I was sitting in the back row of a church I used to attend when the minister read The Vows of Cohabitation as part of his Sunday sermon. It was a short satirical article of mine that had been published in The Door Magazine in January of 2000. He was reading from Not a Fan, a bestseller by Kyle Idleman.
Up to that time, I was unaware that the piece had been reprinted anywhere. After the service, when I informed the pastor that I had written it, he didn’t believe me. There was an attribution but it didn’t include my name as it should have. I contacted the publisher, Zondervan, and they fixed the mistake in the next printing of the book.
After that, I poked around the internet to see what else might have become of my old article. There was a video from 2008 with exactly the same idea and numerous identical lines. Starring Craig Groeschel of LifeChurch, the video had generated over 80,000 views. Catholics liked it a lot. There were comments describing it as “Awesome” and “Brilliant.”
The video looked like it had been adapted from my article. Last December, I sent a polite email with a copy of the article to LifeChurch seeking attribution. LifeChurch’s lawyer replied in January. She wrote, “It appears that probably you and our church had the same great idea but that no copying was involved.”
In her final email to me, she wrote, “There was no copying of your work and our content is very different than your article. We believe that our earliest content actually predates the article you forwarded.” Although she seemed quite determined to convince me that my article had nothing to do with the video, she didn’t send a copy of the content that allegedly predated it.
I found their earlier content in a book by Groeschel titled Going All The Way: Preparing for a Marriage That Goes the Distance. It had been published by Multnomah in October of 2007. The Vows of Cohabitation were neatly rolled into one of Groeschel’s homespun anecdotes in a chapter titled The Problem with Playing House.
I wrote to Multnomah requesting an attribution. A week later, the editorial director wrote back. “I have shared your email with the author, who has expressed to me his best recollection that the material in his book originated with him. However, he’s not been able to verify that his initial use of that anecdote precedes the publication of your article. In light of this, he agrees that an attribution referring to your work in a footnote or an endnote to his book would be a reasonable solution.”
Best recollection? In Going All the Way, Groeschel wrote about Rick and Monica, an unmarried couple who asked him to bless their living arrangement. The anecdote was about something that supposedly happened. On page 71, Craig quotes himself telling them, “I’d be happy to write some vows.”
Writers sometimes come up with the same idea. It’s even possible that they might come up with some similar wording. However, when two writers come up with lots of lines that are exactly the same or very similar, one of them is a plagiarist.
“So help me, me!”
The Vows of Cohabitation by Danny Murphy
as seen in The Door, January/February 2000
“I, John, take you Mary, to be my cohabitant, to have sex with and to share the bills with. I’ll be around while things are good, but I probably won’t be if things get tough. As the saying goes, when the grass gets greener, seek other pastures. After all, the grass frequently is greener on the other side of the fence. If you should get a cold, I’ll run to the drugstore – but if you get sick to the point where you take more than a day or two off work, don’t count on me. And, forsaking many others, I will be more or less faithful to you as long as it feels good to me. If you should ever catch me screwing around on you, remember it doesn’t necessarily mean that I no longer care for you. I will still probably want to share bed and bills with you. So help me, me.”
The Vows of Cohabitation by Craig Groeschel in Going All the Way, page 71 and 72.
“I, Rick, take you Monica, to be my cohabitant, to have sex with you and to hold you responsible for half the bills. To love and take advantage of you, from this day forward, or as long as our arrangement works out. I will be, more or less, faithful to you, as long as my needs are met and if nothing better comes along. If I should break up with you, it doesn’t mean this wasn’t special to me. Because I love you almost as much as I love myself, I commit to live with you for a while. So help me, me.”
Groeschel version minus identical phrases.
“… you and to hold you responsible for half the bills. To love and take advantage of you, from this day forward, or as long as our arrangement works out… my needs are met and if nothing better comes along. If I should break up with you, it doesn’t mean this wasn’t special to me. Because I love you almost as much as I love myself, I commit to live with you for a while…”
Groeschel version minus identical phrases and similar phrases.
