When Plagiarism Becomes Personal

Pleasure UnwovenRachel Ann Nunes is a prolific author of Mormon romance and women’s fiction books. Her site prominently features her family, including her children, and her faith.

However, in August she claims to have learned that one of her works was plagiarized. An early work of hers entitled “A Bid for Love” shared a great deal in common with a new book by author Sam Taylor Mullens entitled “The Auction Deal”.

The two books followed largely the same plot, involving a man and woman who, while bidding for a piece of art, fall in love. The only difference was that Mullens’ version contained graphic sex scenes, something Nunes never featured in her work.

After some investigating and a bizarre back and forth with the author involved (one that, according to Nunes, involved the creation of multiple fake accounts to attack Nunes), Nunes learned that the Mullens was the pen name for a Tiffany Rushton, a schoolteacher and fellow Mormon also from Utah.

Sensing that there was no resolution coming from Rushton directly after she repeatedly refused to turn over a advanced reader copy to her, Nunes filed a lawsuit against her and launched a GoFundMe page to help cover her legal expenses. Nunes had to take this action directly because the copyright in the book had reverted back to her, making her responsibility to defend the work.

But while the allegation that Rushton took Nunes work and turned it into something that went against her personal code is bad enough, it’s not the most personal act that Rushton is accused of doing.

First, it turned out that many of the fake names that Rushton used when attacking Nunes were actual names from students in her third-grade classroom, meaning she used the names of real children to create her fake identities.

Second, In Nunes’ filings against Rushton, Nunes alleged that Rushton had plagiarized at least one other person. Upon learning that, readers began to seek out that other plagiarism and discovered that Hasty Resolution, a book written under Ruston’s pen name, borrowed heavily, without attribution, from Terror in a Cloud of Dust by Sgt. Chase Weston.

However, Weston’s story wan’t a work of fiction. It was a first-hand account of his experiences in the Iraq war and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) afterward. Rushton, in her book, used Weston’s words to create a fictionalized account of a marine dealing with PTSD for an erotic thriller, turning Weston’s real-life trauma into a fictional backdrop for her story.

There is no word what, if any, action Weston is going to take.

While the case is ongoing, Rushton’s attorney just filed a response to the lawsuit, the issue has blown up on the Internet. Rushton’s name has been featured on dozens of sites and countless individuals are investigating her, including fans Nunes’ work, other authors and pure strangers alike.

For others though, the case is a reminder of not just how difficult dealing with plagiarism can be, but also about how personal plagiarism can be as an issue.

After all, what happened to both Nunes and Weston can happen to just about any content creator and it shows both how much damage plagiarism can do and how inadequate the legal process is to repair it.

Making Plagiarism Personal

To a degree, every plagiarism is personal. Content creators pour their time, energy and expertise into a work and, with that, comes some attachment to it. To see someone else ripping it off and putting their name on it is always a personal attack.

But some cases are simply much more personal. Many of us write stories about our lives, discuss issues that are very important to us personally or simply create material in a field that we are lifetime experts in.

When I first discovered that my work was being plagiarized, over 14 years ago now, it wasn’t blog posts or marketing copy, it was my personal poetry and short stories. As mediocre as it was, it was content written during a very difficult time in my life, a way of venting feelings coming to terms with things that had no other outlet.

Finding that my work had been plagiarized, especially when several took hundreds of works, didn’t just feel like someone had taken my work, but a part of my identity. I wrestled with anger and loss for months and, from that personal battle, this site was born.

However, even my experience pales in comparison to Weston’s, who not only saw his deeply personal experiences placed under a different name, but as a fictionalized account and in the context of erotic fiction, a genre he never would have allowed his story to be told in.

Nunez too has ever right to feel as if the plagiarism is a personal affront. Her work, which she undoubtedly has a strong personal attachment to, was used in a way that is a violation of her personal beliefs.

And that, in turn, is one of the key challenges to dealing with plagiarism. Plagiarists don’t just take and copy a work. First, they take and copy a piece of the content creator. Whether it’s a small piece or a deep, personal one, a part of the creator ends up in every creative work made.

The damage is furthered by the fact that plagiarists rarely just copy that piece, they often change it. Whether it’s edits to “improve” a piece or making drastic changes such as adding graphic sex scenes to a religious novel, the plagiarist usually adds their fingerprint to the work.

At times, this isn’t a major problem other than making the use more difficult to detect and muddying the legal waters some. Other times, these changes can be an affront to a creator personally, either by tampering with something deeply person, or even being a personal attack to something the creator believes in deeply.

And its these emotional issues that make it difficult, if not impossible, to look at and approach plagiarism from a purely rational standpoint. Trying to think of plagiarism in terms of legal definitions such as copyright infringement and defamation, both things Nunes has sued over, is difficult when the most severe pain isn’t the copyright issue, but something that can be neither sued over nor reclaimed if it could.

In short, while plagiarism and copyright clearly have a lot of overlap, plagiarism really is about so much more, especially in cases like this.

Bottom Line

I often say that a large part of my job as a plagiarism consultant is playing counselor to people who have been plagiarized. As someone who has gone through the emotions and had to deal with their first cases without outside help (other than a patient significant other), I am often someone people turn to for both practical and emotional advice.

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s easy for me. When the first stories about this were published, a lot of people dropped me the links and I admittedly avoided talking about the story. The reason wasn’t because of the content or that I felt it unimportant, but because it’s still, 13 years later, difficult to talk about the emotions that are involved when you are plagiarized in a deeply personal way.

As such, my heart goes out to both Nunes and Weston. I hope that the legal process not only resolves the matter to their practical satisfaction, but helps give them the emotional peace of mind that they deserve. They’ve been wronged in a way that I hope few authors ever know, but it seems that more and more authors are experiencing it every day.

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