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The Persistence of Plagiarism, the Riddle of Originality

ISSUE:  Summer 1994

Most of us in the academic world were brought up to believe that originality was the supreme virtue. We looked on plagiarism as the primal sin, as little short of a fall from grace. Proof of plagiarism used to end professorial careers and warrant the immediate failure of students in courses and, on occasion, their expulsion from an institution.”

But more and more, we equivocate about plagiarism, on campuses and in the world at large. We hem and haw, shrug it off, sometimes as though we genuinely are not quite sure what it is, more commonly as though we don’t wish to speak openly about something so coarse as theft. As for originality, we are crumbling altogether any firm definition of it. It has joined pornography among things we can’t define but think we know when we see.

In a disquieting essay in 1982, in The American Scholar on “Plagiary,” a 16th-century term, Peter Shaw referred to “a kind of hysterical revolt [in some academic circles] against the tyranny of originality.” He cited one professor’s satisfaction “. . .that modern relativism has so far freed us from the “rigid certainties of Victorian moralism” as to make it no longer necessary to be terribly concerned about plagiarism.” (The phrase “rigid certainties of Victorian moralism” is the professor’s.)

Almost as though to demonstrate the continuing debasement of professional concern about plagiarism, the American Historical Association, after a long investigation, late in 1993 found that one professor of history, in his biographies of Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and William Faulkner, depended too heavily, “even with attribution, on the structure, distinctive language, and rhetorical strategies of other scholars and sources.” It concluded, however, that it could find “no evidence” that he “committed plagiarism as it is conventionally understood.”

Plagiarism has indeed not been pinned down for long or firmly. Although Merriam-Webster III defines it curtly as stealing and passing off “as one’s own the ideas or words of another,” it has not always been clear what has been stolen or how the victim of plagiarism has been harmed, or even whether there is always a victim. The 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, completed in 1911, puts it this way: “The idea of plagiarism as a wrong is comparatively modern, and has grown up with the increasing sense of property in works of the intellect.”

Today that sense of property has become so much a part of our daily lives that the World Almanac, a reference work as commonly available as a newspaper, devotes more than two pages in small print to describing some of the details of current national and international copyright law. We take it for granted that anyone who crystallizes an idea in writing is entitled to claim whatever reward the result may bring. The entry in the Almanac suggests how fluid and subtle the concept of owning literary property continues to be. It tells, for example, what the law was before Jan.1, 1978, between that date and March 1, 1989, and what it has been since then.

Mark Rose’s Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (Harvard University Press, 1993) gives ten pages of primary and secondary works touching on the subject. His patient survey of the development of copyright law in England takes us through the increasingly complex legal stages in which were developed the details of a writer’s claim to the fruits of his work, particularly the duration of the monetary ones. It provides perspective for understanding current tempests swirling around plagiarism, both of teapot dimension and torrential. Most significantly, it raises piquant questions about the nature and point of originality, which, in important ways, kept emerging, and continue to do so, as the central enigma in determining the character of literary ownership and its rights.

The church and the state were originally concerned with the legal aspects of disseminating written works. And the earliest formally recorded disputes in England had to do with the rights of booksellers to sell their wares, which they generally printed themselves. The specific legal quarrels that led to what may be considered the first modern codification of copyright theory, the Statute of Anne in 1709, resulted from a petition by London printers and booksellers to secure “to them the Property of Books, bought and obtained by them.”

Early litigation and legislation raised such basic questions as how a piece of writing resembled and differed from an invention or from real estate; how long ownership should be: for a limited term, a lifetime, or perpetuity; who “owned” letters, the writer or the recipient; whether a translation could be protected as an original work.

It was a while before writers themselves felt the need to link their names indissolubly with their works, and to assure their rights of ownership for their lifetimes, or for longer than a fixed period. Most early on shared the belief that a limited period of copyright was a social good. One 18th-century lawyer went so far as to claim that “publication constituted a gift to the public.” Rose reports that in a debate in the House of Lords, it was argued “that perpetual copyright constituted a danger to the liberty of the press and the constitutional rights of the people.”

Even Dr. Johnson, one of the earliest to earn his livelihood as a writer, believed, according to Boswell, that “reason and the interests of learning are against [perpetual copyright]; for were it to be perpetual, no book, however useful, could be universally diffused amongst mankind, should the proprietor take it into his head to restrain its circulation. . . . For the general good of the world, therefore, whatever valuable work has once been created by an author, and issued out by him, should be understood as no longer in his power, but as belonging to the publick; at the same time the author is entitled to an adequate reward. This he should have by an exclusive right to his work for a considerable number of years.”

