MARCH 20, 2010 3:08PM

In Defense of Plagiarism

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There have been some recent "dustups" concerning blogs which have had sections "borrowed" from others in them. In addition there have been continuing discussions of whether copying and altering other's work is appropriate. The general consensus is that this is a "bad thing." I'd like to argue the other side.

Plagiarism has a long and noble history. Shakespeare stole plot ideas as well as key pieces of dialog. Bach copied works of Vivaldi, in some cases adding instrumentation and in some cases reducing works to a single keyboard.

The original Three Penny Opera consists only of popular songs of the day with new words. The familiarity was part of the appeal. Mozart's arias were so popular that they were reworked for instruments as soon as the operas were staged. Beethoven wrote variations on themes of Mozart. Brahms used Haydn's themes, Rachmaninoff used Corelli and Chopin. Liszt and the other pianists of his age made careers out of arrangements of popular operas for piano.

In the visual arts there is a similar tradition which culminated in a sense in the work of Andy Warhol. Not content with copying the style or subjects of others, he used photo-mechanical methods to put actual reproductions of works into his creations.

In the movies we have the constant pattern of hits of the past being redone for a new age. Some popular stories have started as silent films and are still being recreated. Dracula is a good example.

In contemporary literature there have been several recent cases of verbatim paragraphs being lifted without attribution. I'm not interested in debating whether this is a copyright violation or "fair use". Copyright is designed to protect the monetary interests of publishers and (indirectly) authors and artists.

Suppose a mediocre book has passages lifted and put into a new work which is better than the original. That is certainly the case with Shakespeare. If people enjoy the new work then isn't this a valid aesthetic experience for them?

Much recent music consists of performers cutting, remixing and otherwise altering existing recorded music. How is this any different than the use of collage by visual artists? New software has extended this to the realm of video as well. Ren and Stimpy probably started the trend by adding a running commentary to existing images.

So, where is plagiarism not appropriate?

The first area is in scholarly publishing. By using the work of others without acknowledgment the chain of verification is broken. When research is published it is important that others know where the data comes from and who did the work so that the results can be reproduced, or otherwise double checked. If this attribution is abused than the scholarly work can potentially damage public knowledge.

A similar condition applies to news gathering. Without the ability to check sources news risks becoming propaganda. For news not only is plagiarism a danger, but so are anonymous attributions. This is a technique that is quite popular these days and has led to a general lowering of the public's opinion of the trustworthiness of the news media.

Because of increasingly restrictive copyright laws the cost (in time and money) of obtaining permission to use material has increased. In many cases copyright holders use their control to exercise censorship over material. In the past this was mostly the case when correspondence between well-known people was going to be published. One party would not allow this use because they didn't want their dirty laundry aired. These days restrictions are applied to items as trivial as a few words or notes from a popular song. This leads to plagiarism. Over control leads to breaking of the law.

The other issue is "artistic control". Many argue that allowing others to alter their work violates their "vision". I say that is just the way of the world. Once your "child" is out and about you no longer get to say what happens next. At most there should be a disclaimer that the derivative work is not "authorized". A good example of this issue concerns the case where commercial firms "clean up" movies and TV shows their customer's find objectionable. As long as the copy being modified is paid for what's the difference between me getting out the scissors and me hiring a firm to do the electronic equivalent on my copy? The objections are commercial, masquerading as artistic integrity.

The web has opened up new ways to expropriate other's work. A common one is to use an 'img' tag on a web page to incorporate an image from elsewhere. This happens (to me) all the time. Is it any different than cutting a picture out of magazine and pasting it into one's own diary and then sharing it with friends? We all are aware of the large number of music and video files being "shared". This is not plagiarism, this is theft.

The "intellectual property" interests have gotten so strong that a rational discussion of the balance between creativity and commerce does not seem possible. In fact current trends point toward preventing buyers from copying or altering copyrighted material even for their own use.

It is time for plagiarists to explain how art grows through imitation and adaptation, so far all the arguments have been from those interested in making a buck.

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You plagiarized this didn't you?
I understand what you're saying. I would add that the cases of creative borrowing you mention, the person did not simply repeat the original composer or artist's work, but put some effort into modifying it into a different form.

