Plagiarism Isn’t So Bad

The common explanation of plagiarism – and to some degree the the only explanation people seem willing to accept – is that plagiarists steal because they are mediocrities. They can’t come up with good enough lines on their own, so they have to take other people’s. They’re crumbling under the pressure to be greater than they are. Jayson Blair offered up this explanation a few weeks ago in Salon when he wrote that:

I certainly understand that pressure. Once you’re young and successful, I think, in this profession you’re only as good as your last story — and you want every story to be better. I think when you’re young and you’re immature — well, I’m unclear on why he did it, but when you’re young and immature, it’s just very difficult, I think, to resist temptation.

I don’t think I’ve ever been able to really successfully analyze why I did what I did. Obviously, in my case there was a little bit of mental illness at play.

I think most people would be loathe to suggest that Shakespeare or Virgil stole because they were fundamentally mediocre writers, or that they were suffering from mental illness. I sincerely believe that Virgil was a much better writer than Quinnus, though Shakespeare vs. Plutarch might be up for more debate.

I am going to say a fairly controversial thing: if you are a writer, I think you are going to want to steal lines from other writers.

If you are an aspiring writer, I think wanting to steal lines from other people is a very, very good sign. It is a good sign because it means you recognize what good lines are. Because, be clear, there are a lot of people out there who simply can’t tell. There are people who will very earnestly tell you that Twilight is written at the same technical level as The Sun Also Rises. They are not. If you are someone who values literature at all you recognize that, while you might enjoy 50 Shades of Grey it is not a well written book. Many, many people cannot do that.

In that way, plagiarism is not quite like stealing a television, because a television is not the kind of object of beauty that only a certain group can recognize. It is like being crazed with a covetous desire for an antique paperweight (which, come to think of it, Truman Capote, who wrote about shamelessly plagiarizing stories when he was in high school, used to collect).

And if you are someone who naturally appreciates good, quippy lines, then encountering them is like being a naturally appetitive person left in a room with pastries and being told “don’t take any of them.” This is not a troubling proposition for someone who doesn’t like sweets. But, of course, it will be a problem for people who do.

Why did you do it Jayson Blair? Because you were mentally ill? No. It’s quite sane to covet the things you find most beautiful and want to make them yours. Not to be at least tempted by other people’s great lines is simply to be an unobservant writer.

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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?