Plagiarism vs. Inspiration

from the rethinking-plagiarism dept

Two years ago, we posted about Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating New Yorker piece rethinking the concept of plagiarism. After he found out that an article he had written had been plagiarized as part of a play, he went through a series of emotions — at first, claiming that such plagiarism was “theft.” However, he quickly regretted that feeling (and the fact that he dashed off a fax to the author saying exactly that), and slowly began to change the way he felt about plagiarism. He noted that, especially in a case like this, his words had been transformed into something totally different, and that while the words were the same, the product was totally different. He read the play, and found it fascinating, and realized the value of derivative works, even if it borrowed liberally from his own. After that, he couldn’t understand why people often get so upset about plagiarism. A couple weeks ago, we noted that plagiarism was incredibly common — and not everyone agreed what counted as plagiarism. In that article, it was predicted that Google’s book scanning and search product would like reveal much more plagiarism, perhaps from some famous authors — and raised the question of whether or not that was really such a big deal. Not long before that, we pointed to an entire article on plagiarism that was, itself, plagiarized.

Now, John Bennett points us to yet another article on the topic, this time at the NY Times, that talks about the standard reaction to plagiarism may be heightened these days by a culture that is so overly focused on ownership of ideas and the “story” of our lives. The article talks about the rise of reality television and the idea that the story of your life now has much more potential to become a commercial property — leading many to worry that others might “steal” it somehow. It certainly raises issues about the separation between full on plagiarism, such as copying an entire piece of work, as compared to more “inspirational” plagiarism that is more based on taking a basic idea from someone and creating a derivative work — perhaps using someone’s real-life experiences to make a fictional story seem more true-to-life. Either way, all of these stories help raise questions about what specifically should count as plagiarism, and how serious an issue it really is.

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Comments on “Plagiarism vs. Inspiration”

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Dunchloe says:

Re: Plagiarism

I sincerely believe that plagiarism isn’t about stealing someone else’s work. It’s about taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. That’s the lie. And if there’s any question about whether or not something is plagiarised, then why not take the safe road and credit where the material comes from? Also, I was thinking of changing my name to anonymous coward.

nonuser says:

fictionalizing someone else's life...

is not plagiarism and never has been. Nor is creating an entirely new work of art based on an old plot or theme. Plagiarism consists of lifting the art itself and passing it off as one’s own, with no explicit or obvious implicit reference to the original work. Of course the degree of similarity required to constitute plagiarism is a matter of debate and case-by-case judgement.

Reality TV can be compelling because real life is, well, more realistic than scripted action performed by professionals. But if you transcribed the action and reprised it using directors, sciptwriters, and actors, you’d end up with bad daytime TV that nobody could watch.

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