We regularly see stories about literary theft. Nearly always, the thief is someone who knows better, perhaps is a well-respected scholar or professional writer. The crime is called plagiarism. The most recent news about plagiarism prompted the January 11 Globe and Mail, headline, School Board Head Resigns Over Plagiarism Scandal. Chris Spence, director of Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest, is accused of using other people’s work in his doctoral dissertation, in a newspaper article he wrote and in speeches.
That same day, an Associated Press report detailed a lawsuit involving the Washington Post and the Northrop Grumman Corporation, an aerospace and defense technology company. The Post and the manufacturers were sued by the estate of deceased author, William Faulkner, for using Faulkner’s copyrighted words in an ad.
Plagiarism, as defined by the OED, is, “the taking and using as one’s own of the thoughts, writings, or inventions of others.” Oxford Companion goes further: “The term [plagiarism] is usually reserved for the flagrant lifting of material in an unchanged or only slightly changed form and its dissemination as the plagiarist’s own work.” Plagiarism is a legal offense because it is correctly seen as theft. But there are other problems. For example, book reviewers find it helpful to quote not only from the work under discussion but often from other critics. So something called “fair use” has evolved.
Fair use allows reviewers, orators, announcers, etc., to quote short excerpts. Anything under 100 words is generally considered fair to use. The Chicago Times Style Manual says: “Fair use is use that is fair.” Of course, credit must be given to the original author.
CP Style makes specific mention of Internet usage. “News distributed on the Internet has no special status in terms of copyright law.” That is, just because something is on the World-Wide Web doesn’t mean it’s up for grabs. Thousands don’t realize that. Apparently, it’s fixed in their heads that if it’s on the Internet it can be appropriated.
Like writers and publishers, musicians are victims of plagiarism. Music theft is particularly hard to control since there were troubadours, balladeers and roving singers long before there were books or newspapers, and melodies were not written down. When a troubadour heard a good tune, he simply added it to his repertoire. In modern times, folk singer, Pete Seeger, has spoken about the way folk singers help themselves to other people’s music, saying, “Plagiarism is common to all cultures.”
U.S. dramatist, Wilson Mizner (1876-1933), also refused to take literary theft seriously. He is quoted as saying, “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” And American humourist, Tom Lehrer , in his song, Lobachevski, wrote: “Plagiarize! Let no one’s work evade your eyes.”
Despite all this, plagiarism is a crime. It’s theft, punishable by law.
The word plagiarism entered everyday English in the 17th century from the now obsolete noun plagiary, meaning, “kidnapped; kidnapping; thief of ideas.” It came from the Latin plagiarius, meaning “kidnapper, literary thief.”