What Constitutes Plagiarism Exactly?

I was recommended this article by a user at WritingUp, where this whole post below is cross-posted (it was originally posted 2005-12-28) – it is sitting there, though, doing nothing. It was a response to some thoughts of hers on what constitutes plagiarism – people were copying and pasting articles from other people’s blogs there and passing the work off as their own then. Below are some thoughts on blogs and plagiarism, along with an ad for a product that I enjoyed creating:

Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Handel, Six Piano Pieces Op. 118
Emmanuel Ax, piano

On this CD you get both early Brahms and a very mature, introspective Brahms. Early Brahms, in the variations, dazzles and delights with speed and power. The Fugue which ends those Variations is nothing short of triumphant. The Op. 118 pieces are layered, complex, and cry. Even the well known second Intermezzo of that series has very rich voicing that demands careful listening each time. The final piece of the Op. 118 takes us into a melancholic, chromatic realm. It fits with the others, but is anything but triumphant, and is a question mark more than the exclamation point that ended the Variations.

His thoughts are very sensible, and that is a wonderful article – thank you for pointing it out. Copying another’s stuff isn’t in-and-of itself a crime; we need to quote others, we need to respond to them, sometimes using the best and most original elements of their work over again. In fact, in literature, the works that pay the greatest homage to each other rip each other off the most.

What makes plagiarism criminal is the intent. One way in which we infer a malicious intent is when absolutely no credit is given to an author whatsoever. When Dante “ripped off” stuff from Homer & Virgil, he did it because everyone in his time had read both, and so his work functioned as a commentary on the two older authors, and inherently paid homage to their ideas – “they had serious ideas, and so they’re here, in my work for our time.” Credit doesn’t mean just putting an author’s name on something ripped off – it also means reading their work carefully and engaging it. Do the guys who are posting 6 times a minute here and showing off their quick, sure-handed use of the copy and paste buttons of their computer engage anything they’ve copied?

Honestly, our society gets too bent out of shape about plagiarism, and copyright laws pretty much act as trust funds for families willing to regard their more prestigious ancestors as a mere source of cash. Auden & Hemingway should be public domain by now; that they aren’t is a disgrace. The Paderewski editions of Chopin’s work should also be public domain: it is a Polish national treasure we can all delight in, and it would enable us appreciate the legacy of that nation all the more. And a quote or two that escapes a student’s notice on a paper isn’t the end of the world, and neither is it a bad thing that students and authors quote themselves. Charging others with plagiarism is usually the domain of the petty (hence, academia is obsessed with making such charges).

But I don’t think it is so in this case, not when everyone else is producing original work and working hard for a few cents, a few hits. It’s really unfair to those of us who spend hours thinking about content or reviewing products to have our entries ignored by a deluge of clutter dishonestly created.

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