Take Back That Stapler

by Rob Gregory Browne

 

Everyone steals.

 

Oh, don’t try to deny it. You know you’ve done it at one time or another in your life, even if that theft was something as innocuous as the really nice stapler you took from work.

 

But there are different kinds of theft, aren’t there? Different levels.

 

Yes, you can say stealing is stealing, but I would certainly never get upset about that stapler — I mean, really, who cares other than the company bean counter or the secretary whose desk you swiped it from?

 

I mean, we’re not talking someone’s car, right?

 

But stealing is stealing and it’s quite common in our society.

 

Kids steal each other’s toys. Teenagers steal music.  Friends steal each other’s spouses. Or maybe borrow them once in awhile. Yet that’s still stealing in a way, isn’t it?

 

People who are particularly bold may walk into a bank and steal money from an unsuspecting teller. Or step into a Seven Eleven and force the counter man to empty out the cash register.

 

It happens all the time, and we crime writers make our livings because of it.

 

We can forgive the minor crimes — the stapler stealing — but the larger thefts, depending on who the victim is, tend to get us a bit riled up. Probably because they scare us. And if we’re the victim, if things are personal, we get very scared indeed.

 

We feel violated.

 

When I was in my twenties, my beautiful soon to be wife and I were living in an apartment complex in Santa Barbara, California.

 

Late one night, out of the blue, a work friend of mine showed up at the apartment, wanting to hang out and have a drink. He even brought the beer.

 

I was a little surprised to see him, but we sat down, drank the beers as we shot the bull. About twenty minutes passed and my friend abruptly stood up and said he had to go. And he never did explain why he had stopped by in the first place.

 

The next morning, I went out to my car, only to discover that it had been broken into and my tape deck and a box full of cassette tapes were gone.

 

And I had to wonder. Had my friend set me up? Could he have been distracting me while a cohort stole my car stereo?

 

These were, of course, questions that never got answered. Although I suspected him — didn’t want to, but did — I never said a word to him about the incident and we continued to be friends for a couple more years before my wife and I moved back to Honolulu.

 

But what never went away was that feeling of being violated. And I think that’s how we can measure the severity of theft. By how violated the victim feels.

 

I was recently violated in a different way.

 

The theft did not scare me. No tangible item was actually taken from me. But I felt violated nevertheless.

 

Still do.

 

Nearly a decade ago, I wrote an article that was published on my website. That article was subsequently published many different places on the web, including here on Murderati and in an international print magazine I used to write a column for.

 

A couple months ago, I got an email from a reader who thought she had spotted some possible plagiarism of that article. She had read it and had stumbled across an excerpt from a book that was posted on the web and some of the content of that excerpt looked suspiciously familiar.

 

I investigated and lo and behold, the author of the excerpt had lifted entire passages from my article. Word for word.

 

With no credit to me. No link to my original article.

 

There wasn’t a huge amount of theft involved, just a few short passages, as well as a way of describing a writing concept that I feel is original with me, but when you see your own words being credited to someone else — in a published book, no less — that tends to make you feel a bit victimized.

 

I won’t go into any details. I’ve had exchanges with the author and the publisher and came up with a solution to the problem that I think is fair, and I feel no need to go public with the details.

 

But for the life of me, I can’t understand how someone can do something like that. I can see inadvertent theft of someone’s work — a lot of ideas are similar, and sometimes we borrow without actually realizing we’re doing it.

 

But word for word? I just can’t quite get my head around the idea of copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own. What kind of person does that? It just makes no sense to me.

 

So I feel victimized. And, yes, I’ll get over it in time, but no matter how much time goes by, I’ll still be shaking my head at the audacity of it all.

 

If you’re going to take credit for something you didn’t write, for chrissakes, at least don’t be so blatant about it.

 

Have a little class.

 

Or stick to staplers.

 

—————————————

 

Today’s question: Have you ever had anything stolen from you? If so, how did you feel?

20 thoughts on “Take Back That Stapler

  1. Dana King

    I had a laptop stolen from my car once. A smash and grab job. "Violated" is the exact word to use. "Impotent" comes to mind as well. I didn’t even get a chance to say anything, or defend my property. The police took a report just for insurance purposes; no investigation. If you ever want to feel like people don’t feel you’re worth anything, have something stolen.

    Reply
  2. Stephen D. Rogers

    Rob,

    Wow. The nerve of some people. For the life of me, I can’t understand how someone can do something like that. I can see inadvertent theft of someone’s work — a lot of ideas are similar, and sometimes we borrow without actually realizing we’re doing it. But still.