I'm not against that sort of collaboration by any means. Especially when the borrower credits the original artist and when possible, does it with their knowledge and consent, and neither of them have a problem with it.

However, and I'm speaking in very general terms, here, In school, I was warned repeatedly against passing someone else's work off as my own without their consent, and with no effort made on my part to modify it and make it my own. That was true whether it was a term paper, or an art work. I believed it was wrong then, and still do.
Yes I did:) I was hoping to not get busted so quickly.
"attacks disguised as apologies"

And what about your shilling for a GPS tracking company being disguised as an open call about misogyny? And speaking of vile attackers, you're a hoot Bonnie!
Excellent post, thank you for sharing your view with us Roger. More thoughts to ponder...
John Lennon said, "All music is rehash." And Picasso said, "Bad artists copy. Good artists steal." The originator knows when he/she is being fradulent and when being authentic. Sometimes the author is the only person who knows that.
Credit where credit is due. (I did slightly alter the first sentence).
There has not been so much fun going on here in a long time Roger.
'Tis a sad world some days.
I don't think I have ever had an 'original thought' in my whole life.
I need to do a post titled "Attacking Defenders of Attackers Of Plagiarism." Or maybe "Plagiarism; How to Steal Shit Online Without Getting Caught, and How to Defend Yourself In case You Are."
Plagiarizing is one thing, jealousy is another.
Excellent argument, Roger, was the coffee that good today?
i'm getting an upset stomach...(r)
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time." Ecclesiastes 1:9-10
In web development, a mashup is a web page or application that uses or combines data or functionality from two or many more external sources to create a new service.
It implies easy, fast integration, frequently using open APIs and data sources to produce enriching results that were not necessarily the original reason for producing the raw source data.
To be able to permanently access the data of other services, mashups are generally client applications or hosted online. In the past years, more and more web applications provide APIs that enable software developers to easily integrate data and functions instead of building it themselves. Mashups can be considered to have an active role in the evolution of social software and Web 2.0.
The term mashup is also used to describe a remix [1] of digital data.
Mashups and portals are both content aggregation technologies. Portals are an older technology designed as an extension to traditional dynamic Web applications, in which the process of converting data content into marked-up Web pages is split into two phases: generation of markup "fragments" and aggregation of the fragments into pages. Each markup fragment is generated by a "portlet", and the portal combines them into a single Web page. Portlets may be hosted locally on the portal server or remotely on a separate server.
Portal technology defines a complete event model covering reads and updates. A request for an aggregate page on a portal is translated into individual read operations on all the portlets that form the page ("render" operations on local, JSR 168 portlets or "getMarkup" operations on remote, WSRP portlets). If a submit button is pressed on any portlet on a portal page, it is translated into an update operation on that portlet alone ("processAction" on a local portlet or "performBlockingInteraction" on a remote, WSRP portlet). The update is then immediately followed by a read on all portlets on the page.
Portal technology is about server-side, presentation-tier aggregation. It cannot be used to drive more robust forms of application integration such as two-phase commit.
Just so everyone is clear, I cut and pasted this post with a small revision in the first paragraph. I wondered how long it would take for someone to figure it out. It didn't take long. A failed social experiment I guess:)

For the record I think that plagiarism is wrong. It cheats the reader in ways that are hard to measure. I know that we're all just lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year, running over the same old ground... but damn it that doesn't make plagiarism okay!