“… To love and take advantage of you, from this day forward… this wasn’t special to me. Because I love you almost as much as I love myself, I commit to live with you for a while…”
The first LifeChurch video version of the Vows of Cohabitation was apparently produced in 2007. The acting was good and it was nicely edited. Sometime after that they added a church scene which was also nicely done. Those two versions got over 80,000 views. LifeChurch made at least one other version a few years later.
Many other churches produced The Vows as skits and recorded and posted them on YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook. The production values generally weren’t as good as the LifeChurch videos. One of the more popular versions got over 13,000 views and included this attribution. “Idea completely borrowed from LifeChurch.TV. Thanks.”
Writing can be extremely lucrative. Believe it or not, The Door Magazine paid me the exorbitant sum of $35.00 for first rights to The Vows of Cohabitation way back when. With all the royalties that have come to me since that thrilling payday, that one article has earned me a total of $35.00.
Why Attribution Matters
In addition to all the filthy loot that obscure writers like me earn, a writer is supposed to get attribution when another writer uses his or her work. It’s like getting a bonus that won’t quite pay for a cup of coffee. Still, attribution is important and valuable. Having a piece of writing in a book by a notable author looks good on a writer’s resume or bio. That sort of stuff can help a writer get his book and article proposals considered by publishers. Unfortunately, if some writer plagiarizes material or uses it and botches the attribution, the original writer might never find out about it and might never get the opportunity to add that use of his work to his resume.
I’m a humorist, not a comedian.
Some articles have come out that have identified me as a comedian. In fact, I haven’t been a comedian since the 90s. I was always better at the writing and I even won a few joke contests. Anyways, I’m a writer now. I also refer to myself as a humorist which is different from being a comedian. Comedians primarily perform. Humorists primarily write. If you need some humorous content, I can help.
When I was doing standup, my best schtick had to do with Murphy’s Law. “Everybody’s heard of Murphy’s Law, right? Well I’m Murphy!” You can get a good dose of that material in Murphy at Law which is available on Kindle. Humor 101: How to Tell Jokes, which is also on Kindle, has some tips that could be useful to public speakers, including preachers. It has some of my old bits as examples and also some relatively fresh material.
The Vows of Cohabitation were reprinted with an attribution that omitted my name in Christian Ethics Today in February, 2002. As far as I know, that was the first time the piece was reprinted anywhere. By the time I found out about any reprints over a decade later, Christian Ethics Today had an editor who came on board after the muffed attribution. He was very responsive when I brought it to his attention.
As I’ve noted, The Vows were reprinted in Not a Fan by Kyle Idlemen. That book was published by Zondervan in 2011 and it had an attribution that mentioned The Door Magazine but omitted my name. Zondervan was good about fixing that. It’s interesting that the endorsements on page one of Not a Fan included one by Craig Groeschel.
“So help me, me.” I wasn’t the first to come up with that line. George Burns uttered the line in 1977 in the movie Oh God! His portrayal of the Most High was unforgettable.
Update: Going All the Way is out of print. The material, including The Vows, was republished in 2011 as Love, Sex, and Happily Ever After and that book is still in print. In February, the editorial director at Multnomah told me they would insert a footnote in the next printing. They sent me four copies in April. That’s lightning fast in the book publishing business!
If I were a freelancer interviewing Craig Groeschel about the allegations of plagiarism, here are three of the questions I would ask.
After your lawyer received a copy of Mr. Murphy’s article from the January 2000 issue of The Door, she told Mr. Murphy by email, “We believe that our earliest content actually predates the article you forwarded.” What content that predated January 2000 was she referring to?
Your lawyer also wrote that LifeChurch’s content was “very different” from Mr. Murphy’s. Do you stand by that assessment?
After Mr. Murphy wrote to Multnomah, the publisher could not possibly have moved more quickly to insert an attribution into your book. Why do you suppose they did that?
Articles on Plagiarism
“Giving credit does several valuable things. It honors the pastor or church who came up with the idea. It demonstrates humility and security. It exposes a church to other great leaders and teachers. It removes any doubt of copying.”
From Plagiarizing Pastors, a Swerve blog post by Craig Groeschel, July 21, 2008.
Is pulpit plagiarism on the rise? Some blame the Internet
This article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey came out on the Religion News Service on June 4, 2014. It mentioned this blog post.