By the time the Copyright Act of 1842 was passed, the sentiment of authors had shifted to favoring perpetual copyright. They had particularly come to believe that a literary property was more than another item in an accountant’s ledger. It was an emanation of one’s identity, a claim to one’s total worth as a person. Establishing ownership for a writer, then as now, had come to mean, before almost all else, establishing firmly by law the true origin of a work. Susan Eilenberg, quoted by Rose, writes that Wordsworth felt that denying him perpetual copyright was to deny him nothing less than “a refuge from oblivion.”


Modern readers must remind themselves that writing of anything other than plays did not become a way for earning what we regard as a living until the late 17th century, mainly with Dryden. Shakespeare’s worldly wealth came from theatrical productions of his works, not from their publication. A writer’s return from the fruits of his labor was thought to reside principally in his pride in his creation, which, of course, could readily be augmented by the admiration and support of worthy critics and patrons and, as circumstances developed, from subscriptions and sales.

We know from his sonnets, which were not written with any expectation of earnings, that Shakespeare expressly expected these to confer nothing less than immortality, which we may presume most writers regard as the greatest recognition. Milton asserted he sought only a “fit audience,” however few. Dryden told us he finally had his aborted dramatic adaption of Paradise Lost, The State of Innocence, formally published under his name, only to protect his reputation against the pirated and error-filled versions that were being distributed in increasing number.

In essence, copyright ultimately shields the treasure of a creator’s name.(I once won a suit against a national publication when one of the editors ran several of my contributions under his byline. My lawyer sued for the damages I sustained from the “denial of my paternity.”) Popular song writers whose names may sell works, like Cole Porter or the Beatles, will buy other writers’ music and lyrics to market under their names but will generally acknowledge actual authorship. When Art Buchwald won his suit against a Hollywood studio for pirating an idea of his, he got little monetary compensation but declared himself satisfied for having his parentage of the idea acknowledged.

Rose’s chapter on “Property/Originality/Personality” brings copyright issues into the contemporary world and its bizarre confusions regarding originality, ownership, plagiarism, and piracy. These controversies, practical and theoretical, have metastasized like misshapen, intertwining root clumps, as the result, in part, of increasingly sophisticated methods of aural and visual reproduction, and, in part, of increasingly ingenious challenges to ownership and to easy, indiscriminate claims to originality. In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, found itself ruling that the white pages of a telephone directory could not be copyrighted since they did not meet even “a minimal degree of “creativity”.” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s decision made the point somewhat plaintively.

Rose quotes Judge Learned Hand’s “puckish dictum in Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corp.(1936) about a hypothetical second author of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:. . .”if by some magic a man who had never known it were to compose anew Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, he would be an”author, “and, if he copyrighted it, others might not copy that poem, though they might of course copy Keats’s.”“

This evokes the new body of folklore, fact, and fiction, stimulated by our bafflement about what is art. They include those works of Shakespeare produced (according to some mechanical fidelity to the laws of probability) by a roomful of monkeys randomly typing away forever, which presumably could then be copyrighted in their names; the “works” of conceptual artist Sherrie Levine, who has signed and exhibited framed reproductions of famous pictures by J.M.W. Turner and Walker Evans, for example, as by her “after” the artists; Marcel Duchamp’s “found” sculptures, like a baker’s drying rack and a toilet bowl, and his rendering of Da Vinci’s Mono. Lisa with a moustache; the “poems” manufactured by Tristan Tzara’s Dadaists cutting up, say, Emily Dickinson’s originals and pasting the pieces together; or the paper currency copying British pounds sterling and American bills, among others, the fronts carrying the signature of the maker, the backs blank, and the results used, without guile, to transact and record business: governments have tried the maker for counterfeiting; juries have laughed away the charges and, together with critics, proclaimed him an artist.

The lunatic chaos engendered by contemporary efforts to achieve and celebrate originality reflects a disorder in the academic world. It is, after all, to professors that legislators and judges commonly turn to help define originality, plagiarism, and all sorts of deception in research and manufacturing. While academics may in theory cherish originality as much as their parking spaces, they have never in practical terms rigorously formulated the boundaries and character of either originality or its violations. This has allowed them to make originality, plagiarism, and even fraud infinitely elastic terms. An administrator I knew, for instance, solemnly defended a professor’s twisting of sources to produce a fresh thesis by saying that it was “only the footnotes” that were fiddled.

