Tuesday, May 29, 2007


They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but plagiarism is just outright theft.

Plagiarism the bane of writers everywhere. Few things are more aggravating than to spend hours working on a piece in an effort to get every word just right, every bit of the structure perfectly balanced, and the pacing down to exactly where you want it, only to see someone else steal it and pass it off as theirs.

I've been plagiarized repeatedly in my career as a writer. When I worked at The Princeton Packet, we regularly saw one of our competitors repackage and reprint our stories. Not word for word -- they weren't that unsubtle -- but very obviously derived from ours. Their stories would have the same structure, the same sources, the same essential information.

Another time I was plagiarized by a high school student. I found out when her father reposted a blog entry of mine and claimed that it was something his daughter had written. Ironically it was for an ethics paper.

I've had many thoughts over the years on the nature of plagiarism myself. The high school student's plagiarism is the most obvious sort, It's possible that she could have the same thoughts as me on an ethical situation, and even possible that she could express them similar. But there's no reasonable way to claim that she just happened to do it word for word identically to how I did, That's plagiarism, plain and simple.

It gets harder to detect, and I feel the subject gets murkier once we get into the realm of editing and rewriting. If a reader discovers this blog post and is moved inexpressibly to write about plagiarism, and writes her own essay on plagiarism and paraphrasing, would she be plagiarising me, or just being influenced by me?

That can be harder to determine. The other local newspaper that I would say plagiarized not only me but my co-workers and even our mutual competitors at The Times of Trenton, very obviously based their reporting on ours, not just the stories they selected but how they structured and reported them. The words were theirs, but not much else; and sometimes it was obvious that not all the words were theirs either.

The similarities were too close to be coincidence, and they never credited us for anything. Plagiarism? I would have failed students for that when I taught English writing, but I don't know how it would measure up legally. We never tried, although The Times did threaten that paper once, I heard.

Suppose I take someone else's writing and begin to edit and heavily rewrite it? I remove their personal anecdotes and replace my own, pick a better place to start the piece, and massage the writing until it reflects my voice, When I put it down, have I just plagiarized another person's work?

This is something that we did at WNC Newspapers a few times with editorials that addressed issues affecting more than one municipality. All local references had to change to reflect the community, and in my case at least, I wanted an editorial in my paper to be the best I could make it, which at times meant radically restructuring and rewriting them when I lifted them from other editors. (The editor I did this to the most found it amusing how different the editorial would be by the time I had finished.)

Since it was all work for hire and both editorials belonged to the published that wasn't an issue, but what happens when we do that with stories or essays where copyright laws inarguably do apply? At what point does it become an entirely different work, one where there is no need for a Fair use defense?

Personally, I think that there could be something to be said for such an approach to writing if it can be done well, especially on a medium like the Internet, where profit is not usually a motive. In Shakespeare's day, there was no such thing as plagiarism. He lifted material wholesale from Holinshed's "Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland," from Chaucer's "Troylus and Criseyde" and from just about everyone else who ever wrote before him -- I've read some of the source material, and there's no question that he plagiarised by contemporary standards -- and yet we consider him to be the finest writer of the English language.

Retooling extant stories and redoing familiar pieces of art builds up our language and our cultural heritage through the process of tying everything back into familiar stories. It enriches art by developing a visual language of symbols and memes. In a country where our national memory doesn't go back more than a few months and "Nick at Night" is considered a crash course in classic literature, don't we need more plagiarism rather than less?

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Liadan said...

IIRC, plagiarism is specifically presenting someone else's work as your own-- taking credit for someone else's work. Using someone else's work as a basis, template, or inspiration for your own isn't plagiarism. It might just be unoriginality or derivativeness, but the implication of that is that you're just reinventing the wheel or bringing nothing new to the territory.

Shakespeare stole material, but he did new and very, very good things with it. If you look at the original R&J, it's a tired morality story about how disobeying one's parents is Bad and leads to Ruin. The Bard's genius was in breathing new life and meaning into the same story in such a way that the moral practically subverts itself.

marauder said...

This is what I get for cross-posting my response to a post by Brucker, on my own blog, without providing greater context.

You're correct in your definition of plagiarism, and on what makes Shakespeare's work nonderivative.

But what I was commenting on is the looser definition of plagiarism that is in play in society today. These days even derivative works often are considered projects of plagiarism, to the extent that a Russian knock-off of Harry Potter was sued and the works ordered removed from the shelves because the stories paralleled J.K. Rowling's too closely for the comfort of nher literary agency. (Even though the Harry character was a girl, the stories were set in Russia, and there were other changes, including the stories not being as good.)

My point was that some of our richest and greatest literature and art fails to meet the modern standard our right hand sets forth for originality, and that while we need to protect the intellectual property of creators, we also need to allow other creators the freedom to reinvent and reinterpret works not their own. If Shakespeare had had to meet contemporary standards for originality, he would have been toast in court for lifting dialogue wholesale for Aenobarbus to describe Cleopatra's ship in "Antony and Cleopatra," and the lawyers would have had a field day for his blatant reuse of material from "Romeus and Juliette."

And that is a loss. While more than 99 percent of the derivative stuff on the market is worthless, I think there are some very worthwhile stories, pieces of art, movies, and so on, that are not being created because legal teams do their best to squash anything that might conceivably borrow from or invoke their clients' work.