Nothing New Under the Sun (1)

First, let’s pretend all the numbers I have in parentheses are footnotes, including the one in the title, because my blog does not allow for actual footnotes.
With that said, I would like to talk about plagiarism (2). As Tanya M.  likes to say, plagiarism is not only rampant, but inexcusable (3). However, I would like to argue that it is not so since sometimes in plagiarism the original work can actually, through careful editing, become improved (4). Think about it – with a few punctuation marks, rhyme, and line break changes, you can turn Marlowe into Shakespeare (5). Then again, no one plagiarized like Shakespeare, if you are going to really get picky about it (6).
To simply say something was plagiarized, is to reduce it to its most basic form, and in my opinion an insult to both the plagiarizer, and plagiarized. Those most notorious offenders never had reason for it to begin with, as they were excellent writers on their own (7). In fact, not terribly long ago imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, and plagiarism, in this regard is the highest form of imitation, and therefore, by some implicit, perhaps even logical connection, also flattery (8). No?
Returning to the idea that those who plagiarize most have the least need to do so (and here I refer solely to those with great ideas, building upon previous genius, and not to petty plagiarism that is sloppy and reckless in form), it can also be argued that plagiarism on their part is inadvertent. If I am to argue that these writers do not need to because their own ability is enough to produce that which they plagiarize, then I must also state that this ability is not born of nothing (9). If plagiarism is theft, then it most closely resembles kleptomania. After reading and rereading others, the ideas become fused into the mind, and reiterated. It cannot be helped (10).
While there may be a psychology of plagiarism (11), il est plus aise de connoitre l’homme en general que de connoitre un homme en particulier (12), which makes it impossible to fully understand motive. Was the plagiarism inadvertent? Produced as a source of flattery? By some means malicious or insidious? Plagiarism cannot be generalized thus to account for every instance, as intention differs between men. Even if plagiarism becomes defined, packaged in some neat, coherent explanation, it escapes its own confines by virtue of motive, human nature (13), and even laws governing ownership (14). The last point refers to who owns the original words, as in, after they are plagiarized, do they not still belong to the original author (15)? Published words are not like physical items, permanently removed from the owner and in the possession of someone else (16). They float around, and in my opinion (although no one has thus far asked), they serve to point towards the original, drawing further attention to it, as opposed to detracting or obfuscating the primary author. Once you write something, and it is made public, I don’t think anyone can ever take that away from you (17). Of course I am mostly thinking of creative sources, and not more academic ones. I could totally see why someone would raise Hell for having their research or journal article plagiarized. But as for the creative territories, like stories, or drama, then there is where I see it as referencing rather than plagiarism. And I am pretty sure others view it the same. Otherwise we wouldn’t have many of our current sources of entertainment (18).
So what is plagiarism? Although definitions abound (19), it seems to center around recycling of various natures (20), and only recently became a horrifying practice (21). As for me? I personally have mixed feelings on the whole business, and shall leave it at that (see footnote number 15 below for a full definition of what this means).
Footnotes:
  1. Ecclesiastes 1:9: “The thing that has been, it is that which shall be.. and there is no new thing under the sun.” Jean de La Buyere, Les Caracteres: “We come too late to say anything which has not been said already.” Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy: “We can say nothing but hath been said.” Terence, Eunuchus: “Nothing is said that has not been said before.”
  2. And in speaking about plagiarism, I am going to totally plagiarize Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris in this post. Although the idea originated in one of my classes, my actual idea for creating this post comes from her book, and her thoughts on it.
  3. Tanya never said any such thing. In fact, I don’t believe we even ever had this conversation. She may or may not believe it, but I have no idea. However, since plagiarism extends beyond simply copying ideas, to also falsifying information, then I am here plagiarizing by stating this as Tanya’s opinion. I also don’t think she cares.
  4. Only half of these sentiments are mine, the other half come from Neal Bowers’ “A Loss for Words.”
  5. Ibid. Except for the analogy, which was totally mine. However, you may feel free to plagiarize it. I guess if I give you permission, then it doesn’t count, so on second thought, don’t.
  6. Alexander Lindey, in Plagiarism and Originality actually spent a great deal of time analyzing the extent to which Shakespeare plagiarized, right down to line counts.
  7. Peter Shaw made this argument already, and by reiterating it, I am technically plagiarizing him.
  8. This idea is far from original. I have read it many times over the years, and frankly cannot remember where I first encountered it. I shall here attribute it to Charles Caleb Colton in Lacon. I can only hope to receive a posthumous thank you note.
  9. In a round-about-way I am here referring to Johannes Scotus Eriugena. Not only am I stealing his theory, but reworking it to fit my needs. Plagiarism at its finest. I would add a footnote to this footnote, except that would be entirely too complicated, so I will simply state that Eriugena obtained the majority of his ideas from several before him (as could only be expected), picking up the argument where Boethius left it while also translating other works.
  10. K. R. St. Onge, The Melancholy Anatomy of Plagiarism. Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy (see a pattern here?).
  11. William Dean Howell, “the Psychology of Plagiarism.”
  12. Francois de la Rochefoucauld, Maximes.
  13. Wallace Stevens “The Motive for Metaphor.”
  1. Neal Bowers, again.
  2. Ibid. He says no, or at least not in the same way. I personally have mixed feelings. And by mixed I don’t necessarily mean oscillating both ways, but rather that I am confused. “Mixed” just sounds better, so I will stick with that.
  3. Anne Fadiman, again.
  4. Ira Gershwin, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” Shall We Dance.
  5. John Gardner, The Art of Fiction.
  6. Troy Voelker, “Plagiarism: What Don’t They Know?”
  7. Alexander Pope, “Couplets on Wit.”
  8. Harold Ogden, Plagiarism and Imitation During the English Renaissance.
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