Ghostwriting = Plagiarism?

So I was thinking about writers who willingly do ghostwriting work for ‘authors’ who then take all the byline credit without acknowledging others involved in the process. Take for example, writing a book.

Then I wondered about the definition of plagiarism, the ‘taking of someone else’s work and passing it off as one’s own’ and how this transaction gets around the label of being a form of plagiarism.

Is it because both parties have an agreement/exchange (i.e. the writer gets paid) that the ‘author’ can freely claim a work as his/her own without course? Or does the ghostwriting situation usually involve the ‘author’s’ input or something else that merits this designation?

I’ve seen lots of books, many by celebrities, who have a writer write their book (because the celeb is better at celebritying than writing) and is credited with something like:

by Famous Person with Good Writer

In this case it’s clear what is going on. Ghostwriting is different.

Dishonesty? Plagiarism? A sanctioned agreement in the publishing world?

And would the response be different if the ‘author’ was a terrible writer who couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag?

by LegendHasit

There are many levels of ghostwriting. In some cases, the celebrity does quite a bit of the work, and brings it to the ghostwriter to have it edited and polished up a bit. In other cases, the celebrity pays them, then receives the manuscript the next year, slaps their name on it, and publishes. Technically, ghostwriting is plagiarism. It’s stealing the ideas and words of another without crediting them. Realistically, however, it is almost impossible to prosecute and pointless to do so. In ordinary cases of plagiarism, the original author is more than happy to expose the fake; with ghostwriting, the author is paid not to do so, and perfectly happy with getting the money and not the fame.
The main problem with ghostwriting is the anger the consumer feels. It seems like cheating to be able to write about without actually writing a book. As I see it, it’s win win for both the celebrity and the author; the celebrity gets praise, the author gets to pay their bills. I get angry at people like James Patterson, who call themselves authors and then don’t write all their books. You can’t expect every singer, politician, etc., to be able to craft a masterpiece, but it our career is centered around writing, you should write.
In any case, whether it’s illegal or not, there is no way to stop ghostwriting. It’s been going on for centuries - Mozart actually ghostwrote music under wealthy patron’s names.

I do think the practice you describe is somewhat immoral. One might think the person most being harmed is the ghostwriter, but they are willingly going along with it, and are presumably being paid handsomely. The real harm, I think is to the people who are deceived into thinking that celebrity X is not just good at whatever has made them a celebrity, but at writing too, and thus also have the incipient idea reinforced that celebrities are better than us plebs in every way. Alternatively, it spreads the notion that writing a book is easy and everyone, even some celebrity airhead, can do it, which harms writers in general.

I do not think it is plagiarism, though. The fact that it falls under the definition you found on Google merely goes to show that that is an inadequate definition. To be actual plagiarism the material would have to be used, and passed off as one’s own, without the actual creator’s consent.

Here’s an example of a kind of ghostwriting that might actually get the person whose name appears on the article to be sued:

It appears that some articles in medical journals supposedly written by medical academics were really written by employees of the pharmaceutical company whose drug was tested and found to be useful by the research in the article.

The main difference is that plagiarism is taking someone else’s work without their knowledge, where in ghostwriting, both parties have agreed on how the credit will be apportioned, as well as any payment involved. It’s the difference between stealing a car and agreeing to buy the car.

From a publishing point of view, it allows them to publish books by people who are in the public eye, but who don’t have any writing skills. If the audience wants the biography of a celebrity, it allows the publishers to tap into that market.

It does fool some of the buyers, but those buyers are getting what’s advertised: a biography of the celebrity. There’s probably no other way to find out the details of the celebrity’s life.

The quality of the ghosted biography can vary; some of the celebrities are very involved in the process and the ghostwriter just edits things. Others sit down with the ghostwriter a couple of times and see it just as a way to make some bucks (there was an NBA player a few years back who had something controversial in his autobiography and when questioned about it said it was untrue and that he had never read the book).

Charles Barkley, I believe.

Thanks everyone, for the comments and inside info.

I have no problem with the ghostwriting transaction between an uncredited writer and credited author. As a consumer I do feel duped at the deception, but I suppose there’s a lot of that out there already, and not just in ghostwriting.

Just one more question: Can a writer can mention the book titles he’s ghostwritten on his resume or portfolio? Or is that another point that may be negotiated in a contract?

