Nice quote, Lifelinking. Swift was, of course, himself an avid copycat, as was Laurence Sterne; and Shakespeare has already been mentioned. The literary mode is called ‘creative imitation’. There’s a passage in Plutarch, for example, of Cleopatra on her barge which has passed down through literary history almost untouched via Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot.
There was a high-profile case at the end of 2006, when Ian McEwan was accused of plagiarising part of his novel, Atonement. Passages from McEwan’s novel were found in No Time for Romance, the autobiography of romance novelist Lucilla Andrews. Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Updike, Zadie Smith, Martin Amis and Thomas Pynchon leapt to McEwan’s defence in a letter to the press, asserting that if he were guilty, they were all guilty too, as they’d all done it: ‘novels are a product of one’s reading mediated by an imaginative mind’, is a quote that sticks in my mind.
The most recent and perhaps most bizarre instance came last year, when it was revealed that numerous CDs by the late British pianist Joyce Hatto, a recluse who recorded work but didn't perform in public, were not made by Hatto but by other pianists. Music critics despaired: verifying Hatto's entire discography will take years. Meanwhile, it is possible that her career, as it is now perceived, never existed at all.
There’s a nice treatise of legal philosophy that appeared last year by Richard Posner, entitled The Little Book of Plagiarism
. As a judge on the United State Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, Posner is exceptionally qualified to explore the many legal and ethical nuances, and logical dead-ends, of plagiarism. It's a pleasure to read how one of the foremost legal minds in the US navigates this bumpy intellectual terrain, illuminating aspects of the issue in convincing and often surprising ways.
As Posner shows, what makes plagiarism such a fascinating subject is the ambiguity of the concept, its complex relations to other disapproved practices, the variety of its applications, its historical and cultural relativity, its contested normative significance, the mysterious motives and curious excuses of its practitioners, the means of detection, and the forms of punishment and absolution.
For instance, defining plagiarism. It's not as simple as you'd think. It's not merely ‘literary theft’. Copying, borrowing, alluding and stealing might adequately describe plagiarism; but then again, given enough scrutiny, they might be completely erroneous. And when it comes to copyright infringement, the water gets all the murkier: not all plagiarism is copyright infringement and not all copyright infringement is plagiarism. Plagiarism instead must be defined as a kind of fraud that causes harm to at least one party while inducing reliance by a reader who cares about being deceived. ‘Reliance’ means the reader does something because he believes the plagiarised work to be original, i.e., he relied on a falsehood.
Whatever the wisdom of the law in this respect, the whole notion of ‘plagiarism’ boils down to money. As the consumer-driven marketplace for art arose, the need to identify the maker of the art - by naming or ‘branding’ him - became more important. As the stakes grew, the interest in protecting the ‘brand name’ grew, which is why plagiarism has become such a ‘bad thing’. Moreover, as Walter Benjamin pointed out early last century, our anxiety over plagiarism is tied to how we’ve developed psychologically as a culture. As society has grown to accommodate ever-increasing individualism, a ‘cult of personality’ has emerged as a response to the possibility of mechanical or (in the parlance of the 21st century) ‘digital’ reproduction. Every day some 40,000 blogs are started, many of which are to the twisting of our moral knickers nothing more than cut-and-paste jobs which cannot be policed. There are hopes that the inability of commercial publishers to regulate the internet might undermine the ‘commodification’ of writing and return us to a situation similar to the one that prevailed in pre-modern times when ‘appropriative writing’ or ‘creative imitation’ was a legitimate literary form.
Each of us likes to think that our ideas and expressions are unique and so deserve public recognition, which thinking plagiarism challenges. Modernity has also created a marketplace out of the heterogeneity of our demands for expressive and intellectual products, the ‘genuineness’ or ‘authenticity’ of which becomes both commercially and psychologically important. No one wants to ‘own’ an unattributed copy of a work of genius; everyone wants to possess the fetish of genius itself.