Accidental plagiarism: It has a long prominent history

Now that the Cavalier Daily’s Honor Code issues have passed, let’s remember that privacy, plagiarism, and free speech are often in conflict in any real world, not just on the Internet or in a college class.

Plagiarism and privacy, especially, must be immensely confusing to people who've grown up seeing the world through the lens of an ever-present cell phone. If you began “cutting and pasting” and “sexting” within a few years of learning to read and if your Facebook page seems to shout “Look at me; I’m an idiot”– yet you're honestly surprised when potential employers hold that idiocy against you– are you capable of distinguishing right and wrong in areas that befuddle, well, almost everyone?

Our national bully pulpit, for example: After lifting the history, words, and even manner of British politician Neil Kinnock, and acknowledging his F for plagiarism in a law-school course, Joe Biden still became our current vice president. And President Obama himself read sentences in his 2008 addresses pulled verbatim from speeches by the Massachusetts governor without attribution.

One brilliant political cartoon in that 2008 campaign, indeed, had Hillary Clinton, after she called Barack Obama on that slip of the teleprompter, shouting “plagiarism” at John McCain defiantly proclaiming, “I did not have sex with that woman.”

Today, Oscar-winning actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson is being accused for lifting scenes in her not-yet-finished movie Effie from an American writer who handed her script to Thompson’s husband a dozen years ago, and the rock band Poison is facing a lawsuit because its guitarist brought along chart-topping music which he’d obtained in auditioning for another band a quarter century ago. Pop diva Beyonce, meanwhile, has admitted to lifting dance moves from a Belgian ballet in the video for her new song, "Countdown," and Hangover II is facing plagiarism charges for both the screenplay and the tattoo that adorns one of the actor’s faces.

In the recent past, such names as novelist Ian McEwan, playwright Bryony Lavery, historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose, and New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Bragg have been blasted for extensive use of someone else’s written work. Even though Harry Potter “creator” JK Rowling survived a copyright suit from a plaintiff who had long ago written about a magician named “Larry Potter” dealing with “muggles,” Rowling didn’t have any qualms about filing a plagiarism suit against a fan for putting together a guidebook praising her Potter stories.

As a longtime communications professor, I don’t know– again– what to think. Of course, I didn’t find out all the above incidents through first-hand research. I had immense help from the Internet; and, no, I haven’t taken the time to include the citations, of which there are often dozens saying pretty much the same thing.

Is there a “truth” about plagiarism? I don’t know.  I do know that the original American “authority” on stealing another’s words is Mark Twain. Probably the most quoted American of all time, often considered the father of American letters, a man who lost millions in stolen copyright, the author of the classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the subject of a glowing Ken Burns’ documentary, Twain “accidentally” stole the preface to The Innocents Abroad from Oliver Wendell Holmes. That’s according to Twain’s autobiography. “Accidental” is his word.

“Accidental plagiarism?” Sound like Joe Biden or Stephen Ambrose, doesn’t it? Probably the Cavalier Daily reporter, too. Although online sites today sell students a check on their work to prevent “accidental plagiarism” (and then sell professors and universities programs to catch it), more than half of college students admit to plagiarizing, and over half of college professors say catching them is not worth the trouble.

But Twain’s “accidental plagiarism” happened in the 1870s, long before journalists sought PhD (Piled Higher and Deeper?) certification and discovered lucrative sideline careers as TV talking heads.

Since Holmes was still alive, Twain simply apologized. Holmes wrote back, Twain recalled in his autobiography, assuring “that there was no crime in unconscious plagiarism; that I committed it every day, that he committed it every day, that every man alive on the earth who writes or speaks commits it every day and not merely once or twice but every time he opens his mouth; that all our phrasings are spiritualized shadows cast multitudinously from our readings; that no happy phrase of ours is ever quite original with us, there is nothing of our own in it except some slight change born of our temperament, character, environment, teachings and associations; that this slight change differentiates it from another man’s manner of saying it, stamps it with our special style, and makes it our own for the time being; all the rest of it being old, moldy, antique, and smelling of the breath of a thousand generations of them that have passed it over their teeth before.”

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Plagiarism? We ain't got no plagiarism. We don't need no plagiarism ! I don't have to show you any stinkin' plagiarism! (I must be remembering someing from the film festival)

During the cold war, the Soviets were often accused of "plagiarising" U.S. military aircraft designs. The point made by the Soviets was that to make an aircraft meet specific flight requirements using the laws of physics which everyone has access to... sometimes things end up looking the same.

Plagiarism? We ain't got no plagiarism. We don't need no plagiarism ! I don't have to show you any stinkin' plagiarism!

All plagiarists (is that a word?) know when they have plagiarized

Twain could afford to be philosophical about it all as he had made his stash and blew it. Had he been in Holmes shoes would he have been so philosophical? Had Tom Sawyer made it to the shelves before him, snatched from his own hand, tweaked by a total stranger and called "The Exciting Adventures of Nathan Sawyer" would old Mark have lit up his pipe and retired to his verandah to muse on the innocent foibles of "unconscious plagiarism"? I very much doubt it. He suffered neither fools nor thieves gladly and the real plagiarist is both. If our daughters or sons decide to become writers do we quote Mark Twain to them and assure them that when their work is pilfered, as it is likely will be if it is any good, it is all okay and the thieves didn't really mean it? Alternatively, do we tell them to pack it all in as there are many out there who are so confused about what plagiarism is that they steal 'accidentally'... all of the time... and some of them call themselves 'literary agents', people entrusted with unpublished work?

Accidental plagiarism there certainly is; but what about focused, deliberate plagiarism? It is the difference between remembering a good joke and rifling somebody's manuscript. Let us hope neither you nor somebody close to you has to endure the latter as it is a crime any reasonable person must view with utter contempt. If we don't, then we might as well all give up any creative endeavour whatsoever. What then becomes of our culture do you suppose? And will Mark Twain's ghost show up for its internment?