Something borrowed, something new
PITY the student accused of plagiarism in Christopher Rick's class. This collection reprints the fearsome 1998 British Academy Lecture in which Ricks advocates a transhistorical judgement on plagiarism, as just plain wrong: absolutely, always and everywhere. Plagiarists themselves are fairly revolting "dishonest, dishonourable, and sometimes sick" but Ricks reserves his harshest strictures for those he takes to be their apologists. These concoct a "repellent" stew of "weakly, wizenedly political" posturing, "amoral jocularity" and "exculpatory bonhomie" towards the wretches in the dock. A relativist "virus" is on the loose, infecting literature departments with the urge "to demean and degrade moral thought", encouraging them in their "demoralising of plagiarism", and leading them a further mile down the primrose path to post-modernist perdition.
Rick's lecture, like the decision to include it here, seems designed to provoke a debate rather than seriously to advance a final definition of plagiarism's transcendent ousia, and in that it succeeds brilliantly. It produces something akin to the hubbub that envelops faculty meetings after a particularly intemperate outburst by a well-liked but bombastic colleague.
Several of the other contributors to Plagiarism in Early Modern England are named as villains in Rick's morality drama, and almost all of them take the bait. Responses range from Brean Hammond's slightly pained objection to "Rick's version of me" in his "rogues' gallery", to Stephen Orgel's good-humoured relief that "I am allowed to be ... muddle-headed and unpersuasive, but basically well intentioned". Most claim that they seek not to excuse but to understand the concept of plagiarism by showing how different historical and cultural milieux produce widely disparate definitions of the offence, and various degrees of moral disapprobation towards it. In particular, they observe that our modern understanding of plagiarism took shape in the 18th Century, alongside the commercial marketplace for literature, the commodification of labour, the development of copyright law, and the notion of intellectual property.
The basic flaw in Rick's case is his assumption that the historical contingency of definitions of plagiarism, should it be adequately demonstrated, would render the practice morally unassailable. In the service of this assumption, he undertakes to show that, despite minor and local variations, the true essence of plagiarism has always been recognised as knowingly taking credit for someone else's writing. He cites as evidence the earliest use of the term in a literary context, from one of Martial's epigrams (here in the translation by Ben Jonson):
Th'art out, vile Plagiary, that dost think
A Poet may be made at th'rate of Ink,
And cheap-priz'd Paper; none e'er purchased yet
Six or ten Penniworth of Fame or Wit.
Ricks uses this to refute the relativists' claim that plagiarism, as we understand it, is a recent invention. He believes that Martial is protesting against the theft of his work, and he translates plagiarius as "the abductor of the child or slave of another". If this gloss were accurate, Ricks would have good grounds for his interpretation of Martial's metaphor, but in fact the primary meaning of plagiarius is "one who illegally slaves another". The word carries the sense of the improper subjugation of a person who is properly free, and thus the epigram actually means the opposite of what Ricks says it means. The "Plagiary" is not criticised for stealing Martial's work, but for asserting ownership over a published piece of literature, thus illegitimately "enslaving" what rightfully belongs to the public domain. The epigram does not condemn what we know as "plagiarism" but implicitly sanctions it.
The historical relativists defend their position with less passion than Ricks, but they carry the day, if only by weight of numbers. As they note, the belief that it is possible to own an idea is relatively recent and somewhat counterintuitive. How can something so nebulous and insubstantial be regarded as the property of a single individual? Most cultures have traced the source of ideas beyond the person who happens to express them to a Muse, Holy Spirit or Zeitgeist, and so a recent poet as Milton took considerable pains to establish that his words were not his own.
It took many centuries, and it was not easy, for people to learn to think of their own activity as "labour", an alienable commodity which could be separated from its "owner" and sold. This is hard enough with regard to physical labour, which produces a material object; it is yet more difficult in the case of intellectual labour, where nothing objective is produced but words, that refer to ideas, which allegedly inhabit the mind of the individual who wrote them down.
This does not, of course, vindicate the student who buys term papers or hires another to take an exam, but it may well justify such practices as "sampling" music, or pastiche in literature. Social and technological changes clearly do affect concepts of intellectual property, as the recent controversies over the Napster and Kazaa websites demonstrate. This volume shows that such disputes were just as bitter in the 17th and 18th Centuries as in the 21st.
Paulina Kewes, the editor, has selected the contributions with an eye to thematic consistency and, though it may be strange praise for a volume on plagiarism, a commendable concern for originality. It must have taken heroic restraint to avoid a single mention of Jorge Luis Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote". Clearly, despite Ricks's dystopic vision, the spirit of innovation has not yet flown the groves of academe.
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Plagiarism in Early Modern England, edited by Paulina Kewes, Palgrave, p.276, £47.50 (US $65). 0 333 99841 3
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