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Plagiarism

May 1st, 2007

BY TOBY TOMPKINS

plagiarize vt: to steal and pass off as one’s own (the ideas or words of another) ~ vi: to present as one’s own an idea or product derived from an existing source”
Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary

The battered old dictionary was my wife’s when she was in high school, and I still consult it when I want quick definitions, rather than the windy ones in my Shorter OED. But its blunt, unequivocal definition of “plagiarize” certainly belongs to a simpler, perhaps more innocent era, before stealing became “attribution” and the lawyers began to fatten their wallets on copyright cases involving the Internet.

Recent polls suggest that more than sixty percent of today’s high school students worldwide, more than half of college undergraduates, and a significant number of post-grads, routinely use Google to find published material appropriate to their required essays and theses, and simply cut and paste large chunks verbatim into their manuscripts, without citing the original authors and certainly without getting permission to use their writing. And when their “masters and teachers” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov) catch them out, the students don’t seem to understand that what they did was wrong. Their bafflement is understandable, perhaps, because at the university level the masters and teachers themselves, as recent scandals indicate, stoop to plagiarism from time to time in their own scholarly articles. Monkey see, monkey do.

The Internet is an astounding creation, the most significant leap forward in information access since the invention of moveable type. Suddenly it’s possible to call up just about anything you want to know with a few mouse-clicks, instead of trekking to the library and paging through actual books. With Google’s mind-boggling new plan to store every published book in the world and make it available on-line, the power of the resource will become truly staggering. But as with every sudden advance in science and technology, the extraordinary flourishing of the Internet comes with a decidedly dark side. For one thing, it’s changed the way people think about other people’s work.

You have to buy a computer, of course, and sign up with an ISP that charges regular fees, in order to gain entry to the Internet’s omnicompendium of information. But after that initial outlay, it’s a free ride: the stuff you need pops up on the screen, open to everyone in the world, so it must be there for the taking. Never mind the fact that someone had to create the document you need and might be a little put out if you pass it off as your own work. It’s available, instantly, and therefore it must be free. Hey, you already paid good money for the computer and the ISP, right?

But the Internet can’t be blamed entirely for the current epidemic of plagiarism. It’s simply made plagiarizing easier. And it has raised a very interesting question about the concept of plagiarism. Certainly anyone who downloads an entire essay by someone else, signs his name to it, and hands it in as his own work, is a plagiarist. But plagiarism as a crime is a notion of recent vintage, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, when the vague Constitutional assertion of the right of authors to ownership of their own writing was made more specific, copyright law was systematized, and laws were enacted to prevent the use of a given writer’s work without permission from, and, usually, the payment of an appropriate fee to the author, if living, or to his/her legal estate, if not.

Yet there’s where the can of worms was opened. For the legislators had to establish cut-off time limits for published works, more or less arbitrary spans after which the material entered the public domain and was no longer subject to permissions and fees. And the Internet is all about public domain, and has been since it grew beyond its origins as a military means of exchanging top-secret information and into the wonderfully anarchic mess it is today. Of course there are sporadic attempts by various corporate interests to turn the Internet into a cash-cow, but the gaudy monster’s beyond control by now.

Full disclosure: to check my reference to the Constitution’s stand on the rights of authors, I accessed the Internet and wound up with Wikipedia, that informational free-for-all link that gathers in and more or less sorts info sent in by everyone from established experts to howling maniacs. Wikipedia does publish a list of its sources for most entries, but it certainly doesn’t obtain permission to use them, nor does it pay royalties. Why should it? It’s not selling anything. It’s free.

So the kids who grew up with Internet access and don’t understand why passing off someone else’s work as their own is a no-no are simply creatures of the times. The only difference between them and, say, Shakespeare, who similarly mined the existing literature of his time for his plots, is that Shakespeare improved upon the material he stole.

