I recently discovered that another newspaper columnist has been stealing my material and claiming it as his own work. He wasn't just copying the ideas from my columns; I'm talking verbatim cut and paste. His kindergarten teacher must be very proud of him. There's an old saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but even in prisons, copycat killers are frowned upon.
Apparently this culprit has lifted the exact words from other writers, as well. He was caught by sheer chance when a humorist in another part of the country was confirming that his own material had been published. When he entered some key words in Google, he was shocked to see them in a periodical 2,000 miles away. He spread the word via social media, which is how I learned of the scheme. But had this plagiarizer stolen from me? I picked a distinctive paragraph from a recent piece I had written...
We've had critter problems before, but there's a big difference between having a mouse in your kitchen and having a woodchuck in your backyard. A woodchuck is something you can mention at a cocktail party and someday those very same people will sit in your kitchen and gorge themselves on your homemade guacamole.
Bingo! My column popped up, nearly word for word, in a Blooming Prairie, Minn., newspaper. Except that the byline wasn't mine. The only change the writer made was that he dumped the guacamole and served onion dip, instead. I guess that was to add a little local flavor.
The first thing I did when I learned of this literary pilfering was to tell Mary Ellen. Her response: "This is incredible, Dick. Are you telling me that he could have stolen from any of hundreds of humor columnists in America and he picked you?"
You'd have to know how Mary Ellen said the word "you" to understand why I lost an entire night's sleep thinking about that. Then Mary Ellen had more to say. "So people know about me in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota. How cool is that?"
"I think you are missing the point here. I work very hard every week to write my column."
"Right, sure you do. So tell me, did he steal that adorable piece you wrote where I make fun of your bad habits like shaking your leg and leaving caps off of jars in the fridge? And how about that that hysterical column where you put on someone else's underwear at the gym by mistake?"
"Yes, but he also used the one where you have no idea how to use your cell phone, the column where I make fun of your relatives and the one where you pack and re-pack three or four times before going on a trip."
"The man must be stopped, Dick."
I agreed. This was inexcusable behavior. I have never in my entire life stolen an idea from another writer. True, I did have a few back-and-forth conversations with Dave Barry's attorney, but we both finally agreed that when two humorists the same age get a colonoscopy, there are only so many jokes you can come up with for a family newspaper.
The Minnesota plagiarizer was confronted with the evidence and left the paper in disgrace. The publisher has apologized to all the writers, acknowledging how reprehensible this behavior was, but he added that the column would not be missed, because some weeks it wasn't that funny.
That was another night of sleep I lost.