Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A brief history of plagiarism

Note: I found at least 14 pieces with this same (or nearly the same) title—"A brief history of plagiarism"—on the internet. And the title itself is based on and intended to evoke Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. But I'm still going to use it. So there.
To quote from Merriam-Webster, plagiarism is "the act of using another person's words or ideas without giving credit to that person." Most of us understand this, know what is plagiarism and what is not. We learned about it in school at one point or another, usually from a teacher who told us to never copy someone else's words, but rather to restate an idea or the like in our own words. And it's not enough to just change a word or two in this regard; one needs to reorganize things as well, to restructure sentences, in order to properly restate an idea without plagiarizing someone else.

The root of plagiarism, plagiarize, and plagiarist is the Latin word plagiarius, which means "kidnapper." It is, itself, derived from the Latin word plaga (plural: plagis), which referred to a net used by game hunters. The relationship is obvious: tool for catching game to kidnapper to someone who steals another's words. And it is a funny testament to how language works, how it evolves. We often wonder—or maybe even complain—about how a word or one of its derivatives changes in meaning. More often than not, it's because someone used it in a figurative or non-traditional way and that usage resonated with others. Such was likely the case here, multiple times.

The first known usage of plagiarize in reference to word-theft was, again according to Merriam-Webster, in 1621, though "plagiary" (meaning "literary thief") entered the English lexicon some decades prior, perhaps in the 1590's. And in this beginning, the issue was very much a literary one, as it was used by people like the playwright Ben Johnson, among others, to complain about his work/words being stolen. The history of plagiarism with respect to the arts is, by and large, the largest component of the history of plagiarism. It continues to this day, in novels, movies, and music.

And this all points to a problem with my "brief history": there is the history of the term and its use (and how it became a legal term, as well) and then there is the history of the action, itself (using someone else's words as one's own).

The latter obviously goes back much farther in time. For instance, a case can be made that the great poet Homer was, in fact, nothing more than a great plagiarist, that his works were nothing more than the stories told by traveling bards put down into written form with no credit given to those whom originated the tales (to be fair, a case can also be made that there was no actual historical Homer). Then there's the Bible (yes, the actual Bible) and the issue of plagiarism within, particularly with regard to the story of Noah and it's similarities to parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Of course one can adopt a more nuanced view and allow that both are derived from the same source: tales handed down across generations. Still, in terms of our modern understanding of what constitutes plagiarism, there may be something here, as whomever tells a tale first tends to have ownership rights of the same, and those who retell it are usually expected to acknowledge the source.

But I guess the current concerns are more about legalities and people currently in the public eye who use the words and/or ideas of others without attribution. And in this regard, the history really begins in 1710, in England, with the passage of the Statute of Anne (which followed the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1694, something supported heavily by John Locke, interestingly enough). In short, what happened here was that publishers lost their absolute control over copyrights and the government stepped in to protect the interests of authors (yet another in the long list of firsts for the English legal system). The statute was far from perfect, however, and it's flaws became apparent across time (leading to repeal and replacement), but it was the first big step in creating a legal framework that could include the issue of plagiarism.

Let's jump forward a bit, however, and look at the issue of plagiarism in the public (politicians and journalists) arena. Here's a recent story from The Guardian that details the plagiarism woes of current political faces, including Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Stephen Harper, and Ben Carson (also Maureen Dowd). And then there is the plagiarism of noted intellectual giant Fareed Zakaria, the self-plagiarism (yes, that's a real thing) of Jonah Lehrer, along with the plagiarism of political leaders like Rand Paul, Senator John Walsh, and Vladimir Putin. I'm not going to detail the rest of these cases, but suffice it to say that there's little room for doubt in them: all are guilty of plagiarism, the use of another's words or ideas without attribution.

