Plagiarism Isn’t So Bad

Gonna steal your TV

I seem to recall stories of one guy who used to sit around reading one of his contemporaries’ works looking for good lines. He then inserted those lines into his work. When his friends asked them about it he laughingly replied “I’m plucking pearls out of dung.” He laughed about it. Like a monster.

That guy was Virgil. His contemporary was Quintus Ennius, but no one now remembers him.

And that’s to say nothing of the greatest plagiarist of all, William Shakespeare. People think of Shakespeare as being a plagiarist because he lifted plots pretty heavily from Greek myths and The Decameron. That’s true. He did that. He followed exact plots and pretty much filled in dialogue. It would be like taking everything that happened in Harry Potter, but making all the characters talk as though they were in David Mamet play (which, come to think of it, someone ought to do).

And Shakespeare stole lines directly from Plutarch. Those lines about “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne…” in Antony and Cleopatra? That comes verbatim from Plutarch’s Life of Mark Antony. He was well known to do this – one of his contemporaries said that Shakespeare was “an upstart crow, decorated with the beauty of our feathers” to which Shakespeare is rumored to have quipped that he preferred Plutarch’s feathers.

And Alexandre Dumas! Dumas is known for producing volumes at a rate that would actually be impossible for printers to keep up with. That’s because he supposedly employed a stable of writers who helped him come up with plots and would write large sections of books on his behalf.

One of my favorite stories about him relates to the time a young writer came to him with a volume, hoping that Dumas might be willing to publish it under his name and share the profits with him. Dumas scanned the volume, and exclaimed “your hero doesn’t wear a cloak.” The young writer asked what he meant. Dumas replied “he goes out to fight a duel in the middle of winter and he doesn’t put on a cloak.” Dumas rejected it. A while later, the young writer noticed that Dumas has come out with a book essentially identical to the one he gave him. He went to Dumas and furiously declared “you’ve stolen my book!” “No, no,” Dumas replied, “in my version, the hero wears a cloak.”

Dumas was kind of a shitbag, actually.

But the people that Fareed Zakaria or, say, Kaavya Viswanathan (remember her? Of Opal Mehta fame) lifted lines off of are not going to starve cloak-less in the gutter as a result of that theft. Their careers will not be even remotely negatively impacted. The only people that modern plagiarists are really going to hurt is themselves. Which makes one wonder why they plagiarize at all.

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    • Elwarr

      So Shakespeare stealing from Plutarch who’d been dead for over 1600 years is the same thing as Zakaria stealing from a contemporary who doesn’t have nearly the same kind of national profile as he and no doubt received payment for publishing words not his own? Yes Jill Lepore is probably not suffering overmuch from the theft, but this happens A LOT and it often happens because big name writers steal from people who aren’t as widely read.

      And crediting authors in articles is standard practice and not just this thing we should do.

      • Jennifer Wright

        Well, first, Shakespeare did steal from his contemporaries. Second, I think that sets up an argument whereby it’s okay to steal FROM DEAD PEOPLE. Are we then, on board with plagiarizing Jane Austen? I also think crediting is much easier in news articles (and people do it) and somewhat harder, or at least inelegant, when it comes to novels.

    • Elwar

      Legally Jane Austen can’t be plagiarized because she was published prior to 1923 and her work is part of the public domain. So yes according to copyright law, it is okay to steal from certain dead people. Icky? Maybe. But definitely legal. Had Shakespeare been subject to contemporary law he’d have been in legal trouble.

      The reason it’s such a big deal is that word plagiarism has a specific legal context. Zakaria stole from both Lepore and the New Yorker. It’s not just a matter of admiring good work and passing it off as your own. It’s getting credit and possibly money for work not your own.

    • Jamie Peck

      You are free to throw in as many references to/lines from other people’s work as you like. You just have to credit them. We already have a system for this! To lie and say you wrote them yourself is fucked up on so many levels. I don’t think I’m really getting the sense that you get why it’s wrong beyond “you could get caught.” I think it’s a good thing that we have more rigorous standards of intellectual honesty than they did in Shakespeare’s time. I don’t have a ton of morals, but honesty is something I hold pretty highly.

    • Lemona

      I think comparing journalistic writing to creative writing in this context is a mistake.

      In creative writing, making allusions to the works of others is not stealing because the allusions will be recognized as such. We understand the difference between allusive use and stealing. Robert Louis Stevenson writes “Home from the Hill” and A.E. Housman repurposes RLS’s lines for his own poem, which alters the original in an artful way. Lifting of lines with no alteration (as in Opal Mehta) is considered stealing. Lifting of plot with no significant repurposing or alteration is considered being derivative. When Shakespeare “steals” he’s not wholesale lifting and not being derivative –he alters the pieces he takes in such a way that they are made new (and, history has voted, better) by his re-presentation of them.

      We expect journalistic writing to be only as good as the veracity of what is being reported. Accuracy is the standard, and plagiarism is a foul against accuracy because it is a misrepresentation of the information being presented (hence the existence of unintentional plagiarism). For instance, the Dershowitz-Finkelstein plagiarism charge was based around quotations, misrepresenting the use of Joan Peters’s sources as Dershowitz’s own, rather than a charge of lifting someone else’s words.

      Writers don’t work in a vacuum. We don’t expect or want them to; we do expect journalistic writing to be accurate about its sources.

    • T.Lawrence

      How many words,sentences,or paragraphs are required to be the same or nearly the same as what someone else wrote,in order to be considered plagiarism ? I hear a lot of song lyrics that say pretty much the same as others at some point,or are conveying the very same idea. I read books on religion that at some point come very near to saying the exact same words. In both cases,the ideas have been around for ages ! Is it then a case of someone stealing from someone that stole from someone? If someone now writes another comment on this topic that says exactly or pretty much the same as mine,would that certainly be considered plagiarism ?

      • Lemona

        Copyright laws stipulate how many words, phrases, etc., are required to be the same in order for a work to be considered illegal plagiarism, and copyright laws vary by medium. Yes, many songs are similar, and that’s why songs have their own special set of copyright laws, tailored to distinguish between what’s common (love songs with lyrics like “I need you” or “come back to me”), and what can be considered a case of theft. Theft actually happens surprisingly often, but the cases usually result in hushed up pay-offs. I have a lawyer friend who specialized in these cases. (She says Brooks & Dunn are the worst offenders.)

        Here’s a site that you might want to check out for general info:

        The “books on religion” you’re reading may use many of the same sources, and that may account for their similarities. What is important is the proper citation and crediting of those sources, which hopefully the books you’re reading have. Look in the bibliographies at the ends of the books and see if some of the sources overlap!

        If I cut& pasted your comment as my own, that would be plagiarism, and unfair to you, but you would waste your money trying to bring a copyright suit against me because my plagiarism in that case would not affect the (market) value of your comment. But that’s a whole other ball of wax . . .

    • Adam

      Why is plagiarism considered to be such a bad offence?