In October of 1971, Nelson was reluctantly persuaded to play a Rock n' Roll revival show at Madison Square Garden, on the same bill as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Bobby Rydell, among others. By this time Rick's hair had grown shoulder length, he wore bell-bottoms and a purple velvet shirt, and he sang his new material. The audience had come expecting their entertainment to be frozen in time, a 50s malt shop, and Rick wasn't playing along. Halfway through his set, the crowd began to stomp and boo. There were reports that police were in the back moving people out, and in the political spirit of the early 70's the crowd was actually booing the police activity. Regardless, Rick thought the booing was meant for him, and deeply shaken, he left the stage. The experience inspired him to put his thoughts down on paper: "I went to a Garden Party, to reminisce with my old friends, a chance to share some memories, and play our songs again. When I got to the Garden Party, they all knew my name, but no one heard the music- I didn't look the same. But it's all right now. I learned my lesson well. You see you can't please everyone so you gotta please yourself." "Garden Party" became Rick's first million-seller in over a decade, hitting at #6 and going gold in 1972. On the cover of the album is a different image of Rick. He stands in starkly formal black and white, defiantly holding out his Les Paul guitar, confidence in his eyes. Rick Nelson was sure of this new direction, and proud of his message. He would from then on consider "you can't please everyone, so you gotta please yourself" his personal anthem.

Me too.
I am against anyone taking anything of mine, but all in favor of borrowing anything owned by anyone else.
It's the American way, right?
Blatant cutting and pasting without giving the original author their due just seems wrong.

However, how original was the "original" writers work? I believe even our most original work is influenced by everything we're read, seen, heard, experienced before. Is there really anything truly and completely original?
Since I have hijacked your comment thread, please delete any of it that you don't like. I believe in just deleting comments instead of rational discussion.

My point is that Salon itself is a bit of a mashup. Purists should disaggregate themselves and stick to paper or an old fashioned blog. And hire a lawyer to protect their 40 acres of intellectual property, or half acre or whatever.

But anyone that tries to understand the complexity of these issues shouldn't pretend they are simple. The Ten Commandments were carved in stone and sound pretty straight forward, but people are still trying to figure out exactly how to apply them.
Roger, you ask if linking to someone else's image is “any different than cutting a picture out of magazine and pasting it into one's own diary and then sharing it with friends?”

Yes, because it's publishing. Sharing it with friends is a private activity. And you have purchased that particular copy anyway. So wherever you move it it's still the same image and it's not where it was before. But on the web you're making more copies, you're taking credit sometimes for others' work (many don't even declare the original source), you're looking cooler than people who are playing by the rules and have less selection to work with, and you're dragging down someone else's server if you actually linked to their page with no benefit to them (bypassing their own advertising revenue schemes). There is no sense in which I can endorse what you're suggesting.

At some level, some of what you say may seem like civil disobedience. But while there may be reasons to do civil disobedience, one of them is not to be safe from consequence. One takes acts of civil disobedience not because they are exempt but because they are willing to be penalized, if necessary, to make a point. If there is no penalty, they are not taking a brave stand, they are just being an aggressive user in a position where others are not, and hence claiming unfair advantage.

If you want to change the rules, change the rules. Some of the rules are not good ones. But there are honorable people not getting ahead becuase they follow the rules, and there are other people willing to go past those rules to get ahead, even at the expense of people following the rules. The end result of that will not be good.
Thoth, you hit the nail directly on its head!

L in the Southeast
Jay, copyright is designed so that it expires, and while I agree that one builds on another, what copyright protects is the contribution of an individual in the chain. Copyright is too long, in my opinion; some have said that it will continue to be lengthened forever to protect Mickey Mouse. That seems wrong, especially in an era where many things change rapidly and there is a need for content to build on. That justifies a change in law. But until the law is changed, it is still the law. Then again, even with the present system, the opportunity for content creators to make money is small, and that's a shame, too. I don't see how a simple change of law could fix that, but the absence of micropayments for people who create something of value that others want to use is a serious problem because it rewards users at the expense of creators, and makes it likely that over time the creators will suffer problems and stop creating superior works because inferior stolen works profit much better than superior new works. We need a society that is fair, not just for reasons of human rights, but for the even more important reason that in an unfair society, people don't follow rules, and when people don't follow rules, there really is no society. It gradually becomes just a jungle, even if one with a different look than traditional jungles.
So, I'm confused, Roger - you were mostly being a devil's advocate here? I'm so slow . . .

People may be interested in David Shield's new book, "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto", in which he argues that art forms these days are all pastiche, all re-copying, all the same reality to which we all have access - his book is a series of numbered paragraphs, most of them the work of other authors - he says the footnotes at the end, attributing the quotes, were put in at the insistence of the publisher's lawyers.