But there are still clear-cut issues involving plagiarism, and when I was thirteen years old my mother nailed me. She was a published poet, and she was pleased that I was a precocious reader and able to hold my own with her in a talk about books, usually after she’d had a few drinks. I was desperate to win her approval at the time, and I began trying to write poetry. But even at thirteen I knew my stuff was bad. Yet I’d told mother that I was writing verse, and she kept asking me to show her my work. I lost sleep trying to come up with something that would meet her high standards — after all, she’d published in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine, which put her in the company of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.

I was on a Kipling jag then, hoovering down everything I could find by that conflicted champion of a thoroughly evil empire, and I was particularly taken by his short stories involving the supernatural. One of them involves a London workingman who has a spotty memory of a past life as a Roman galley slave and comes up with a haunting poem lamenting his misery at the oars. The refrain: “Will you never let us go?”

My school’s history teacher had taken us into ancient Egypt, and I was full of vivid fantasies, not about the Pharaohs, but about the poor bastards who built their pyramids and temples for them. So to curry favor with my mother, I wrote something called “The Song of an Egyptian Slave.” It changed Kipling’s miserable oarsmen to equally unhappy forced laborers hauling and lifting massive blocks of stone, but I copied Kipling’s refrain at the end of each stanza. And when it was done I read it to my mother.

She was absolutely delighted. The poem wasn’t rhymed, but it was rhythmic and strictly organized, just like her own verse. She urged me to take it to school and read it in class for my English teacher. The teacher was equally impressed, and it wound up being published in a little book of student poetry the school put out that year.

I brought the book home proudly and gave it to mother. One morning in the kitchen a day or so later, while my brother and I were eating breakfast, she told me she needed to talk to me when I got back from school. When I walked in she was sitting in the living room with the school’s poetry book open on her lap next to the Kipling story, turned to the damning page. I’d forgotten that the Kipling books I’d been reading were hers to begin with, and that she knew his work a lot better than I did.

But the school collection had already been published. Mother told me that I had to admit my theft to my English teacher, even though it was too late. I did, bringing in the Kipling book. He glanced at the two poems, frowned at me, and said, “Well, Tompkins, it’s too bad. But at least you admitted what you did. And actually, you changed almost everything but the refrain. Your poem is almost as strong as Kipling’s, I think. And there’s an old saying: bad poets imitate; good poets steal.” I lost a little respect for him that morning, not because he hadn’t kicked me out of school for plagiarism, but because he hadn’t caught the Kipling theft to begin with. But then, it had taken my mother some time to catch me, too, even though Kipling’s poetry was one of her guilty pleasures (generally she inclined more toward Edna St. Vincent Millay) because he had been her father’s favorite writer.

I still have the book. From time to time I’m tempted to burn it, but mother’s long dead. And the Furies did not forget my early crime. In fact, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, my punishment has fit that crime. For I have lived to see my later writing, free itself, I try to make sure, of unacknowledged “borrowings,” baldly ripped off by an assortment of rather talented people, from the staff writers of NBC’s Saturday Night Live through a certain highly distinguished fiction editor at The New Yorker, to one of my own relatives. It’s enough to make me think I must be a good writer.

But I’m on shaky ground myself here. I write personal essays for Black Lamb, and I often quote people, accurately, to the best of my memory, who haven’t given me formal permission to publish their words. So where is the line drawn? I don’t know. Plagiarism is as slippery a concept as pornography; the distinction between stealing someone else’s original writing and mining it to use in a new context is as hazy as the difference between erotic scenes in mainstream fiction and films and hard-core fucky-sucky in stroke books and XXX-rated movies. Trying to define plagiarism, one is left sounding as lame and confused as the official testifying in a court case over a “dirty” book who, when challenged to define pornography, said he couldn’t, but he knew it when he saw it.

But there’s a human truth in the hapless man’s statement about porn which applies as strongly to plagiarism. The convolutions of copyright law have made it extremely expensive, if not impossible, for a plaintiff to win a judgment in court that even covers the costs of the suit. But I think we all know when we’re stealing. Some of us (in my case prodded by my mother) ’fess up, but the memory of the crime lingers for decades and creates lingering doubts about the integrity of everything we write afterwards.

And some of us don’t give a damn. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Tompkins | Link to this Entry

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