• Fri, Aug 24 2012

Plagiarism Is So Bad

Look. I think most of you already understand implicitly why plagiarism is wrong. But Jennifer has thrown down the gauntlet, so I accept.

Yesterday, Jennifer wrote a post full of lies about how plagiarism isn’t so bad after all, because:

1.) Shakespeare did it.

2.) It shows you can recognize good work.

3.) It doesn’t hurt anyone but the plagiarist.

I will now demolish these points one by one, like in high school debate, but with less power suits and stuttering.

1.) It’s 100% fallacious to use a writer from the Elizabethan era to justify the things people do now. As human knowledge and stories shifted from a primarily oral tradition to a primarily written, copyrightable one, it took a while for notions of authorship to evolve into the rigorous standard we have today. We’re not even totally sure who wrote Shakespeare’s plays! And as far as copying other people’s plots, I think turning a pre-existing story into a play is quite different from the modern kind of plagiarism we are talking about, in which you cut and paste a paragraph of someone else’s chick lit novel into your own chick lit novel.

But, to answer the trollsome question “did Shakespeare’s theft of lines and plots make him a worse writer?” I will say: no, but that’s beside the point. Someone can be a great writer and still make the perverse decision to steal someone else’s words. (Because, like Jennifer said, not everyone plagiarizes because they’re bad writers.) But if you’re going to force me to apply modern standards to the things Shakespeare did, then yes, he was an ass. He should have singlehandedly moved history forward by properly citing his sources. Also, your grandma is a huge dick for being a homophobe.

2.) Emphasizing the plagiarist’s ability to recognize good work is somewhat of a red herring, because it’s entirely possible to admire someone else’s work without stealing it. In fact, we already have a system in place that allows you to put someone else’s words right smack dab in the middle of your own with zero repercussions to your career. It’s called “citation.” It might even be better that way, because people will actually know you have good taste in writing if you tell them “this is someone else’s writing…look at me, having good taste!” Is citation awkward? Sometimes a little, I guess. But not nearly as awkward as the pissed off phone call you’ll get when someone realizes you’ve accepted credit and money for their work.

Note: I’m not talking about literary allusion, wherein you insert a line from a well-known work that people will recognize as an allusion. T.S. Eliot didn’t pretend he wrote all the allusions in The Wasteland, but in case anyone was confused (and most people were) he provided handy footnotes about every last one of them. Reading said footnotes helped me discover works I never would’ve known about otherwise, enriching my experience of the poem times a hundred. And I didn’t think the poet any less brilliant for providing proper citation.

3.) This is the point I care about most, because it gets to the heart of the moral question. I think plagiarism absolutely hurts people other than the plagiarist, whether or not he or she gets away with it (and some do). You are straight up lying to the world about whether or not you wrote something. This is disrespectful to your readers, your bosses, the real author, and the very concept of fiction and/or journalism itself. Whether or not the person you steal from is hurt by it (and I think most people would be pretty pissed off if they found out it had happened to them), those words are simply not yours to take. Would you, after a day spent slacking off at the factory, attempt to get paid for the widgets somebody else made? Because there’s little difference, as far as I can tell.

The writing world is a competitive one, so taking credit (and usually, money) for someone else’s hard work impacts everyone. There’s a limited amount of attention and book deals to go around. Plagiarizing someone else’s work is like taking steroids to compete in the Olympics: it cheapens the game for everyone. And what kind of intellectual community would you rather have: one composed of people who are working their hardest to be the best and most creative writers they can be, or one composed of people who care more about getting attention/acclaim than doing the actual work to back it up?

In the end, I think there is a bit of a fuzzy line between being influenced by someone else and straight up stealing their ideas, but why even take that risk? It takes little away from you to properly credit someone (and what it does deprive you of is something you did not earn in the first place) and it hurts a lot of people if you don’t. In the end, the blatant cut+paste kind of plagiarism we’re arguing about is an intellectually lazy shortcut taken by people who can’t be arsed to do the work themselves. And I don’t want to live and work in a world where that’s condoned.

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  • Erin

    I agree.

  • Lemona

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Lizzie

    I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but it’s interesting to consider how culture might develop if we weren’t so uptight about plagiarism. Maybe someone doesn’t like the writing style of Twilight, so he/she keeps the decent sentences intact and rewrites the others. Then someone else builds on top of that. Then it evolves and gets better and better til it’s a masterpiece and a cornerstone of American culture.
    Or maybe that wouldn’t work- maybe Shakespeare-style plagiarism is obsolete for a reason. I mean, plagiarism happens in Hollywood a lot and it usually doesn’t produce good results. Look at Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake.

  • aditi

    I think similar to the music industry and how we have remixes, it is possible to take parts of books that inspire you, or you want to pay homage to and use it in your book as long as you have not borrowed the overall central plot line, premise or character. I guess this is what you mean when you refer to TS Eliot.

    I believe there are some standards in music for what constitutes remix and what constitutes plagiarism (45 seconds I think is the limit). I confess I cannot think what these standards could be in literature (maybe some of you who are authors have some ideas?) I do believe that we should be able to draw a line between inspiration, influence, and simple copying.