    Stephen

    Reply
  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Your plagiarism story drives me crazy. It makes me red hot. I agree with you–I don’t understand how a writer (someone who thinks of himself as a writer) can think to lift passages from another writer’s work. But it takes all kinds, I guess. I also don’t understand how people can invite TV cameras into their homes to dissect the way they raise their children.
    I have had a few things stolen. The worst was when my boys’ new skateboard was stolen from our home in a robbery – I didn’t care about the computer and cable box. But it pissed me off that my 7 and 9 year old boys lost the awesome new skateboard they had just received as a gift from this great skateboarder who had voluntarily given it to the boys after meeting them for a couple hours.
    When I was in junior high school I went into a grocery store with a friend and he tucked a Playboy centerfold into his pants and we sneaked out of the store. The store manager chased us out and brought us into the store and demanded to see what we had taken. Then he waved it around in front of all the customers and told everyone (over the speaker system) that the two of us were never allowed to come back into the store again. (This was my neighborhood grocery store). Our parents were then called to come take us home.
    That’ll cure ya.

    Reply
  4. suzanne

    My writing group recently discovered one of our new members had a couple of stories out — either published or submitted for publication — that showed "striking similarity" to published stories by other authors. To top it off, the novel we’d been working on with her showed an absolute similarity to a published author by one ‘Rati author.
    For us, it brought up a whole bunch of issues. We notified the authors concerned, and eventually one publisher. Not easy but necessary. Trust was destroyed — and several of us still wonder if one of our stories will appear under this miscreant’s name. The question of how she could do it is still unresolved for us. Needless to say, the whole thing left a bitter taste and an ugly stink in the nostrils.
    But — how do we know she won’t continue scamming other publishers, other writing groups? And, I suspect this goes on much more than anyone suspects, especially in these rather frenzied publishing times. How do authors stop getting ripped off?

    Reply
  5. Brett Battes

    Totally don’t understand how someone could be so blatant about something like this. It’s inconceivable to me. I had someone break into my car once and steal my radio, but the thing they took that made me the most upset was the pair of ice skates I’d bought for my daughter that she’d only used once. Just like with the skateboard stolen at Steve’s house, it’s when the crimes become personal to our kids that they seem worse.

    Reply
  6. Louise Ure

    I understand the use of the term "violation," and I’m sure it feels like that when something material or specific creative output has been taken. (I remember feeling "violated" when my house was broken into and the drawers ransacked in a search for something valuable.) But I hesitate to use the word in those cases when it can also imply the loss of freedom (violation of human rights) or rape. That’s violation with a capital V.

    Reply
  7. Kate G

    I teach Composition I at a community college, and I’m amazed at what students think is okay to include in their papers without crediting the source. I have taken to copying and pasting any better-than-average sentence into google to see if it is from somewhere else. Really, should I have to do that? And yet, especially with my ESL students, a well-turned phrase in a paper is almost never their own.

    I’ve also pointed out to them that simply parroting someone else doesn’t teach them the point of the lesson – which is usually to synthesize ideas from multiple sources into one cohesive argument that is all their own. I think many people are simply never taught what the line is, in terms of "borrowing" writing. And I think part of my job is to make very clear what those lines are for my students.

    Reply
  8. Rob Gregory Browne

    Definitely a lowercase "v," Louise. But a violation nonetheless. And I certainly don’t mean to compare it to the uppercase Violations.

    Kate, I think the hardest part for me was when this "author" apologized to me for our "overlapping of ideas." I’m not quite sure how taking sentences or a paragraph word for word from someone else is any kind of "overlap."

    Reply
  9. JT Ellison

    Grr…. plagiarism. Not cool. You handled it perfectly though!

    The worst thing I ever had stolen – bootleg tapes of David Bowie concerts throughout Europe. Since they were bootleg copies, I can’t really complain. But a friend gave them to me, and they were special. Upset me to no end.

    What bugs me most are things you loan to people that never come back home.

    Reply
  10. Naomi Johnson

    People who would steal from your mind and your soul deserve no courtesy, particularly the courtesy of keeping their sins anonymous. I wish every case of plagiarism included in its settlement a required public acknowledgement by the thief of the his/her action, as well as an apology. Financial settlements and private apologies are all well and good but what do they do to stem the ever-growing number of plagiarists. Perhaps public embarrassment would help the thief to remember to do his own work.