If not, it must be hard to say, “I’ve ghostwritten a bunch of books, but I can’t tell you what any of them are.” Well, maybe not, since we’re talking ghosty stuff, they’re invisible anyway.

@Octarine & njtt: Agreed with the consumer deception and impression it may give ‘that writing a book is easy and everyone.’ And as pointed out, there are many levels which gives me more insight to the shades of gray here.

@Wendell Wagner: Thanks for the link; I’ll have a look see at the article.

@RealityChuck: Thanks for the big picture recap. There are definitely benefits to the practice, for most everyone all around it seems.

@Stratocaster: A nice cautionary tale for anyone planning to go that route. It would seem that a good publisher would have an author read and sign off on a manuscript before the book goes to press.

“Plagiarism” has no single definition. Unlike “copyright infringement,” “plagiarism” is not a legal term. It is defined by institutions such as universities and other academic, scientific, and professional institutions. There are a lot of things that might constitute plagiarism that are perfectly okay so far as copyright law is concerned.

From the point of view of copyright law, however, there is no problem with ghostwriting. It is merely under the category of “work made for hire,” which by law belongs to the employer, not to the employee/freelancer hired to do the writing. Indeed, by law, the employer is the “creator” and “author,” even if all the expressive content was contributed by the employee/freelancer. Whatever credit is taken or given is purely subject to the terms of the relevant employment contract.

If the contract says that the employer is to get all the credit and the ghostwriter must keep quiet and his or her contribution, then a ghostwriter’s speaking up may indeed be subject to a breach of contract claim.

It’s contractual. However, the name of the ghostwriter is usually an open secret within the business, and the ghostwriter can mention the books on his resume when applying for a job – just not to the general public.

Also the ghostwriter is usually mentioned somewhere in the book, either as “as told to” or “with” or in the acknowledgements.

“This book could not have been written without the help of” means that the author saw it for the first time in print. :slight_smile:

You’d probably be amazed at all the work that is ghostwritten. My assumption is that until proven otherwise no celebrity ever writes anything that appears under that name. Celebrity here ranges from the least consequential reality show loser to movie stars to athletes to politicians to CEOs to anyone whose name was in the news long enough to warrant a book. Everyone. It’s all ghostwritten. Every book, every speech, every op-ed, every tweet. Those letters to Penthouse? Mostly science fiction writers needing some quick money. (Obviously there are some exceptions to this general rule. That’s why I said “until proven otherwise”.)

Is it immoral? Yes. No. Unless you have the awareness of a tic tac you already know that no food you buy at a restaurant will look like the incredible pictures in their advertising. It’s not physically possible. Words are just another form of advertising.

Can you talk about it? Since everything is ghostwritten, it’s too big to generalize about. Some celebrities want it deeply hidden. Bill Cosby, who has a doctorate and works with words all day long, didn’t want it known that his best-seller *Fatherhood *was written by Ralph Schoenstein. He wasn’t mentioned until their third book together. He’s dead, yet Cosby keeps publishing. You won’t find any names in the later books. Is he writing his own now? I doubt it, but I don’t know otherwise.

There are all kinds of fine lines with plagiarism, but I don’t think ghostwriting is a good example.

The actual writer knows that he/she is simply putting down the text and doing the editing for a set fee (or percentage of profits, depending upon the contract). The actual material is from the “celebrity” - meaning, it really is their story, but they just didn’t type it or put it into a readable format.

Let’s say great-grandpa spent five weeks with you, tells his great story of growing up poor, entering the army, his adventures and happiness and sadness - and you put that all together into a book entitled, “Grandpa’s Tales”. So - the facts and story are all your grandfather’s exact words and facts, but the actual book is you putting those stories down on paper and maybe creating a few transitions of your own. Whose story is that? Do you get credit for the wonderful story - all of it told to you word-for-word? Or does grandpa get credit for telling his life story - warts and all - and get credit for the content of the book?

Speechwriting is another area where it is not considered plagiarism – even if the ideas, research, and actual writing were all done by someone else. As a part of my duties, I was once asked by an employer to write a short piece for a magazine under his name. The magazine ended up using one of my quotes as a tagline on the cover – of course with my employer’s name underneath. It was cool to see my writing on the cover, but also depressing not to see my name. That’s one of the reasons I no longer do that kind of work.