The effect of plagiarism on the plagiarist

When I taught writing to college freshmen, they always had difficulty with the concept of plagiarism. Though they never expressed it this way, they all seemed to share the same thoughts on the subject: “so we’re supposed to use other sources in our papers, but we’re not supposed to use other sources in our papers. What’s up with that?”

There’s a wonderful article over at The New Yorker (via 2 Blowhards) that outlines the impact of a case of “plagiarism” on both the “plagiarist” and her “victims.” In this case, the playwright Bryony Lavery used details from an article about psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell (including about 675 words quoted verbatim) to form the basis for the psychiatrist character in her play Frozen. When Gladwell first learned of the case, he was outraged, and wanted to press charges on Lavery.

When a writing teacher can find 675 words in a student essay taken verbatim from a source, it’s like a death sentence for the student writer — an obvious case of plagiarism. Yet even when confronted with the evidence, students come up with a variety of excuses for their crime: “I didn’t know we were supposed to use quotation marks,” or “I couldn’t say it any better than the article did.” The most tragic cases are students for whom English is a second (or third) language. They have difficulty enough stating an idea one way, and yet when using a source, they are asked to rewrite the same complex idea yet another way. What’s the difference, anyway? Isn’t the point just to communicate information?

In Gladwell’s case, after he read the “plagiarized” play he was exceedingly moved. His work was used merely to provide a plausible background story for the character in the play; the real innovation in the play were the points at which the story differed from Gladwell’s account. Lewis, the psychiatrist who was the subject of the plagiarized article, by contrast, felt “violated” and wanted to sue Lavery, but in order to do this, she would need Gladwell to assign her the copyright for his work: so to prove his work was stolen, Gladwell would first have to give it to someone else. Suddenly Gladwell wasn’t so keen on pursuing legal action against Lavery.

College students don’t view Freshman Composition as an opportunity to improve their writing skills — they see it as a means to an end, a hurdle they’ll need to cross in order to become an engineer, or a nurse, or an executive. They see the Internet as a wonderful convenience, whose bounty of information can quickly and easily be patched together to meet this requirement. They’re actually not as bad at writing as they’re often accused: they’ve had years of practice using e-mail and instant messaging. The Internet itself — and blogs are a prime example of this — is a pastiche of repurposed and reacquired information. What students need to learn in Freshman Comp is that the rest of society — and especially academe — hasn’t caught up to the Internet. They need to repurpose their own skills to the arcane discipline of essay writing.

Gladwell likes to tell his friends that the Lavery plagiarism case is the only way his work would ever get on Broadway. He knows he’s not a playwright, just as Lavery knew she wasn’t a journalist. Lavery believed that since Gladwell’s profile of Lewis was “just news,” she didn’t need to be careful in attributing her source. My students believed that if something was on the Web then it must not be copyrighted: only an idiot would put something on the Internet and not expect it to be copied. What difference does it make if an engineer borrows the work of a journalist? After all, the journalist could never be an engineer.

The Internet has made copying so trivially easy that rightsholders felt the only appropriate response was to elevate plagiarism from the status of discourtesy to criminality. At the movies with my kids, in addition to the usual advertisements and teasers, I now have to sit through a 30-second lecturette about how “downloading movies is stealing.” I suppose it is, but it’s also a downer of a way to start watching A Shark Tale. If the freedom of Internet devolves into a copyright police state, its original purpose may end up being lost as well. No longer will it be a place for scholars to share ideas, just another way to lock them up.

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