01 January 2013

Word-nappers: A subjectively abridged history of plagiarism

The word “plagiarism” is derived from the Latin for “kidnap,” and the presence of word-nappers in this country is astounding, and growing — arguably at a rate commensurate with the growing ubiquity of electronic information. 

Plagiarism certainly is not a new problem, either, although some postmodernists would argue it’s an outdated and/or irrelevant relic from the Romantic era, when the acknowledgement of intellectual property as something tangible came into the public eye. Pre-romantic scholars and/or anarchists would argue that plagiarism can not exist because intellectual property is a myth (more on this later). 

Property concepts aside, plagiarism in journalism is tantamount to malpractice in medicine, to bribery in judicial circles, to kickbacks in politics, to incompetence in education, to lying in business. We punish these other professionals when they transgress against society, by why do we allow media companies to police themselves when their transgressions are equally as — if not more — dangerous to the fabric of free society?  

In 1983, Roy PeterClark published an article in the Washington Journalism Review that noted numerous instances where journalists plagiarized. In 2004, Suzy Hanson reported in The New York Times that 40% of college students admitted to internet plagiarism. Education Week stated that this number is now more than 50%. Clemson University’s Center for Academic Integrity found that nearly 80% of college students admit to cheating at least once. The Gallup Organization estimates that 59% of Americans are dissatisfied with the moral and ethical climate in the U.S., and that the number two problem facing the country is a decline in ethics. All of these figures are five years old or more, by now this issue has certainly exacerbated.

Famous plagiarism cases abound. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Maureen Dowd plagiarized a paragraph verbatim from blogger Jeff Marshal in 2009. The New York Times reported that Dowd claimed she heard a friend say the sentence and that she didn’t know the friend was reciting a blog. She kept her job at the Times.

Jayson Blair was a serial liar and plagiarist, also with The Times. Anne Coulter was accused of plagiarizing several left-wing rags in her book “Godless.” Joe Biden stole from the life of British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock during Biden’s short-lived dash for the 1988 presidency. Maureen Dowd broke that story.

In March 2011, Washington Post reporter Sari Horwitz plagiarized the Arizona Republic when she used details from an article on the U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords shooting. Horwitz reportedly blamed her theft on the “pressure of tight deadlines.” (more on this later)

Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin plagiarized and hardly saw any repercussions. Some claim that Vladimir Nabokov stole his idea for “Lolita” from journalist Heinz von Lichberg. In 2006, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan got a $500,000 advance for her book, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life," but it was later discovered that she plagiarized authors Megan McCafferty, Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot and Salman Rushdie.

German teen author Helene Hegemann's debut novel, “Axolotl Roadkill,” is full of passages stolen from the book, Strobo, written by a blogger known as Airen. Another blogger, Deef Pirmasens, posted the plagiarized phrases alongside Airen’s book and a media firestorm ensued. Hegemann released a statement through her publisher, saying, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, only authenticity." She also claimed it was not plagiarism, but “mixing.”

A glimpse into musical theft

“Mixing” is akin to “sampling” — the act of a musician splicing songs together to create something different. This contentious practice has its proponents and enemies. Composer John Oswald’s 1989 release "Plunderphonic" involved reworked material ranging from Michael Jackson to Count Basie to Metallica to Beethoven. The cover of his album appropriated Michael Jackson’s “Bad” album cover which portrayed the King of Pop standing in his leather jacket looking, well, bad. For Oswald’s cover, he exchanged Jackson’s black shirt with a naked woman’s body, replete with stark tan lines and belly jewelry.

Even though parody is considered a fair use of copyrighted work, Oswald’s attempt did not hold up in court, and he was forced to destroy the album. Rap group 2 Live Crew won a Supreme Court battle against the copyright owners of the Roy Orbison song “Pretty Woman.” The Crew used samples from that song to create a parody. The court ruled that because the audiences were so different, 2 Live Crew’s use of the Orbison song would not affect the value of the original tune.

The king of parody music, Weird Al Yankovic, has never been sued, probably because he obtains permission from the artists whom he parodies. Hegemann’s work, however, is not parody at all, but rather an admitted theft of others’ work.

Piles of academic discourse poke and prod at the vague ground that defines the line between theft and homage. Some claim there are degrees of theft, others say that it cannot exist in any real, objective sense. Some argue that plagiarism is a form of flattery, and others consider it a natural human phenomena. 

The reality is that people have stolen from each other since the advent of the ego and the marriage of ego to envy. And it's fed by laziness. The heart of plagiarism is morality. We know stealing is wrong because it deprives something from someone who is the natural and/or legal owner of the object in question. What people consider fair game to share or co-opt is obviously changing and should be embraced. However, journalism should hold itself to the highest standard, not the lowest common denominator.


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