Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Plagiarism: Not quite so black and white

The Broad Universe discussion list, along with a portion of the blogosphere, has been hopping about Helene Hegemann and her best-selling award-nominated novel… who has been accused of plagiarism. More information about this case can be found here, here, and here.

The debate, as well as one I also had with my friend, Sunder, and the ensuing research lends itself to the argument that "plagiarism" is not the black and white issue so many of us have been taught - and what many of us writers and educators will argue to death with every cell in our body. While there are a lot of problems with what we typically call "plagiarism," there are several cultural benefits and accepted - if not honored -practices that are often overlooked in the mire that is the copyright witch hunt.

Now, as a tutor and educator, I have a template - no, really I do, though I personalize it for each student - that is applied with vengeance to those who simply lift passages and copy them into their work out of laziness, entitlement, or ignorance. It decries how EVIL plagiarism is, and how it should NEVER, EVER be done because "it can result in a failure of the class, a failure of your semester, and even as extensive as being kicked out of your school." It's stealing, it's wrong, DON'T DO IT!

Of course, defining things in black and white is useful in teaching - whether it be school or life. "Learn the rules, and then break them" is something that writers know in regards to things like grammar and style (because, you know EVERY essay is five paragraphs, with an introduction, conclusion, and three body paragraphs - each with it's own topic sentence related to and having been mentioned in the thesis statement, which is the very last sentence of the introduction…) Once you know what is right and what is wrong - the very end points of a spectrum, then you can explore the varying degrees of grey. Like using fragments to make a point.

When it comes to looking at plagiarism and copyright, though, even suggesting that people explore the varying degrees of grey seems quite the taboo subject. After all, so many writers struggle years to make a pittance, we don't want anyone to steal these hard-earned dollars (or pennies in some cases).

But the question of plagiarism spans millennia of writing and a globe of culture.

For starters, not all cultures embrace the American and "Western" idea of "copyright" and the evils of plagiarism. Per Ilona Leki's explanation of different rhetorics in Understanding ESL Writers, many Asian, Eastern or Western, cultures automatically include quotations, opinions, and writing from masters in their field - without attribution. It's assumed everyone has read these masters; if you must point it out, it negates the authority of the source. In referencing poetry and the Koran, Arabic cultures also do not necessarily attribute; everyone ought to know these sources - or if they don't, they should look them up.

Debating plagiarism even in Western cultures is nothing new, either. Shakespeare, in many studies - and even in his own time - was accused of plagiarism. Yet, we still study him and honor him as "The Bard." However, as Richard Posner points out in his Atlantic article, Shakespeare took what he stole and enhanced it: His writing enhanced the meaning of the original, and the meaning and context that piggy-backed on the original enhanced his work, making something stronger, more beautiful, and with its own meaning. Who's to argue that the many bits of what would be called plagiarism in T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland and Love Song of J. Alfred Profrock, didn't enhance both poems? (Ok, several people - but they got PAID to publish (and teach) these books & studies I had to read in grad school! How is that bad?) In fact, both of the poems lament a loss of originality, death of new ideas… the fact that there are pieces of plagiarized work purposefully enhance the meaning; they show the meaning. And they compliment the author from whom the work was stolen. As Eliot, himself, said, "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."

With Hegemann's novel, as Chris Meadows from points out, one of the themes is "mixing" and a lack of originality. In one of the pages she "plagiarized," it includes the character stating that "Berlin is here to mix with everything," and pointing out that he "helps himself everywhere he finds inspiration." That the passage has been taken from where the author finds inspiration is similar to what Eliot, Shakespeare, Wilde - and many other predecessors - have done. It's purposeful; it bestows meaning by adding another level of questioning to what is considered original.

Of course, where the problem lies - in modern day copyright - is that there isn't anywhere in Hegemann's novel that notes she borrowed or "was inspired" or such from any sources. Nor does she name any other sources. I do not know if in Germany there is the normal disclaimer on US and UK books that states all copy within is original to the author. I also don't know German copyright law. In the U.S. and U.K., because of the required disclaimer and copyright law, Hegemann would be responsible for making some note of her sources; her agent (assuming she is a good agent) would know this. A modern problem is how MUCH reading material is available. Even as late as when Eliot was writing, there weren't BILLIONS of books an individual could read, so it was likely that a borrowed/mixed/plagiarized page, a stanza, or even a line of poetry would be more recognized - as the author may have intended. (I say "may," because I have no time machine to ask them… though Eliot seems likely to have been willing to share.)

On the other hand, though, the book from which she stole the most passages - including the full page that has been so oft pointed out - has benefited from this controversy. In looking at the Amazon ratings, Strobo, the plagiarized book, has a much higher review rating, a higher list point, and in the past ten days - since Hegemann's controversy - has made it to the top 100 bestsellers in German - and risen to #142 in overall bestsellers. For a little-known book, that's quite the lift in earnings for the author, "Airen." Strangely, despite all the mentions, there is no actual commentary from the Airen in any articles referencing this controversy. Does he mind? Has he, himself, sampled/mixed/plagiarized, so he doesn't see the problem?

The issue of plagiarism and copyright isn't as black and white as we are taught; there is quite the pallet of grey. There are benefits and cultural practices that embrace what much of the Western World calls "plagiarism." I haven't even gone into art and culture outside of writing - and the debate is even hotter there! There is a lot more to talk about on this topic - and I will return - but this argument is simply to point out that there is room for debate, room for "mixing," and room to reinterpret and redefine "plagiarism" in our culture - because it's existed long before we invented copyright.

