Plagiarism Isn’t So Bad

I think most people are able to sit in that room full of sweets and not eat any if they know their career will be destroyed as a result – I certainly am. But I don’t pretend that the thought has never occurred to me. Of course it has. I think there are many pieces that I’ve written that would be made immeasurably better if I could just toss in a line or two from Plutarch like sea salt.

Look, perhaps what we need is not to enact a witch hunt every time someone commits an acts of plagiarism. It’s going to keep happening, because it has been happening for all of history. It’s going to be more visible in the era of the internet. Maybe we need to make it more of an understood part of the writing process. We need a culture of transparency. To that end, we need to promote some openness about where ideas come from. Shakespeare was able to pretty clearly say “yes, I steal from Plutarch all the time” and the response was generally “yeah, Plutarch is the man!” Virgil was able to laugh about it.

Maybe if we allowed for the fact that writers are going to want to steal other writers lines we could have a system in place where Kaavya Viswanathan could simply say, “yes [chick lit writer] had some great lines that I used” rather than trying to desperately claim that she’d stolen them be cause she had a photographic memory and just forgot those lines weren’t theirs (this is a common explanation, and it always sounds crazy). Maybe there could be a way to credit this at the end of articles, or somewhere in a magazine. I think throwing in an asterisk every time a borrowed line pops up seems inelegant, but I suspect there must be some solution better than the solution we have now, which is “getting really angry, shouting about people being scumbag television thieves.”

In an ideal world, acts of plagiarism even become pleasurable for us as readers because the writers make it clear that they’re doing it. T.S. Eliot, for instance, is plagiarizing left and right, and he expects you to be smart enough to realize it. I think it’s harder to imagine a world where Fareed Zakaria says “it wasn’t immediately evident to everyone that I was riffing on Jill Lepore? I guess I thought you guys were intelligent enough to get that” but I like the idea of a world where Zakaria, like Shakespeare or Virgil before him, could mention that he used some of her lines because they were great. And because doing so was an understandable impulse.

So, go ahead. Steal this article. If there are any pearls worth plucking out of this dunghill, they’re yours. Though until everyone comes around to being open, I will simply say that if I stole any of the lines here, it’s because I have a photographic memory.

Picture of Fareed Zakaria via Breitbart

Picture of Shakespeare via StudentMedia

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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?