Home > Uncategorized > Thinking about Plagiarism

Thinking about Plagiarism

I have been thinking about plagiarism recently, and even more so in light of reading Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Copyrights and  Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity. Vaidhyanathan’s book is a smartly-written, seemingly well-researched work that does exactly what its title says it does. While much of our class’ discussion centered on the author’s somewhat controversial discussion of copyright law and music, I was more smitten by his discussion of Mark Twain, and Vaidyanathan’s influence on American copyright law. According to Vaidhyanathan, Twain had a view of authorship that was somewhat contradictory. On one hand, Twain was a borrower, even once admitting to a friend in 1888, that “[t]hen, we were all thieves” (p.63). However, Twain fought tirelessly for credit over his finished works, despite admitting plainly (at least privately) that he frequently borrowed and adapted stories, characters, and even speech patterns for this own work.

And that brings us to today, where many of us who have put any thought whatsoever into our educations have been careful not to “plagiarize” — to steal away — the ideas of others. This is a necessary goal, to be sure, and one that will be met with severe punishment if we fail to meet it. But I do have a problem with a policy that believes in the increasingly laughable idea of the “romantic” writer, the author who sits, alone, uninfluenced, and writes, ex nihilo (out of nothing) like some kind of omniscient deity. This isn’t accurate or possible, and worse, it is disingenuous. When we write, it is impossible to remember every book, article, saying, person, movie, or song that has influenced some aspect of our writing styles, diction, or delivery. Try as we may, we can only remember so much of what I write.

While I hope to never knowingly plagiarize, and I endeavor to cite all my sources, this cannot, by definition, ensure that I have never plagiarized. This is a frightful thought, as I plan on pursuing a doctorate starting next year, and plan on teaching at the university level.

I suppose, then, that the lesson to be learned from Vaidhyanathan and his report of Mark Twain is that the relationship between authors, texts, and audiences is far from simple. Twain took stories he heard before, and put a special twist on them that made his finished works original, at least in part. When we read books or articles for papers in school, we are doing the same thing. Hopefully, we are a little more honest than he was when we do our writing. That should be the main difference.

I have looked for an interesting video that explains intertextuality, but was unhappy with what I found. What’s worse, influential articles by James Porter and Danielle DeVoss dont’ seem to be available right now. I doubt those authors would be happy about that, considering their importance in articulating the theory of intertextuality.

Rebecca Moore Howard argues  in “Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty” that “plagiarisim” is not as simple as it first appears (p. 788). Whereas most teachers believe that plagiarism is a result of either ignorance of citation conventions or a lack of ethics, Howard points to the act of “patchwriting,” the practice of taking a quote, and changing its wording slightly, as being a practice that doesn’t fit in this binary distincition. This practice, commonly considered to fall under the plagiarism umbrella, is really a valuable step in learning to write (p. 788) .

I’m not really sure what the point of this post was. Though it didn’t have much to do with Copyrights and Copywrongs, I think plagiarism is an important topic, and Vaidhyanathan’s book provides us with a look at this complex issue in a way we may not have had before.

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  1. Jessica Collins
    October 24th, 2009 at 22:46 | #1

    Your discussion on plagiarism is very interesting. I have often wondered where the line between being influenced or inspired by someone and stealing from them is drawn.

  2. October 25th, 2009 at 12:19 | #2

    To me, the most interesting challenge in defining the word “plagarism” is in finding that line where “inspiration” turns into “stealing”. There is no universally agreed upon line because everyone has a different opinion on the significance of intellectual ownership. I am no expert, but there seems to a “death of the author” camp which views text as some pre-existing, inescapable ecosystem that dwarfs the role of individual agents of thought. In this scenario, the author is but a facilitator or arbiter of pre-existing ideas.

    The clearest metaphor in which to view this intellectual property is issue, for me, has been to look at what contemporary DJ’s like diplo or (sigh) Girl Talk do for a living. Both of these DJs are extremely, unavoidably, indebted to others because they are always re-mixing or “mashing” many pre-existing elements of recorded music. Yet I see Diplo as being a more thoughtful, mature DJ who leaves a subtle and unique imprint on everything he meddles with. His remixes tell at least tell a story about his global travels. Girl Talk on the other hand seems more preoccupied with the craft of remixing than he is with musical taste. He will throw anything together if he thinks the beat can hold. It’s as if he wants to be awarded a trophy for being simply being able to mash to seemingly irreconcilable songs together. while that may qualify for some as “extreme” or novel to some, I see it as fitting into a rather
    anonymous way of creating music. So many others are able to do the same thing he does and thus his case for owning any style unique to his name will be diminished over time.

    So my point is that DJ culture can illustrate how there is a gradient of ownership that can be attributed to our creative efforts within the intellectual ecosystem we inhabit.

    more resources:

    http://www.plagiary.org/

    http://academicintegrity.rutgers.edu/

  3. Dustin Eastman
    October 25th, 2009 at 13:30 | #3

    Just an FYI, you changed tense at the end of the 2nd paragraph. You went from third person plural to first person singular for just the end of the sentence. It just threw me off while reading. I thought I would point it out. Just because this blog is on the mechanics/semantics and so on of plagiarism, and being correct. LOL!! More as a jest than anything!

  1. October 26th, 2009 at 05:47 | #1

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