What do you think? How much can the idea and "crime" of plagiarism be defined and redefined?


Arinn said...

Plagiarism is not a "crime" in quotation marks. It is a CRIME in all caps, bold print, and possibly underscored a few times. And by this I do not mean that it is a nasty little misunderstanding between a harmlessly zany creative person and a law which protects only the profits of publishers. It is a CRIME in the sense of a moral sin, a violation of human rights and dignity tantamount to murder.
"Educators" like you are the reason that a whole generation has grown up without any understanding of the moral values that are the foundation of OUR OWN literary culture--and yes, we do have one, which dates back to the ancient Greek and Latin writers. If it wasn't for the habit of attribution that those authors embraced, in which they would NAME THE SOURCE when they copied or quoted a piece of literature, we would have lost EVERY SINGLE LINE every written by many important authors--especially the female ones, who were typically never copied in full by the generations of sexist male monks who were the sole guardians of our literary legacy for so long.
Plagiarism of the type that this little German brat practices--unattributed and unapologetic--is murder, in our society. Trying to confuse the issue by bringing up the literary cultures of other societies is worthless sophistry. IN THEIR REAL LIFE CONTEXT, this girl's actions are destructive. She is violating the rights of another human being. Sorry, but we AREN'T the Chinese, whose literary tradition is so limited and pedantic that they can count on every one who ever manages to have learned to read, having read the same things. And we AREN'T the Moslems or the Jews, who see no value in reading at all unless it is bent in the service of a theocractic corpus which every (MALE) person should read for his own salvation.
We are who we are--the authors and readers of the Western Humanist Tradition. Maybe it's time you taught your students to take a little pride and show a little damned respect for that heritage, instead of making excuses for their lies, swindles, grave robberies and murders.

Sylvia Kelso said...

I like the balanced discussion, Trish, and wd. like to comment on one aspect, T. S. Eliot's use of fragments, esp in "The Waste Land." Like the Arabic poets, he appears, on first value, to have thrown in direct quotes from people whose words he assumes anyone with "culture" will identify. But in fact, "The Waste Land" also has a long succession of "notes" which identify most of his sources, even if it's sometimes debated if the Notes are actually a spoof rather than intended to be taken seriously.

Trisha Wooldridge said...

Great point, Sylvia! :) I went back to my Norton Anthology... the poem, itself, is footnoted with only a passing mention in the Norton intro of Eliot's notes being included in the editor's footnotes. Strangely enough, there is nothing in the footnotes to differentiate which are Eliot's and which are the editor's. Unclear attribution in just that act, too, I might add.

@Arinn, I respectfully disagree, but appreciate the comment and leave it here for others to see your opinion.

Anonymous said...

As a writer and writing professor, I too, have been taught and therefore teach my students that plagiarism is a severe "no-no" in all cases. However, this debate makes things a lot less black and white for me. Just as social media has revolutionized access to information, forms of communication and a myriad of other aspects of technological life, so should different forms of the novel be open to exploration. This is an issue that is on the cusp of development; we have a ways to go on the artistic development of the novel in the twenty-first century. I'm happy to be watching this particular debate.

As a side note, my mother always taught me that imitation is the highest form of flattery!

In addition, re: the above comment, I feel sad that the commentator cannot allow for Jews and Chinese people to respect the humanist traditions. His viewpoint shows a rather narrow view of humanism and a lack of flexibility or growth of a cannon of literature.

Dr. Aimee L. Weinstein
Tokyo, Japan

Victoria said...

This was a really well written essay/blog post. I am impressed with the way you put it all out there.

Plagiarism has been a major discussion in my household this week. My housemate's mother is an English professor at SUNY Cortland.

She insists that Fanfiction is plagiarism. Because we're using someone else's characters, and whatnot.

For thousands of us fan fiction writers, that feels like an insult. Especially for those of us who make a deliberate point to give the credit for said characters to their specific authors. If you don't than perhaps it could be looked at as such.

As to the older writers (The Bard, T.S. Eliot etc) borrowing ideas, and things like that, we don't seem to have a problem with them because when they were doing it, there probably was not a proper copyright law in effect. I have noticed that in some editions of Shakespeare, they have since put some kind of disclaimer.

Yes, plagiarism is not black and white. There authors all over the world who "borrow" from each other, and many are never caught. Those forms may not be so as illegal as we might think.

Mark Farrell said...

In one sense, EVERYTHING is plagiarism. We are not born and do not grow up in a vacuum; everything we learn is derived from either observation of the natural world or from the words, thoughts, and actions of others. Thus, there are no *truly* original texts--they are all based, to some degree, on the things the writer has absorbed in their lifetime. They may come to different conclusions and express them in different ways, but everyone owes a debt to their forebears and what came before them. Now, in saying this I'm not saying that it's OK for someone to steal entire passages from someone else without attribution; that's where I would draw the line and say, yes, it is plagiarism. But if the end result of borrowing is an original work of art, the fact that some of the ideas contained within are not original shouldn't detract from its value.

Trisha Wooldridge said...

@Mark Very true. That's why we really can't copyright ideas. I've heard the argument (and Nathan Bransford just remarked on it again recently on his blog - about plot archetypes or character archetypes... and how there is a limited amount of them.

I also agree with the idea that one needs to strive for an original work of art... and I think that's where intent comes in in regards to "borrowing" or "mixing." Is the end result unique? With it's own message?

Thanks for the comments!

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