Why do we care about plagiarism?

Examining culture and the arts.
Jan. 11 2007 6:45 AM

The Copycat Syndrome

Plagiarists at work.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

We may know pornography when we see it, but the same can't be said of plagiarism. Ever since it was revealed last month that several passages in Ian McEwan's Atonement closely resemble sections of Lucilla Andrews' World War II memoir, No Time For Romance, critics have debated whether the similarities constitute wholesale "plagiarism" or mere literary "discourtesy." The one thing everyone does agree on, apparently, is the necessity of policing plagiarism, whatever it may be. A partial list of authors recently accused (rightly or wrongly) includes Dan Brown, Yann Martel, Kaavya Viswanathan, J.K. Rowling, playwright Bryony Lavery, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, and Alan Dershowitz. In an op-ed in early 2003, Condoleezza Rice even cited Saddam Hussein's habitual plagiarism as evidence of the leader's fundamental treachery.

Our distaste for plagiarism is usually framed in terms of our affection for originality. "We prize originality above everything and place a high value on novelty of expression," Robert McCrum wrote in the Observer, examining the outcry over McEwan. In The Little Book of Plagiarism, an engaging new study of the concept, law professor and Judge Richard A. Posner attributes today's "increasing attention" to plagiarism largely to a "cult of originality" first shaped by the Romantics—who venerated individual genius—and further intensified by a 21st-century modern market economy that values novelty in its "expressive works." Obviously, originality does have something to do with all the fuss: Most of us expect writers—especially novelists and poets—to have a distinctive voice and literary style. We carve out exceptions for writers like Shakespeare—a plagiarist by modern-day standards—because they are creative in their use of borrowed material; such copying isn't "slavish" but inventive, or, as Posner puts it, "The imitation is producing value." Those who don't recontextualize borrowed work—like Kaavya Viswanathan—we censure.

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But the rhetoric of creative originality doesn't fully explain our preoccupation with footnoting and credit—or the recent accusations against Dershowitz, Goodwin, and Ambrose. The historians were attacked for using language from other historians—in Ambrose's case, from a writer he cited in the book's notes—without quotation marks. Dershowitz was accused in 2003 by Norman Finkelstein of "fraud, falsification, plagiarism" for having borrowed many of the citations in The Case For Israel directly from another contemporary book—in other words, for using them without having checked the primary sources himself. (As evidence, Finkelstein pointed to Dershowitz's verbatim reproduction of errors in citation made by the original author, Joan Peters.) Judging by the "originality" standard, what Dershowitz did hardly seems like plagiarism. He did not copy Peters' actual words or pass the quoted authors' works off as his own; he just took a shortcut. In the case of Kearns, adding quotation marks to the passages she had borrowed wouldn't have made her work more original. It just would have given credit where credit was due.

These examples help bring a crucial issue of plagiarism into focus. Behind the talk of originality lurks another preoccupation, less plainly voiced: a concern about the just distribution of labor. In plenty of instances of so-called plagiarism, what bothers us isn't so much a lack of originality as the fact that the plagiarizer has stolen someone else's work—the time it took to write the words or do the necessary research. The cribbed student essay—which Posner views as a particularly insidious form of plagiarism, committed by approximately one-third of high-school and college students—isn't an academic crime because a C student has tried to pass himself as a Matthew Arnold in the making. It's an academic crime because the student who buys his thesis from a paper mill has shirked the labor that his fellow students actually perform.

In fact, labor and plagiarism were entwined from the start. The word derives from the Latin plagiarius, referring to "kidnapper." Around the first century A.D., Roman satirist Martial gave us its modern sense when he wrote an epigram complaining that another man (whom he labeled a "plagiarius") had kidnapped his writings (which he metaphorically labeled his slaves) and was passing them off as his own. What had been a metaphor for a slave-stealer—someone who got labor for free—became a symbolic expression for the theft of words. As Glenn Reynolds and Peter Morgan observed in a 2002 essay, the ancients who gave us the notion of plagiarism didn't object to creative imitation. On the contrary, they encouraged it, knowing that there are only a limited number of good ideas in the world: "Imitation was bad only when it was disguised, or a symptom of laziness. It was not denounced simply on grounds of being 'unoriginal.' " And in his excellent book Stolen Words: Forays Into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, Thomas Mallon notes that writers didn't care about plagiarism much "until they thought of writing as their trade." 

It may be less obvious that issues of labor lurk behind our anxieties when it comes to fiction. But even the McEwan affair, when you think about it, boils down to a concern that he cut corners at someone else's expense. At this juncture, McEwan has published roughly a dozen works of fiction, most of them critically acclaimed, and is revered for his distinctive prose style. In the case of Atonement, it can hardly be said that the presence of two cribbed passages, comprising a few hundred words, profoundly alters our perception of McEwan's overall literary "originality." For one thing, Atonement is hundreds of pages long. For another, McEwan didn't exactly hide his borrowing: Andrews is acknowledged in the book. Why, exactly, do we care if a few sentences resemble a historical source? And what do we think would be gained from his having painstakingly substituted different words from those Andrews had used? The answer, clearly, has to do with work; it seems unfair that Andrews had to sit at her desk and painstakingly consider how to describe cleaning a soldier's wounds, while McEwan could merely sit down and effectively copy out her sentences, moving on to the rest of his story (while getting paid more than she did, presumably).

Posner may be right to connect our obsession with plagiarism to the rise of a market economy that values individualism in cultural works. But perhaps it also stems from a collision of contemporary ideas about what accomplishment really is: the result of effortless gifts, or the fruition of hard labor? Americans are fond of the myth of hard work. As preternaturally gifted distance runner Steve Prefontaine puts it in the 1998 biopic Without Limits, "Talent is a myth." And recent studies have shown that the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall is based in quantifiable fact: The top tier of 20-year-old violinists, it turns out, practiced on average 2,500 hours more than violinists the next rank down. Yet contemporary culture pays quite a lot of lip service to the myth of innate talent, wildly overestimating, for instance, the contributions of single employees to companies.

Clearly, our post-Romantic awe at individual talent still lives on. But it is also clear, as Posner points out, that we don't actually believe art must be sui generis to be great. Plenty of good Hollywood movies, to take just one example, are highly imitative. Martin Scorsese's acclaimed new film The Departed is a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. * But critics didn't hold that against Scorsese; after all, he did the work of translating the film to a contemporary Boston setting. (This makes the film different from its predecessor, but hardly "original.") What really bothers us about plagiarism isn't the notion of influence itself, but the notion that a piece of writing has been effortless for the thief in question. Instead of worrying whether writers who borrow from other artists are fakers, perhaps we should be asking if they're slackers. It might make it easier to decide which kinds of influence to condone and which to condemn.

Correction, Jan. 11, 2006: This sentence originally referred to the "2002 Taiwanese film Infernal Affairs." In fact, the film was made in Hong Kong.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.