Consider how college and university departments of English have over the decades muddled definitions of originality in establishing their curricula and their criteria for student honesty and faculty advancement. Much of what we now regard as undergraduate deceit stems from plain professorial confusion about originality, which callow, inept faculty treat cavalierly or worshipfully or both at the same time. Jacques Barzun long ago exposed the farce of having freshmen solemnly attempt the sort of “original” research commonly assigned to them.

Major schools exclude from their curricula as a basis for a degree or even a course “creative” writing, which one might assume would be quintessentially “original,” whatever its quality. Columbia’s Lionel Trilling was widely and approvingly quoted when he declared that only in hell would he teach creative writing. Esteemed professors with doctorates in scholarship might publish fiction themselves but not teach such writing. Stanford and Iowa instituted separate creative writing centers, as though not to contaminate their conventional enterprises. Schools might welcome celebrated writers to spend a period in residence, to offer short seminars and to attend faculty cocktail parties, to walk around campus with their pipes aglow but rarely to offer regular classes for credit or to guide graduate degrees. Lesser institutions, of course, early plunged pell mell into the lucrative business of sponsoring conferences, degrees, extension programs in the writing of poems, novels, plays, movie scripts, publicity releases, advertising copy, whatever.

We don’t have to search for or belabor the reasons why creative writing never attained a universally respectable place in departments of English. For one thing, the challenge to be simultaneously original and worthy is not easily met. Not that colleges and universities cannot teach creative writing at least as well as some, Indiana and Oberlin, say, teach musical composition and performance. Iowa and Stanford, among others, have long reputably taught the writing of literary works. The problem is that the challenge to be both original and worthy in a creative project is more easily compromised than in scholarly or critical projects.

In a way, the ambition of a conventional thesis or dissertation, that it be a “contribution to knowledge,” eliminates the challenge altogether of having to be both original and worthy. The work has only to be unique, that is, not put forward previously in just this way by anyone else and to meet a fixed check-off list. Your raw material had to have been there all the time, so to speak, just waiting to be discovered, like numbers for a mathematician, rocks for a geologist, atomic particles for a physicist. Advanced literary (or “philological”) research could find, elucidate, arrange materials already in existence: letters, manuscripts, texts. Thus one could acceptably write a book relating the Canterbury pilgrims to contemporary real persons who might’ve served as models for Chaucer, or find “sources” and “analogues” for the tales themselves, provided one were the first to do that.

What you couldn’t normally do was offer an essayistic, belletristic book setting down personal responses to Chaucer, without reference to anyone else’s work or to any evidence. Your footnotes were your evidence that you had scrupulously looked for and found, “researched,” whatever else had ever been said on the subject on which you were making your “contribution to knowledge.” The footnotes were proof, so to speak, that you weren’t making anything up (unless, of course, you were manipulating footnotes to contrive a point) and that you weren’t being “original”—or plagiarizing.

All this was necessary, of course, to ensure at least a basis for value, to avert trumpery in high places. What all respectable literary scholarship, of any character, was required to have was “value,” something Rose shows was early required by courts to establish the difference between ownership worthy of reward (and protection) and that not.

But even self-consciously and determinedly elitist graduate departments of English regularly relax their definitions of what constitutes “contributions to learning.” Departments routinely accept work for degrees that simply meets posted, purely numerical expectations, with no gesture toward being original or a contribution to anything except the granting of the degree. It’s always easier, safer, less tricky to count than it is to judge.

As a result, contributions to learning readily become “exercises.” In the graduate school of the University of Maryland, for example, are persons whose inflexible duty it is to see that page numbers of doctoral dissertations are in exactly the same spot on each of hundreds of pages and that margins throughout are identical down to the millimeter. Degrees are delayed for failure to meet these “requirements” meticulously. A bureaucracy in Lilliput could not be more petty. Fortunately, a text must still be approved by a body of sane professors before it is subjected to this final, obsessive scrutiny.


We may be said to have largely eliminated temptations in graduate school to plagiarize, at least obviously, by shrinking expectations. It’s like going on a diet by destroying one’s taste buds. Graduate documents are often displays of doggedness, sometimes exactly deserving of former Senator Proxmire’s “golden fleece” award. I recall a master’s essay at Columbia’s Teachers College which established that a majority of persons interviewed at random in New York’s Grand Central Station did not know who T.S. Eliot was. (This was long before Cats.)

