When is borrowing acceptable, and when is it unacceptable (and actionable) plagiarism?

The twentieth century and the early twenty-first have not been kind to the notion of borrowing from others in order to create one’s own work.  From Ezra Pound’s edict “Make it New” to the constant reiteration in critical and creative writing courses for students of the priniciple “just do your own work,” the modern (1899-1945) and contemporary (1945-present) eras have put a high premium on originality, that loaded term of terms.

Of course, Pound himself was a great borrower from much earlier works, which he imitated, borrowed from, referred to, and essentially canonized in the more acceptable (read:  non-anti-Semitic) of his Cantos.  So, Pound’s instruction to “make it new” was less an injunction to create ex nihilo, or like Athena’s “springing full-blown from the mind of Zeus,” than it was to revitalize literature by returning to past models and revamping them for modern use.  It’s just that in returning to past models, Pound went further back in time for his models, instead of basing his work on that which came immediately before him.

T. S. Eliot, who had his poetry sculptured and shaped by Pound in Pound’s character of literary patron and advisor, is known to have further muddied the waters of clarity by saying “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” (from Philip Massinger).  Nevertheless, this statement is qualified by other things Eliot says, such as “[Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor” (from the essential essay for students even now, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”).  He also says “The great poet, in writing himself, writes his time” (from Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca).  Of course, to some extent writers who are very self-aware of their status like to issue shocking or startling remarks like Eliot’s first one quoted above.  But wait–take these three quotes together and with their sources, and I think things become a little clearer again, at least with reference to T. S. Eliot.  We might have considered anyway that Eliot was referring to writers like Shakespeare in the first quote above:  for, Shakespeare regularly stole plots and sometimes whole plays from others, improved upon them immeasurably, and set them in their forms for generations to come, because of his sheer poetic and dramatic greatness.  The problem is, this took place at a time when it was the norm for poets and playwrights to draw freely upon the works of others, both contemporary to their own times and from antiquity.  But our times have insisted upon originality as part of the essence of a truly great work, and upon innovation as a necessary rite of passage in the struggle to turn out a good and creditable work.  It’s no wonder that those people who are genuinely confused by the issue of plagiarism are so taken aback by what seem like competing sets of requirements.

And then, of course, there’s the issue of writing articles and books in the academy.  If you can still find recordings of the Harvard mathematician Tom Lehrer’s hilarious satirical songs anywhere (and let me not wander too far from my topic, but Lehrer is well worth hearing; he’s the John Stewart of his time, in the 1960’s), you’ll run across a lyric about Lobachevsky, a Russian mathematician who evidently wrote things without proper attribution that were at least highly imitative of what others had written.  Part of the lyric reads:  “Plagiarize.  Let no one else’s work evade your eyes.  Remember why the good Lord made your eyes.  So don’t shade your eyes, but plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize–only be sure always to call it, please–research.”  For another quote of this ilk, there’s Wilson Mizner’s “Copy from one, it’s plagiarism; copy from two, it’s research.”  These quotes are not meant to make students who might read my column cynical; rather they’re intended as an airing of the issues involved.  The best advice in the academic life is:  however much you may borrow, either credit the work outright and get consent, or if it’s an occasion between friends where no credit is needed, check that out with the friend or let them see it to make sure.  You can always credit it privately and impersonally for them if they are shy of attention, or can perhaps say something like “as a friend noted some time ago” or variations on the same.  If you’re working for credit in a class rather than writing a manuscript, let your instructor know that you are honest by crediting quotes as you are taught.  The basic rule is: be modest.  Don’t take credit for something which you have found somewhere else, and if it turns out especially that the other fellow or gal beat you to the punch and said what was just on the tip of your tongue (infelicitous mixing of metaphors here, but you get my point), give them credit anyway:  they historically said it before you did, even if the idea is a brand new one which just occurred to you.  If you find out too late to credit it that it was said by someone else first (after you publish or turn in an essay for example), tidy up behind yourself by mentioning (in any new edition or to your teacher) that you were previously unaware of the concurrence of remarks, and give the other person a footnote or mention.  Contrary to what you may believe, it makes you look better rather than worse.

To return just for a moment to Shakespeare and one of the reasons he got by with his extensive borrowings without credit (aside from the traditions of his time, that is) let’s look at the poet John Milton for a quote:  “For such kind of borrowing as this, if it be not bettered by the borrower, among good authors is accounted Plagiarè” (Eikonoklastes).  There have been a number of studies written, only a few of which I’ve even seen or had presented to my attention by my own teachers, that show how Shakespeare immensely bettered the other playwrights and poets he stole from.  So, in the traditions of his own time, in which it was essential to write upon some story that perhaps was well-known anyway, in the same fashion in which a realistic writer of our own time might use as inspiration a story which is covered by all the major news networks, Shakespeare “made the grade,” so to speak.

During the twentieth century also, the scholar and critic Julia Kristeva came along, with her idea of intertextuality, which is a way of referring to the intricate and intertwined relationships literary texts establish among themselves without recourse to authors’ intents.  As this is more a move to put consideration of what the authors’ intentions are out of the picture than an actual stance on plagiarism, it is a more theoretical issue.  It takes place after the fact of composition, however, not before the fact, so I’m leaving it out of account for now (and I’m being a bit lazy here–Julia Kristeva is a very challenging author to read, and I’ve only covered most of one of her books).  I’m just mentioning it because there is some tangential relationship to originality as a topic.

