This Column is Plagiarized
When my father was a freshman in college, before he shifted his focus from ping pong to academic study, he submitted a year-end term paper that was largely someone else's work. It was the first and last time he plagiarized. The fear of getting caught was a powerful motivator in not doing so again, but the greater motivation was his realization that he had something to say, and that never again would he allow someone else to say it for him.
In other cases, plagiarism can occur by coincidence, produced merely by commonality of thought. What a terrifying thought—that your genuinely personal experiences are reproducible in other people. Our anxiety about being individuals causes us to police plagiarism in the academic field. And then we also have to worry about attacks of cryptomnesia, which occur when an old forgotten memory returns and is believed to be a new inspiration. I once read a friend’s poems, and a year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my own work with. A few months later I was talking with my friend about it. He was not an ignorant ass—and so when I said, "I know now where I stole it, but whom did YOU steal it from?", he said, "I don't remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anyone who had."
The process of composing a letter involves several decisions. First, regarding the paper material: Will it be lined notebook paper or a store-bought card? Then there’s the matter of the writing medium: pen, pencil, or crayon? The form of the letter can also go in several directions. Will it be a love letter, structured as a sonnet? Perhaps an argumentative five-paragraph-style essay? Though our options are many, their mere existence creates constraints. We work within a domain of prior invention. Even the most bizarre painting will join the club of all other preexisting paintings, perhaps filed away in a specific group set aside for the avant-garde. The tradition of creation is as old as we are.
Despite our modern insistence on giving credit where credit is due, history doesn’t remember the accurate “first” of much anything. Scores of scientific inventions are attributed to either the wrong individual or only one contributor of many. For instance, not many people remember Elisha Gray, who filed his claim to the telephone patent just a few hours after Alexander Graham Bell on Valentine’s Day, 1876. The first humans to fly—Marquis d’Arlandes and Pilatre de Rozier in a hot-air balloon in 1783—have been cast in shadow by the wings of the Wright brothers; and the first woman to run for President of the United States—Victoria Woodhull in 1872—has been mostly dropped from recollection’s ballot. It’s even more difficult to assign innovative credit in our history of aesthetic expression, which stretches past recorded history. Ownership is a preoccupation of today—the first recorded use of the word “originality” didn’t even occur until 1742—but history engaged with collective oral tradition and the concept of passing down from generation to generation. The oldest known song, derived from musical notation found on ancient Syrian tablets, is believed to be around 3400 years old. A woman by the name of Sappho was penning Greek lyric poetry back in the 5th century BC. And just a decade ago, paintings around 40,000 years old were found in a cave in France.
1990, Manchester. A young woman weaves her way through the crowd to board a packed train en route to London. As she sits down, a black-haired, bespectacled, and scarred boy strolls into her head. He arrives “very fully formed.” By the time she arrives home, she has developed the outline into what will become the smash hit Harry Potter series, which will sell more copies than any other series ever. Throughout her subsequent plethora of interviews, J.K. Rowling has been asked again and again for her favorite books and their influence upon her own writing. Some of her answers: “The Iliad”—the desecration of Cedric’s body. “Macbeth”—Voldemort’s hearing of the prophecy. “The Chronicles of Narnia”—the Hogwarts Express, equivalent to that wonderful wardrobe.
Early 1900s, Switzerland. A foreigner buys a postcard entitled “Der Berggeist” (“the mountain spirit”) and decorated with a painting of a bearded figure in a forest, extending his hands to a white fawn. On the postcard’s paper cover, the man scrawls “The origin of Gandalf.” The postcard may have contributed to the image of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous wizard, but Tolkien drew inspiration from several sources for Gandalf’s creation. The name itself originates from the Old Norse words for “magic” and “elf.” (Later, Tolkien regretted borrowing his character names from Norse, as he had to account for how their meanings make sense in the context of “The Lord of the Rings”). The first character bearing the name Gandalf appeared in Norse mythology as a legendary king; in 1896, we spy him again as a character in William Morris’s fantasy novel “The Well at the World’s End,”a book known to have deeply influenced Tolkien.
T.S. Eliot wasn’t aiming to create a cento when he sat down to write “The Wasteland,” but he also wasn’t opposed to the idea of reiteration via “allusion, quotation, … and ventriloquism.” Eliot talked openly about his endorsement of plagiarism, not much unlike a bank robber handing over some cash for a venti latte and informing the baristas of his unlawful source. He even leaned over the counter and suggested that they adopt his methodology: “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal!”
In 1892, after reading a fairytale about devilish wintry sprite Jack Frost, an 11-year-old girl wrote a short story called “The Frost King.” Upon its publication in the Perkins School for the Blind’s literary magazine, the story was reported to the school’s head. Not long after, the young girl—who happened to be future author and activist Helen Keller—was accused of lifting her story straight from Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.” Luckily, tween Keller was eventually acquitted of the charges.
We are taught from an early age that plagiarism is practically a capital offense, punishable by a zero on an assignment, expulsion from school, and so forth. Today’s world of copyright infringement and copy-paste mentality drills it into our heads that copying is wrong. Instead, postmodern culture praises the values of authenticity and originality. Innovation and creation require us to be authentic, to be fresh, to come up with ideas no one else has yet considered. These are the new principles that society values and encourages. If copying another person is not outright illegal, it is at the very least disappointing.