Some graduate departments, rejecting the tyranny of a narrow originality, succumbed to the tyranny of rampant impressionism. They encouraged subjective, whimsical, uninformed, and, of course, defiantly unfootnoted, proudly unorganized exercises recording rambling “reactions” to a “great” text. Boundaries between degrees in creative writing and in scholarship or critical analysis are obliterated. At Modern Language Association conferences, strident demands are made for graduate schools to accept more “personal” readings of texts to fulfill degree requirements. One can cite such classical doctoral dissertations as those by Van Doren on Dryden, and by Trilling on Arnold, to justify departures from what is indignantly dismissed as Germanic pedantry, but these new age inventions do not even purport to meet the criteria of any legitimate academic body committed neutrally, honestly, to assessing literacy, knowledge, insight, quality. They extoll individuality—and originality— to the point of uprooting results from an intellectual context based on a tradition of value.

The academic attitude toward originality—worshipping it while denying or discounting it—is akin to that of the plagiarist, demonstrating through his act both how much originality means and how little he would like it to mean. As in all paradox, there is perversity here. What overwhelms the would-be artificer and impels him into plagiarism is not simply the imperative to be original. I suppose ultimately anyone could be original by simply being oneself. It is the challenge to be creative that unhinges him, actually to complete the act initiated by ambition, to make something valuable and distinctive out of nothing.

Pioneering proponents of copyright believed ownership of writing derived from creating property. Making a literary asset was like designing a unique device deserving a patent, fabricating a widget, cultivating land to produce crops or support livestock, developing a small business. A piece of marketable writing became a commodity, an effort to accumulate capital in terms of money or reputation.

“As Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and others have emphasized,” Rose writes, “the notion of the author. . .as a cultural formation. . .is inseparable from the commodification of literature. The distinguishing characteristic of the modern author, I propose, is proprietorship; the author is conceived as the originator and therefore the owner of a special kind of commodity, the work.”

But any art involves mysterious inner resources, separate from and arguably superior to such entrepreneurial qualities as initiative and patience. Creation is a fearful undertaking.

Consider William Blake’s question: did he who made the lamb also make the tiger? My God! Coleridge, in his “Kubla Khan,” a short poem whose originality has not been questioned (even though we have a book, John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, exhaustively recounting its sources), depicted the creator of the pleasure dome in Xanadu as a sorcerer who had to be exorcised: “weave a circle round him thrice. . . .”

Creativity embodies a potential for evil—or for disturbing good. Art reveals. Coleridge, of course, was himself a creator of the very poem describing an awful, awe-filled act of creation. He diminished his responsibility for the power of his revelation by virtually making part of the text of “Kubla Khan,” first, the accompanying apology that the words came to him in a drug-induced dream, i.e., that he didn’t initiate its composition intentionally, consciously; then, that his act of setting down the words really wasn’t ever completed, the gush interrupted by an inopportune visitor “from Porlock.”

We know, of course, that Coleridge’s other indisputably original masterpieces, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel,” are also “incomplete.” (I use inverted commas around “incomplete” since I take the truncation of “Kubla Khan” to be essential to its meaning and thus quite finished.) All three of these great poems deal, however obscurely, with supernatural forces. This surely casts some sort of murky light on the plagiarism which recent scholarship has found in Coleridge’s other work.

Those who practice plagiarism are almost paralyzingly intimidated by their drive to be original. They avoid actual creation by faking it, presenting as their own someone else’s work, convincing themselves that their audience won’t see the difference anyway. Although the plagiarist may, like Coleridge, be perfectly capable of creating original work, he cannot always fully bring himself to do so and would rather risk a charge of theft, which may not be discovered, and is a limitedly human transgression anyway than one of actual creation. The plagiarist would rather be exposed as impotent than authentically acclaimed as triumphant. A failed attempt at a more than ordinarily human act is only shameful. Such hubris is fatal only in the achievement.