And what about all those columnists in the news in the last ten years who were fired for plagiarizing from other columnists or newspeople?  It’s tempting just to let Peter Anderson settle the issue.  He says, “Quotations are a columnist’s bullpen.  Stealing someone else’s words frequently spares the embarrassment of eating your own.”  Still, as we have seen, this doesn’t really settle the issue, because the columnists get fired anyway, and several of them have declared that the fault was unintentional.  What do we make of this?  Perhaps it would be generous in this discussion to remember the many times in which some of us literary wannabees copied out the words of others in our notebooks or on our computers because they seemed so strongly to chime in with what we ourselves wanted to say or felt.  I’ve certainly had times myself (in the days before personal computers) when I found thoughts scribbled in one of my writer’s notebooks, and said to myself complacently, “Boy, that’s really a good one.  I have to use that soon.”  And in the days before I started also to take the time to copy down the author’s name and possibly the source of the quote as well, I misremembered more than once and assumed the thought was mine, only to have a friend or teacher to whom I showed the idea furrow his or her brow a moment and say something like “That sounds like so-and-so.  Are you quoting or did you think of that yourself?”  It can happen, yes, which is why it’s a good idea always to note down under your quote where it came from and the author, if you know.  It only takes a little more effort, but more effort is what being a good writer is about.  And if it’s just a coincidence, look up the author anyway, and see how they developed their thought that was similar to your own.  This is what truly changes your work from plagiarism to research, which all kidding aside is a noble endeavor.  And there’s no rule that says you have to write only about your own little mud puddle or corner of the world to stay original; most good writers are either knowledgeable already upon some subject they want to write about or do actual research on it (and either directly or indirectly credit their sources).

My solution in fiction, which would not suit everybody, is to have a character mention the name of the author he or she is quoting, or initiate a literary discussion which makes it obvious what issues are being discussed.  In poetry, I give notes to my poems and let my readers know whom I was thinking of when I wrote, if anyone.  Most of all, I try to “just do my own work.”  And I put my whole heart into it, because what everyone on this planet has to say, despite all the many human things we share and the human experiences which join us one to the other, makes them as individual as myriad snowflakes, each one original and different.  Putting your whole heart into being your plot, being your characters, being your style, et cetera, and relying likewise on the best models you can find and the best literary advice is advancing a large step ahead on the path towards real originality.

P.S.  My own investigation of and meditation upon this topic was occasioned by dialogues I’ve had with the blogger at http://thelivingnotebook.wordpress.com/ .  By and large I think we agree, though he is advocating a freer system of borrowing than I feel comfortable with.  I rather suspect that he’s more interested in spurring creativity in others by his remarks than he is in actually encouraging people to steal freely.  He’s a little like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in that he knows enough about what he’s talking about to know just how far he can go without seeming unoriginal (and of course, he turns out a very original column, which I’ve much enjoyed).


Filed under Literary puzzles and arguments

8 responses to “When is borrowing acceptable, and when is it unacceptable (and actionable) plagiarism?

  1. It’s an interesting but also a very problematic topic. I think transparency might be key, if you say you have been inspired by something or rework it, it can be fine but more often the “borrower” or stealer soesn’t give credit. We even see this constantly on blogs, people steal posts, topics, ideas. Some openly say “I do this because such and such has inspired me”, others see a successful idea and copy. I wrote a post on this entitled “Epigonism and lack of fairyplay” i even had to remove a “stealer” from my blogroll.
    Back to the topic, I think it’s importnat that you indicate your source and give credit but personally I wouldn’t want to plagiarize, let alone steal. I feel it is in bad taste. A retelling of a classic is different but it’s often somethign you see genre writers do. Hence 1000+ Jane Austen retellings,


  2. I think you and I are on the same page. For all the ideas that have ever been circulated in this weary old world, there are still plenty of new combinations. I meant seriously what I said at the end of my post about works being as different as snowflakes, with an infinite number still available. And while I myself have been influenced by some other writers, I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t credit them. I suppose I treated the subject of plagiarism somewhat lightly in parts of my post because I wanted to discuss the centuries during which regular and extensive borrowing without attribution was the norm (as for Shakespeare). And I do think that it’s okay to be influenced or inspired by someone else’s work, as long as people know that you are honest enough to acknowledge the source of your inspiration. When I first got on WordPress and started doing my site, or not too long after, actually, some ebook company without contacting me lifted my “about” page, and I can’t be sure, but they are offering a download from my site. I don’t know whether this means that they have stolen the whole site, or whether it just means that they are supporting my efforts by circulating my “about” page alone. Their website is a ebookbrowse or something like that. But WordPress can only do something about it if it’s a fellow WordPresser, and I have neither the time nor the money to hire an attorney to investigate it. I did report it to WordPress, though.


  3. Thanks for a rounded discussion of this complex issue. Writers still borrow ideas and plots from each other, even, to a degree, characters, but exact words seem verboten. And all of that is taboo in academic writing. It’s no wonder the issue confuses.


  4. And thank you for reading, Richard. I just hope the changing of pace in the comments I quoted didn’t confuse other readers; some readers and writers want a solemn voice of authority dictating terms for all time, and the fact of the matter is that there is a difference from era to era, despite the fact that the word and especially the concept of plagiarism are very old indeed. I’m truly glad that you appreciated my discussion as “rounded,” because as far as I could I wanted to provide sure answers for our time while adding some perspective.


  5. Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Thank you so much, However I am going through
    issues with your RSS. I don’t understand the reason why I am unable to join it. Is there anybody having identical RSS problems? Anyone that knows the solution can you kindly respond? Thanx!!


    • Dear Katlyn, I am a sincere Luddite, and don’t know how to advise you about an RSS, nor how to operate one myself. I suggest if you want to follow my blog that you click on the two boxes at the bottom of the page which say “Send me information about posts” and “Send me information about comments,” and/or click on the “follow” tag at the bottom right of the page. That should do the trick. Also note that though this may not be your fault, the way your response is phrased sounds a bit like spam notices, and may get filtered out if you persist in addressing the general public through individual posts on my blog. Otherwise, looking forward to having you.


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