Plagiarism: “They’ve Always Done It”

On today’s edition (May 20, 2006) of NPR’s On the Media, guest host Mike Pesca (a correspondent for Day to Day) spoke a piece called “Cribbing Through the Ages.” His point was that plagiarism was “no big deal” in Elizabethan times and would be no big deal in twenty years.

Pesca’s argument, in part, is based on the fact that the public often doesn’t know who wrote something anyhow: the newsreader mouths words created by a producer, the film’s credited author may have been followed by others who radically altered the script. This “convinces the consumer that a byline might just be a vestige of a bygone era.”

What’s peculiar about Pesca’s piece is that it follows segments on ‘fair use’ and ‘copyright’ without Pesca seeming to understand the relationship between these issues and current concerns over plagiarism. He also seems to have no comprehension of the reasons why plagiarism has become such a concern—and not simply on college campuses. In addition, he doesn’t seem to recognize that Elizabethan England was—how shall we say it?—a little different from contemporary America.

In Elizabethan England, print culture was just taking hold (remember, Shakespeare’s plays were never even meant to be printed and sold). The important thing was the performance, not the author (certainly not to the degree of today). There was also quite a bit less in print: an educated person would be familiar with just about every ‘important’ text and would recognize references without attention being called to them.

As media exploded, it became necessary to find a way to clarify references and usages of older works, for it could not be assumed that readers would “get” them any longer and the possibility of fraudulent usage rose. I doubt that Shakespeare would have argued that it just happened that his line about Helen of Troy and launching 1000 ships was similar to Marlowe’s—as my students often do, when caught plagiarizing. Why, Shakespeare might have argued, tell you what you already know? Plus, he wasn’t publishing his plays for profit, he was performing them. There’s a big difference.

It was a century after Shakespeare’s time that writers began making a living by their pens. And it was then that the first copyright laws came into effect in England (during Queen Anne’s time). The period of copyright wasn’t very long. Perhaps it was felt that any writing should revert to the commons at some point, but that authors ought to benefit from the sale of their work for a reasonable length of time (14 years, renewable for another 14).

Today, there are two legitimate ways for using the works of others: First, one can receive permission from the copyright holder (generally in return for money). Second, one can use a portion of the work under ‘fair use’ provisions—with acknowledgement. ‘Fair use,’ unfortunately, is not clearly defined, but any use of up to ten percent of a work in a non-commercial (generally educational or scholarly) will generally slide by, as long as attribution is clearly given.

The problem of plagiarism isn’t a problem with using the works of others, but a problem of honesty and the law. Shakespeare wasn’t being dishonest by incorporating the words of Marlowe into his plays any more than Gus Van Sant was by incorporating Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth, Part I into his My Own Private Idaho. Even if he hadn’t acknowledged it, the borrowing would be clear. No one needs to provide references to quotes from Casablanca any longer. “Round up the usual suspects.” “I’m shocked, shocked!” No one would accuse anyone of plagiarism for using those phrases.

No, plagiarism is something quite different from what Shakespeare was doing. It is an attempt at personal gain through the unacknowledged work of others. Through a hiding of the source. This subverts education, debasing the value of what all students do when it is not quashed. It also perverts the various industries involved in making money from the arts. Kaavya Viswanathan (in my view) was manipulated into a position where she had no place else to turn, but to plagiarism. Young and inexperienced, there is no way she could have lived up to her half-million-dollar-advance billing. So she cheated.

How does that look to the thousands of struggling writers who get a few thousand dollars for their books (if they get published at all), yet continue on—some of whom are fine and creative, and original, writers and thinkers?

Another reason that plagiarism has to be considered a big deal is that the provenance of information is extremely important to scholarship and to reporting. A trail needs to lead back to the sources, and the sources themselves need to be judged. That trail is muddied into meaninglessness when plagiarism is concerned. In a time of information explosion, it is harder and harder to know what to rely on. If we can trace something back to, say, Bertrand Russell, we can feel that we don’t really have to go further, for he has a certain reputation. If we aren’t able to trace things to certain stopping points, we will be buried by the information, both viable and bogus, surrounding us.

Pesca feels that plagiarism will be “no big deal” twenty years from now. I disagree. I believe it will be even more important.

[More to come.]

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