While devoutly respectful of originality, the plagiarist makes himself skeptical of his audience’s capacity to recognize and appreciate it and, therefore, undeserving of it. The student plagiarist contemptuously believes his mentor cannot recognize the difference between the real thing and the imitated or fraudulent; unfortunately, he often has evidence to support such belief. The professional plagiarist thinks he can hoodwink his peers, and is otherwise superior to them, precisely in knowing something they don’t know. My favorite plagiarist is the laboratory scientist who stole his colleagues’ drafts and got them published under his name before the real, habitually procrastinating researchers got around to submitting their own, original articles.


It seems hardly necessary to say that plagiarism is pathological. Peter Shaw brings up its relation to kleptomania and mentions plagiarists who go out of their way to expose other plagiarists. Plagiarism is a temptingly easy device to relax demands on oneself, whether imposed by oneself or others. Of all the cloaks of self-deception, it is perhaps most readily at hand. Plagiarism provides sanctuary in the denying or blurring of one’s individuality, of one’s originality.

Plagiarists on campuses and in private research laboratories cite in self defense the pressures put on them by their superiors to produce. If they don’t demonstrate their productivity, they jeopardize their grants or advancement. Judge Hand’s whimsy about a second creator of a poem by Keats, someone who might innocently clone a previous work of art, is a common explanation.”Really, I swear I made it all up myself.” That and the incredible power of unconscious memory.”Maybe I once read it, and it stayed with me. I just don’t remember.”

While one may dismiss such fantasies, it is more difficult to reject the possibility of occasional powerful, genuinely separate, identical, simultaneous creations. Consider the development of the calculus. A specialist in Bernard Shaw reported to me that Shaw had speculated about the Oedipus complex in private correspondence before Freud published his work on the subject. Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller wrote plays independently of each other having to do with ambitious American fathers and their two unsuccessful sons. It happens. The time can be ripe for certain discoveries, inventions, creations. What one human mind can do, another can. Except in art. I don’t believe in those monkeys. But even here consider some of the similar contemporaneous works of Picasso and Braque. Did one conceivably “plagiarize” the other? This is one reason why careful researchers and scholars at least are so anxious to get their work published quickly; someone else might indeed be having the same revelation or be working toward the same conclusion.

Nor should we misinterpret as devious one artist’s deliberate allusion to the work of another, Brahms echoing Beethoven, one movie director quoting another. We should not confuse what we may call recycling of one’s own work or of the long past work of another (which, of course, is one way of looking at Joyce’s Ulysses or any other serious work which displays influences), with plagiarism. Of course, we rarely mistake plain plagiarism when we see it, whatever we call it.

Who is hurt by plagiarism? It cannot be the dead creator, of course. The still-living creators, whose works have been purloined before they could profit from them, have clear recourse to the law, as they do with any other kind of assault. Other victims, who have soundly established their parentage of works and are not likely to have it seriously challenged, have been content simply to expose the parasitic rogues who try to live off them. It is not likely that the popular biographer mentioned above, found guilty by professional historians of what we may now designate as “metaplagiarism,” deprived his sources in any significant way of reputation or income.

Some drily academic scholar may even claim that a popularizer’s use of his labors is a testimony to its significance, that imitation is, as we have been taught, the highest flattery and appreciation. We may live to see bibliography items showing where, when, and by whom they’ve been metaplagiarized.

The most helpless victims are intimidated graduate students who are robbed of ideas almost as part of a by now all too widely institutionalized exploitation; and, of course, their mentors themselves, who apply for grants, get turned down, and then find their projects appropriated by members of their peer review panels.

Plagiarism is an attack on individuality, on nothing less than a basic human right, to property, to identity. Copyright law, Rose’s work demonstrates, kept being regularized and strengthened as modern democratic political philosophy matured. The rights of authorship paralleled in their development the very rights of man. The “commodification” of writing was integral to the recognition of a central principle of capitalism: the sacred nature of individual ownership, especially in the products of one’s imagination and labor. We know how Marxist states still ignore international copyright law, and we have a sense of how a literary work used officially to be regarded in the Soviet Union, as very specifically not a precious private artifact.

What is at stake in indifference to plagiarism is our sense of the purity, of the separateness, of each created work from all other created works. The plagiarist pollutes the universe of achievement. He wants us to give his stolen object our stamp, our respect as his property. At best he makes an alloy of what should be pristine. At worst he soils, despoils, the idea of original creation. He is worse than the censor, who, in killing a book, Milton said, kills reason itself. The plagiarist kills a man’s soul, denying him recognition of his self, his offspring. He mocks originality, destroys distinctiveness, blasphemes against creation.


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