Yet, despite this, they all push on. Most apologized for their "terrible mistake" or "momentary lapse," and ultimately suffered very little in their professional lives for their actions. Honestly, I have to admit that Zakaria's case bugs me the most. His plagiarism incidents spanned years (probably there are more that just haven't been caught) and he should know better, though I think in his case it was just pure laziness; he didn't need the angle, he didn't need to plagiarize, because what he took wasn't all that impressive and he is a smart guy.

But I digress.

The point is that these days, plagiarism seems to be this huge thing in the moment but then quickly recedes and becomes little more than a blip on someone's public resume. And by the way, I'm not interested in hearing about speechwriters and how some of these cases fall on them; whomever gives a speech—and functionally claims it is their speech—fucking owns that speech, in every single way, from every single direction. There's no one else to blame.

As I writer, I want to do a lot of blaming in this regard. I really do. I don't care if someone copies my words or ideas, as along as they give me credit, even if they get a lot more out of the words or ideas. The point is the credit and the intellectual honesty of giving it. In this regard, I'd point to Dan Brown (whose novels I like), The Da Vinci Code, and Brown's failure to credit the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail a source for many of the ideas in the novel. Two of the latter's authors sued Brown and lost, and maybe they should have lost, legally speaking. But it's obvious to me—having read both books—that Brown was using Holy Blood, Holy Grail as a source, and he should have acknowledged this. If he had, I would bet there would never have been any sort of dust-up, whatsoever. And it would have been the right thing to do, regardless (I could tell a similar story using James Cameron, Avatar, and a bunch of other people).

But getting back to the politicos, the issue of harm is meaningful here: is there any when a politician lifts a good turn-of-the-phrase or a good story from another politician? Damn right there is. The harm is not only to the person who originated the phase or the story, but to the voter who is getting duped. And it's a consequence of professionalism in politics, by and large, in politicians employing the aforementioned speechwriters. This is reflected on all of the stories on the history of this kind of stuff now rapidly appearing throughout the media: these "histories" don't go back very far. Most start with Biden. A few reach a little farther back, but much.


Well, once upon a time, the best politicians were wordsmiths who excelled not only at giving speeches, but also at writing them. As the latter function has been more and more frequently contracted out to speechwriters, the incidence and likelihood of plagiarism has increased dramatically. The puppeteering in the political realm is reaching new heights, I think, and it's not just in this arena. It's also in the creation of legislation proper, wherein our elected leaders employee others to not only draft legislation, but to also read the legislation drafted by others (so they, the elected leaders, can understand it).

I'm not going to offer a solution for these larger issues here, but when it comes to plagiarism by politicians and the like (including journalists), the answer is a simple one: we need to stop accepting it. Again, we're outraged in the moment, but that moment quickly passes. To use Biden as an example, he committed plagiarism on multiple occasions, going back to his law school days. He got caught multiple times, as well, and was forced to admit to his mistakes (really, I think he should have been expelled from law school, but that's on the school, not on him). One can say "good enough, he admitted he erred and we are all human," and that's true; he gets to move on with his life. But I am of the opinion that these sorts of transgressions should represent a death knell for public service, for elected offices. Biden—like others caught plagiarizing—needn't be pilloried for the rest of his life, but neither should we, the voting public, need to suffer such a person in office.

And it's here that people truly get the government they deserve. Because there are enough people willing to gloss over these incidents simply for partisan reasons. We need to wake up. Biden's political career should have been over. There's nothing so special about him; there are more than enough qualified people who could have taken his place. Ditto for Rand Paul and the other politicians caught plagiarizing. And double ditto for the journalists who did the same; these people pursued careers wherein honesty is a prerequisite. They effed up and should, I think, have to move on to something else. And we, as citizens, should have the integrity to force their hand in this regard, by not voting for them, by not listening to them, by not reading them. The fact that we don't means we'll just keep getting more of the same.

1 comment:

  1. IIRC, JFK stole his "ask not what your country can do for you..." from Cicero. Which in no way excuses anybody. They all ought to be fired.