The concept of plagiarism is intriguing because it is rarely a binary issue with a clear guilty/not guilty conclusion. It covers an enormous, multivalent range of meaning and is far more nuanced in the many ways in which it impacts upon consciousness and civilization. Indeed, we can start from the premise that without it, civilization would not exist.
The evolution of anything relies on taking what already exists and improving it. First comes the wheel, then the axel, pointless without borrowing the concept of the wheel, then the other wheel to make a cart that can carry things, then the other two to carry more, etc. Next come spokes, perhaps, to lighten the construction, then some form of tyre to help smooth the path over which wheels travel. The separate issue of propulsion also evolves from human, to animal, to mechanized power. It is even doubtful that the wheel was actually invented rather than being an improvement on what existed in nature – the cross section of a tree trunk or branch would allow heavy objects to be rolled over them and the leap from there to smaller cross-sections leading to a wheel would have been a logical progression. We certainly didn’t invent fire; we harnessed it.
With language, the sounds of birds and animals, with their basic range of communication, eventually evolved to words, allowing us to pass information from generation to generation to create cultures, the building blocks of civilization, and culture created those who create, such as Shakespeare. If whoever coined the words ‘friends’ or ‘Romans’ or ‘countrymen’ could have prevented him from using them, because he, or she, had used them first, we might have a definitive answer to the question ‘To be or not to be.’
Civilization relies upon plagiarism, it is another word for creative response to experience, the very bedrock of all self-consciousness without which we would still be akin to lizards basking in the sun.
Art also relies entirely on plagiarism of sorts. If we accept the premise of a Theory of Art and Consciousness, then we shift to a process- rather than product-based aesthetic theory allowing that any creative response to experience is a form of art, leaving us the minor task of assessing its impact rather than deciding whether or not it is art to begin with. It follows that there is no art anywhere in the world that does not arise out of other art. Creativity requires the shoulders of giants as stepping stones. Whoever first decided to impress a hand-print on a cave wall was responding to an inherited urge to create that arrived with the advent of self-consciousness and its aspirations.
We are granted one boon from separating product from process in creativity and granting precedence to the latter. We can distinguish plagiarism based on the object relatively easily. If I were to come across the unpublished manuscript of Nabokov’s Lolita, delete his name and replace it with my own in order to publish it, my contribution to civilization by publishing it would be tainted by plagiarism as straight-forward theft of another’s creative work. But shift focus from the object to the process of communication that is art and we get a more nuanced answer.
One of the best and wittiest essays on plagiarism I have read is by Jonathan Letham.1 He points out that Vladimir Nabokov borrowed the story of a middle-aged man enslaved by the charms of a preteen girl from a story written by the Nazi-era journalist, Heinz von Lichberg, published in 1916, forty years before Nabokov’s novel. The girl in von Lichberg’s story was called Lolita. The original story faded from view but not, we may assume, before Nabokov who lived in Berlin until 1937, was inspired to borrow the story and, let it be said, create a far superior novel. Letham points out that ‘Little of what we admire in Nabokov’s Lolita is to be found in its predecessor; the former is in no way deducible from the latter.’ Regardless of Nabokov’s process in writing his version, it transformed an idea into an acknowledged literary masterpiece without which world literature would be the poorer. Plagiarism, or a worthy variation on a theme by a better writer shifting plagiarism from derogatory to admirable?
One of the more mind-bending cases of creative borrowing is by Jorge Luis Borges, entitled Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, discussed in the essay on authenticity [opens in a new tab].
My own view is that there ought to be a Nobel Prize for plagiarism as it reflects creativity rather than just appropriation. All art is creative response to experience and creativity is the universal constant, the basis of everything, beginning with the creativity of the laws of nature. We should see it not only as foundational but as admirable.
In both the East and the West, copying of existing texts was both frowned upon and considered blame-worthy in antiquity, but didn’t become a legal problem in the West until the eighteenth century. According to Thomas Mallon 2 ‘writers did not think twice about borrowing passages or themes from one another.’ Mallon suggests that it wasn’t a problem until writing became an occupation and the idea that words could ‘belong’ to their first writer began to surface. As Mallon pointed out, prior to that time ‘plagiary’ meant the kidnapping of a child or slave.
The crime of plagiarism also owes a good deal to the recent emphasis on materialism which has been less concerned with what was borrowed than by how to share out the proceeds of the ownership of creativity, whether text, a riff, chord sequence, or oobie-doobie-doo backup vocal. In attempting to treat plagiarism as a binary issue we have reached the point of the creative suing the creative.
As a budding artist, I used to dream of someone copying my works, or even breaking into my home to steal a painting - if I was optimistic enough to believe it wasn’t a desperate response to the absence of any stereo equipment. I would have been deeply flattered and put it on my CV.
I don’t expect the lawsuits to cease in the face of my ponderings on the subject, but it does occur to me that we might chill out a bit; allow creativity to be more open source. As part of the creative universe, perhaps it is time to consider getting a grip and making a contribution with the understanding that if creativity resonates it will inspire others in the future and accept that fact as part of received accolades.
I’m not dismissing the possibility of suing some bloke with a guitar who has just made a lot of money by obviously, and too closely, following what the plaintiff had previously recorded. No amount of philosophical musing about ethics and the nature of plagiarism will prevent that. But it is worth considering at what point to draw the line, even in a materialistic world. Should we really be suing someone who used the same four-chord riff at the beginning of a multi-million-dollar-earning song? I’m just suggesting that maybe a more appropriate response from the ‘originator’ might be to feel flattered at the recognition, accept the process of evolution for what it is, and be grateful that no-one checked into any earlier source for the plaintiff for that particular riff.
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, November 2023.