Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Word: Plagiarism

The words "plagiarize" and "plagiarism" are popping up in the news lately. These words can chill a creative soul to the bone, and I am no exception. To commit plagiarism is "to plagiarize":

plagiarize: \ˈplā-jə-ˌrīz\

Date: 1716

Function: transitive verb
: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own : use (another's production) without crediting the source

Function: intransitive verb
: to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source

Plagiarism seems to be everywhere, from cooking magazines to J.K. Rowling's popular Harry Potter book series. And you wouldn't believe the people being accused of plagiarizing other people's work, such as Oprah Winfrey, "South Park" creators and satire specialists Matt Stone and Trey Parker, even the former president of the United States, George W. Bush. At all levels of publication and even higher-level academics, the world of writing is rife with word thiefs, idea pirates, and otherwise plain old copyright infringers.

Plagiarism is a huge problem, particularly on the internet. Because everything on the internet is so easily copied, pasted, and reproduced, its not hard to understand why people like Cooks Source editor Judith Griggs believe everything on the web is in the "public domain." The subject doesn't have to be an article or a memoir, no one's content is off limits to these charlatans, it can be as personal as your own past! Just ask graphic designer Clay Butler who has had his biography stolen in various forms by many tricksters, sometimes the same person more than once.

So why do people do it? Well, at the very least it is just easier to pass off someone else's work as your own than to buckle down and actually do it yourself. Another reason may be for profit, such as discount content services that promise vast quantities of "unique" text at prices that would baffle any self-respecting writer who values themselves and their work. Other people, like the Black Eyed Peas (who have been sued repeatedly for plagiarism) and even Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo just seem to think that they can get away with it. Poor planning, ineptitude, even writer's block are all reasons that can contribute to a person choosing to plagiarism but I think what most plagiarists have in common is one very specific characteristic: They want to impress others.

Whether its the boss, colleagues, their friends, their professor, potential employees, future clients or even random readers, I think most plagiarists steal other peoples words, ideas, and experiences because they wish they could claim them as their own. They want others to believe that they're creative, intelligent, deep. Instead of showing those qualities by accomplishing something uniquely their own, they disprove themselves by doing the opposite.

But plagiarism is a shallow crime that can be easily revealed. First of all, duplicate content and plagiarism detection software are making this crime harder to accomplish. Additionally, the stories of plagiarists who are trying to co-opt other people's experiences can be easily shot down by witnesses or even just people who have an interest in rooting out creativity theft. Finally, as in the case of plagiarized resumes and bios, when someone claims they have a specific skill and yet fails to accomplish that task in a satisfactory way, it becomes apparent that person lied about his or her qualifications.

Then what follows next?

Public shaming, endless ridicule, humble apologies, lost jobs, and expensive lawsuits. Because whether its a song, a book, a website, a blog, a photo, a logo, a graphic, or any other copyrighted item, the person or people who created it will defend their work against infringement to whatever degree they can. After all, it is their intellectual property and likely their livelihood. And as proven by the purported collapse of Cooks Source, even if the case doesn't end up in court, a verdict and punishment for plagiarism can be doled out quite swiftly through social media justice.

For anyone who would pursue this type of behavior, I would advise them to determine whether the short term gain that can be accomplished through plagiarism is outweighed by the long-term stigma and repercussions of getting caught.

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