    Reply
  11. pari noskin taichert

    Rob,
    I’ve been robbed a few times and each one feels just horrid.

    I know that some of my work has been plagiarized and also shake my head. But you know what also irritates the living daylights out of me? Pirated books that are still in print. The number of websites where people simply scan in or distribute ebooks for free from authors who have never given permission . . . well it just frosts me to no end.

    That DOES feel like a violation of the highest order . . . stealing something I worked so hard on . . . .just because you can.

    Reply
  12. Pammy D

    Apartments were burglarized twice. Car broken into, (Dear Car Thief: Door was unlocked. Please check next time before you smash the window. Hope you enjoyed the stereo that didn’t work.)

    My wallet was lifted once in heavy pedestrian traffic.

    Purse stolen multiple times from old office in good neighborhood that bordered on a not-so-good neighborhood.

    Was mugged (but I won that one).

    I don’t think my words have been stolen. Just lots of other stuff.

    Must be a weird feeling for you. Sorry!

    Reply
  13. Catherine Shipton

    There was a spate of snowdropping in our neighbourhood when I was first married. Snowdropping is an Aussie term for stealing clothes off of clothes lines. I was a new mum and had left stuff on the line overnight. I remember going out the next day and finding half our clothes missing. At first I put it down to being sleep deprived. Then I noticed it was only our best clothes that had gone missing. The theft of a sweater I had received as my first mother’s day present really hurt for a bit. I started seeing people in a different light, wondering just what sort of person would think it ok to steal clothes?
    After a while I hooked onto the idea that no-one could steal the joy I had in receiving that gift and that my life was still full with what really mattered to me.

    I would not then, or now, be as philosophical if someone stole an idea, or took credit for my work in any way shape, or form.

    I’m sorry you experienced that Rob. It stinks. I am glad though that had an effective way of calling them on it.

    Reply
  14. BCB

    Rob, that’s awful. I can perhaps understand someone "stealing" an idea, especially if someone has heard it second- or third-hand and maybe doesn’t recognize the originality of it. But word-for-word plagiarism? Even if someone doesn’t know whose words they are, at the very least they know the words are not theirs. Inexcusable.

    Reading the comments, I realized I’ve never had anything stolen from me. Maybe I don’t own anything that anyone else wants. Or I’ve been very lucky. And I really can’t remember ever taking anything that wasn’t mine.

    When my son was in pre-school, I found a tiny little plastic game piece in his jacket pocket. I knew it wasn’t from any game we owned and finally got him to confess he’d taken it from school. I told him how wrong that was and then immediately drove him back to school, made him return the game piece and apologize to the teacher for stealing it. Yes, there were still other kids around. The teacher started to say something like, "Oh, honey, that’s alright–" and I cut her off with my most formidable glare and said, "No. It is not." My son was completely humiliated. And he should have been. He’s not an angel by any means, but as far as I know he has never stolen anything since then.

    And I’m sorry, stealing a stapler is innocuous? Um, no. It is not. I’d be devastated if someone stole from me the means to attach one piece of paper to another.

    Reply
  15. Rob Gregory Browne

    "And I’m sorry, stealing a stapler is innocuous? Um, no. It is not. I’d be devastated if someone stole from me the means to attach one piece of paper to another."

    Thanks for making me laugh… 🙂

    Reply
  16. Allison Brennan

    Rob, you’re in good company. Nora Roberts was once plagiarized by another NYT author. There’s a big article about the whole thing on the NINC website, so I won’t go into details, but the whole thing was . . . incredible. Unbelievable.

    I’ve had car radios stolen (twice), my husband recently had his truck window smashed while we were at the school for orientation and he was late and parked in the far lot–they took his GPS and car registration. My mom’s house was broken into and jewelry (that had been my grandmothers) taken. Other than my grandmother’s jewelry (which had far more sentimental value than monetary value), I think being plagiarized is worse than losing stuff. Most stuff can be replaced. Your words, in that context, in that order, are yours.

    But, I’m not surprised. People steal all the time and don’t think of it as stealing. Illegally downloading books and music and movies, for example. They don’t think of it as theft, and they justify it if you call them on it, then jump down your throat as if it’s your fault they violated a law they don’t agree with.

    Reply
  17. ginko   

    Hello
    This is quite funny post and it made me laugh.Thank you very much for sharing this with us.Its really very interesting to read this post and I enjoyed it.I want to say that I don’t steal anything.

    Reply

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