Well . . I'm thinking not so much. As a writer, I want what I produce to be acknowledged as mine, not just a word stream that goes directly into "the hive mind", as it's been called. I don't care to have someone else taking credit for work that has taken me hours/days/weeks/years of craft and, one hopes, artistry to write. And I'd like to get paid, thank you very much, at least as much pay as writers glean these days, every time someone makes money from the use of my writing.

And as an old schoolmarm, I can tell you, plagiarism was the mortal sin of academia, and I had no scruples about busting anyone I caught doing it. Borrow, quote, rework if you must, but please attribute, and at least pay lip service to intellectual honesty.
As a a songwriter, I can assure you all but the rarest of musical works is simply synthesis. The dean of Nashville songwriters, Harlan Howard, offered this advice to aspiring songwriters: Find a song you like; make up your own words to the melody; than make up your own melody.

By the way, for those who don't know, you can't copyright an idea for a song or a movie or a product anymore than you can copyright a title of a song or movie. My song Two of a Kind was copyrighted and placed with a Nashville publishing house long before Garth Brooks had a massive hit with an entirely different song with the same title.

But all that said, I'm afraid you've amade several leaps here without a bungie cord, my friend.

You say "These days restrictions are applied to items as trivial as a few words or notes from a popular song." I assure you, I wouldn't consider it trivial if George W. Bush or Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin tried to use one of my songs to promote their idiocy -- I mean candidacy -- and I'd raise unholy hell.

As for Shakespeare, yes he (or whoever wrote the works attributed to him) stole ideas for his plays, but where is the evidence that he stole "passages" from lesser works as you claim?

("Suppose a mediocre book has passages lifted and put into a new work which is better than the original. That is certainly the case with Shakespeare.")

Yes he borrowed, but there's a big difference between borrowing and stealing -- and it's pretty much the difference between homage and sabotage.
Roger, you just moved the discussion into the 21st Century. Thank you.

Oh, and I'd rather read a plagiarized post on the late, great Ricky Nelson than a boring original screenplay on two cattle farmers, or whatever. "Brokeback Marriage"? ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

There is a big difference between, say, sampling, mash-ups, or generic imitation, and plagiary. When confronted with a specific example, if you compare the source to the derivative material and borrow Justice Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it" definition of pornography, you can pretty well tell what is, and is not, plagiary. Imitation, okay; plagiary, not so much.
Hoist by your own petard, eh, Roger?
(I don't know what that means, but I've wanted to use it in a comment for ages. Thanks.)
Kent, That's a well thought out and direct response.

I'm all for creators making money. Hell, I'd like to make some.

I was sitting here feeling as though I should send Jon Stewart a check, since I like to use his clips. Although most of them come from his site and the Daily Show obviously created the content, so maybe Jon thinks like I do:

That if clips of his show get embedded in others work, it may expand his audience and make him and his staff of creators more money. A free commercial.

My statement was more a broad-stroke question, in a backward defense of creativity. Most of us have heard of talentless hacks claiming they wrote something. Michael Crichton was sued by someone claiming to have written a book with eerily familiar dinosaurs.

In this case the talentless hack simply wants money from the people with money. They have no intention of creating anything on their own. They simply want to get paid.

My point is with 7 billion people alive today there can be many people working on similar ideas and with roughly 60 billion people gone before us... well, I guess it comes down to an original voice or take on an idea or story...

It's just a theory.
Just to throw another example out there, how many versions of A Christmas Carol and Its a Wonderful Life do we see every year at the holidays? Seems to me that those are cases of blatant plagiarism
Thanks, Roger for making me a favorite. Hope my posts continue to prove deserving.

Your post is excellent and makes a sensible point. For my part, it is much ado about nothing. Oops, I stole that from Shakespeare didn't I? Well, this is from my grandfather, "ain't nobody dead."
Brave of you to take this position. And it's possible that some plagiarism is the result of ignorance on the part of people writing and posting online who have found a public forum but who haven't received proper guidance. Mostly, I suspect people who plagiarize are just trying to get something for nothing. Wrong, wrong, wrong.