The Truth About Plagiarism

It's usually a minor offense and can have social value

Richard A. Posner

Newsday (New York)

May 18,2003

Plagiarism is considered by most writers, teachers, journalists, scholars and even members of the general public to be the capital intellectual crime. Being caught out in plagiarism can blast a politician's career, earn a college student expulsion and destroy a writer's, scholar's or journalist's reputation. ln recent days, for example, The New York Times has referred to "widespread fabrication and plagiarism" by reporter Jayson Blair as"a low point in the 1S2-year history of the newspaper."

ln James Hynes' splendid satiric novella of plagiarism, "Casting the Runes," the plagiarist, having by black magic murdered one of the historians whom he plagiarized and tried to murder a second, is himself killed by the very same black magic, deployed by the widow ofhis murder victim.

There is a danger of overkill. Plagiarism can be a form of fraud, but it is no accident that,unlike real theft, it is not a crime. lf a thief steals your mr, you are out the market value ofthe car; but if a writer copies material from a book you wrote, you don't have to replace thebook. At worst, the undetected plagiarist obtains a reputation that he does not deserve(that is the element of fraud in plagiarism). The real victim of his fraud is not the person whose work he copies, but those of his competitors who scruple to enhance their own reputations by such means.

The most serious plagiarisms are by students and professors, whose undetected plagiarisms disrupt the system of student and scholarly evaluation. The least serious aret hose that earned the late Stephen Ambrose and Dorothy Kearns Goodwin such obloquy last year. Popular historians, they jazzed up their books with vivid passages copied from previous historians without quotation marks, though with footnote attributions that made their "crime" easy to detect.

(One reason that plagiarism, like littering, is punished heavily, even though an individual act of plagiarism usually does little or no harm, is that it is normally very difficult to detect -but not in the case of Ambrose and Goodwin.) Competing popular historians might have been injured, but I'm not aware of anyone actually claiming this.

Confusion of plagiarism with theft is one reason plagiarism engenders indignation; another is a confusion of it with copyright infringement. Wholesale copying of copyrighted material is an infringement of a property right, and legal remedies are available to the copyright holder. But the copying of brief passages, even from copyrighted materials, is permissible under the doctrine of "fair use," while wholesale copying from material that is in the public domain - material that never was copyrighted, or on which the copyright has expired -presents no copyright issue at all.

Plagiarism of work in the public domain is more common than otherwise. Consider a few examples: 'West Side Story" is a thinly veiled copy (with music added) of "Romeo and Juliet," which in turn plagiarized Arthur Brooke's "The Tragicall Historye of Romeo and Juliet," published in 1562, which in tum copied from several earlier Romeo and Juliets, all of which were copies of Ovid's story of Pyramus and Thisbe.

"Paradise Lost" plagiarizes the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Classical musicians plagiarize folk melodies (think only of Dvorak, Bartok, and Copland) and often "quote" (as musicians say) from earlier classical works. Edouard Manet's most famous painting, "Dejeuner sur I'herbe," copies earlier paintings by Raphael, Titian, and Courbet, and "My Fair Lady" plagiarized Shaw's play "Pygmalion," while Woody Allen's movie "Play lt Again, Sam" "quotes" a famous scene from "Casablanca." Countless movies are based on books, such as "The Thirty-Nine Steps" on John Buchan's novel of that name or "For Whom the Bell Tolls" on Hemingway's novel.

Many of these "plagiarisms" were authorized, and perhaps none was deceptive; they are what Christopher Ricks in his excellent book "Allusions to the Poets" helpfully terms "allusion" rather than "plagiarism." But what they show is that copying with variations is an important form of creativity, and this should make us prudent and measured in our condemnations of plagiarism.

Especially when the term is extended from literal copying to the copying of ideas. Another phrase for copying an idea, as distinct from the form in which it is expressed, is dissemination of ideas. lf one needs a license to repeat another person's idea, or if one risks ostracism by one's professional community for failing to credit an idea to its originator, who may be forgotten or unknown, the dissemination of ideas is impeded.

I have heard authors of history textbooks criticized for failing to document their borrowing of ideas from previous historians. This is an absurd criticism. The author of a textbook makes no claim to originality; rather the contrary - the most reliable, if not necessarily the most exciting, textbook is one that confines itself to ideas already well accepted, not at all novel.

It would be better if the term "plagiarism" were confined to literal copying, and moreover literal copying that is not merely unacknowledged but deceptive. Failing to give credit where credit is due should be regarded as a lesser, indeed usually merely venial, offense.

The concept of plagiarism has expanded, and the sanctions for it, though they remain informal rather than legal, have become more severe, in tandem with the rise of individualism. Journal articles are no longer published anonymously, and ghostwriters demand that their contributions be acknowledged.

individualism and a cult of originality go hand in hand. Each of us supposes that our contribution to society is unique rather than fungible and so deserves public recognition, which plagiarism clouds.

This is a modern view. We should be aware that the high value placed on originality is a specific cultural, and even field-specific, phenomenon, rather than an aspect of the universal moral law.

Judges, who try to conceal rather than to flaunt their originality, far from crediting their predecessors with original thinking like to pretend that there is no original thinking in law, that judges are just a transmission belt for rules and principles laid down by the framers of statutes or the Constitution.

Resorting to plagiarism to obtain a good grade or a promotion is fraud and should be punished, though it should not be confused with "theft." But I think the zeal to punish plagiarism reflects less a concern with the real injuries that it occasionally inflicts than with a desire on the part of leaders of professional communities, such as journalists and historians, to enhance their profession's reputation.

Journalists (like politicians) have a bad reputation for truthfulness, and historians, in this "postmodernist" era, are suspected of having embraced an extreme form of relativism and of having lost their regard for facts. Both groups hope by taking a very hard line against plagiarism and fabrication to reassure the public that they are serious diggers after truth whose efforts, a form of "sweat equity," deserve protection against copycats.

Their anxieties are understandable; but the rest of us will do well to keep the matter in perspective, realizing that the term "plagiarism" is used loosely and often too broadly; that much plagiarism is harmless and (when the term is defined broadly) that some has social value.

Richard A. Posner is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, based in Chicago, and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.

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