing with your disease, then, odds are, it will occur to someone else as well.

It would appear that Ms. Hasselbeck has a far more competent grasp of the English language, & a more fluid usage of terminology, common phrases & cliches, &, well, just about everything else. If I were going to buy a book about a disease from which I was suffering, I don't think I'd be going the self-pub route to find my info.

A professionally published work - especially a non-fiction book - will have the benefit of professional editing & will have been far more thoroughly scrutinized. (Unless, of course, it was a memoir. Those, apparently, are pulled out thin air from time to time.) I'm not going to torture myself by reading sub-standard writing if it can be at all avoided.

I'm guessing this Hassett chic is fishing for free press to try to up her sales. At least, I hope that was her intention. I'd hate to think she's actually ignorant enough to think she has a case here.

The time frame alone will easily disprove her allegations. Hasselbeck's book would have to already have been bought by a publishing house when Hassett sent her a copy of HER book.

I love that the lawyer alleges that her intent in sending the book to Hasselbeck was to offer support & help get the word out. Riiiiiight. It had nothing to do with unabashed self-promotion.

Anonymous said...

And what about another "plagiarism" case with J.K. Rowling? The one where the dead guy supposedly wrote a book that was similar to the Harry Potter books. (Everybody roll eyes, please.)

G said...

Janet: I agree with your point that regular publishing moves very slow and that to get something out in a year is a bit unheard of (unless its a piece of celebrity driven/current event driven schlock designed to capitalize on something in a short period of time), but I'm still confused on the time frame issue.

If she sent a copy of her "book" in April '08 and Ms. Hasselback's book came out in May of '09, isn't it plausible for it to be noticed and perhaps skimmed by Ms. Hasselback?

BuffySquirrel said...

What do they always say in contest t&cs? Proof of postage is not proof of receipt.

behlerblog said...

Thanks for bringing this to light, Vic. Authors really have little to worry about in terms of agents or editors stealing their work for the reasons you explain. I have authors who query me and ask how many people will read their work, and is my office "safe." [insert eye-roll] It's safe if you discount my secretary, the unreliable beagle, who reads all the submissions and tends to have loose lips after a few margaritas.

Get over yourself, indeed.

Janny said...

This case probably has no merit, but not necessarily because of the time frames involved. If a publisher has a potential celebrity book on its hands, and the issue is hot enough and/or newsy enough, those "there's no way it takes less than a year" time frames can be UNBELIEVABLY compressed.

It may or may not have merits on any other basis, but from the sound of the attorney's letter, Ms. Hassett may as well be acting as her own counsel...and we all know the old proverb about that.

:-)
JB

JS said...

doesn't that put the burden of dispproving plagiarism on Ms. Hasselback?

No. In civil actions, the burden of proving that a tort (a violation of someone's rights, in this case intellectual property rights) occurred rests on the plaintiff.

Katie Parker said...

Regarding celiac disease, none of the information mentioned in the letter is new, for either book. I don't think either of them can claim ownership of the ideas. Hassett needs to give this one a rest.

Tristi Pinkston said...

I loved the comment by BuffySquirrel that Hasselbeck should have come up with some new symptoms. Totally cracked me up.

As far as the timeframe goes, the celebrity status of Ms. Hasselbeck might have brought her book to press a little more quickly than others, but not necessarily. Celiac disease isn't a time-sensitive issue - it will exist years from now just as it exists today. However, the whole thing can be resolved one way or the other by Hasselbeck's publisher, who will be able to show when her manuscript hit their desk.

And yes, to answer another commenter, including a bibliography is an excellent idea when writing a nonfiction work and quoting other sources. You can do that, no problemo. But if you're going to quote large portions of the work, you need permission.

Anonymous said...

Publisher's Marketplace lists Hasselbeck's deal on April 18th, 2008 for this book.

If you have a subscription, do a 'deals' search using Hasselbeck and you'll find it.

So it did take only about one year to be published. But that is not unusal for the celebrity status.

I agree that the publisher or agent stating when they received the manuscript would resolve this issue.

December/Stacia said...

Which really is almost as good as solid proof, Anonymous, since odds are pretty darn good that if the deal was announced in mid-April, talks had likely been going on since the end of March at the very latest.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I completely agree. And, I wouldn't be surprised if Hasselbeck mentioned she was writing the book about this disease on the show at some point and that's why Hassett sent her the book in the first place...

My opinion totally.

Eirin said...

I'm with BuffySquirrel. Merely reusing the same ol' facts and symptoms is just plain lazy.
Although I do understand about only shopping in the inner isles. Much less rowing involved that way.

Anonymous said...

I just came across an article in Elle Magazine by Senior Beauty Editor April Long on the subject of lipstick (July 2009) that had 8 sentences lifted close to verbatim from the book Lipstick: A Celebration of the World's Favorite Cosmetic. While some charges of literary "theft" may be unwarranted, there are still real cases of it-- like this one in Elle. "Writer" April Long really went overboard in her plagiarism!

Anonymous said...

http://theviewtvreportcard.com/

Victoria Strauss said...

Hasselbeck has won the suit. The judge found no evidence of plagiarism. (This is actually the second time Hasselbeck has won--Hassett's first suit was dismissed last year, but she filed a new one.)