Can Plagiarism Be Creative?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010
The same week I read about a German author who is defending her plagiarism, J.K. Rowling is being mentioned in another case of an author who believes Rowling heavily borrowed from his books.
In the instance of the first case of plagiarism, the author Helene Hegemann believes that her use of another's author's work is an art form. According to the Salon article I read, Hegemann reportedly told a German newspaper: "I myself don't feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context and from the outset consistently promoted the fact that none of that is actually by me." However, as Laura Miller points out on Salon, Hegemann did not give the author of credit for the passages taken from "Strobo."
Please note that I have no first-hand knowledge of either case of alleged plagiarism, but I am interested in how reading someone else's work can or might influence my own work--maybe even creeping into my writing?
Many writers state that by reading the masters, they improved their own writing. When studying the greats, often a professor will suggest copying the words of the master to learn the cadences, word choices, and rhythms. I'm sure my novel writing career would do much better if I were to borrow heavily from the greats. I also understood that as civilization has moved along, we build on the shoulders of those who came before us. Some even argue that there are no original stories, just a re-hash of stories that have come before.
But sometimes, that line blurs. I have taught college students whose academic careers could be destroyed due to one instance of plagiarism and yet the students seem unsure what constitutes plagiarism--and why it would be such a big deal.
I think that as an exercise and to understand the world it is vitally important to be aware of the work of those who have come before. From the standpoint of creativity and our own interaction with creativity, I'm not sure that plagiarism is the best method of rising to the occasion and meeting our muse. Or is it?

Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer and creativity coach. Besides contributing to AOL's ParentDish, she blogs at The Write Elizabeth, delving into creativity in everyday places.


Rev. Linda M. Rhinehart Neas, M.Ed. said...

Plagiarism is one those dragons that often bites writers on the butt.

As an educator, I teach my students (international students studying English as a second language) about plagiarism.

It is often difficult for them to understand, since in many other cultures using other peoples work is considered a compliment to the writer being copied. For instance, in ancient times, the Greek masters told their students to take their work and make it their own. It was considered the sign of a great thinker if others copied what they said or wrote. This practice is still observed in some countries, which only adds to the fact that in today's "this is mine" society, it is difficult to say what is or isn't "ours."

Academia has a very narrow view of what is and isn't plagiarism. One must, if they publish or submit work in academia, be aware of this and follow the guidelines...rules...policies to the letter.

Most colleges have writing centers where there are programs that will check a student's work to make sure all citations are accurately placed. They also give tips that help students understand plagiarism, such as what appears on the Amherst College academic honesty page, "If a fact or event appears undocumented in at least five sources, it is considered common knowledge." Common knowledge means that there is no need to cite where the information comes from in your work.

However, the more I study, the more I know that many, many famous people used the works of others in their works. In addition, most preliminary lit courses explain that there are no "new" stories in the world. There are only archetypes that are rewritten, repeatedly. They include, scenarios such as, the quest, the journey, and the fall...all written about in various ways by authors in every culture on earth. One can see the difficulty in determining what plagiarism is and what is not.

As an author, I work diligently to make sure that if I build on someone's work, that I give him or her credit. However, after reading everything I could get my hands on from the Bible to , from Marley and Me to Emily Dickinson's poems it would be impossible to say that I haven't been influenced by the works of others or that I have never written the same words as someone else, unintentionally.

In the end, the best we can do, is be mindful of what is out there, how it influences us, and give credit where credit is due.

Fiona Ingram said...

I agree with Linda that plagiarism is a murky field, but in the arena of academia, it seems to be easier to avoid. Acknowledging another person's work/research and giving citations is a way of avoiding the charge of plagiarism. It is possibly also more difficult to 'pinch' ideas because as soon as someone has published his or her thesis, the academic world is aware of it. Fiction, however, is something else. I used to think that novel ideas based on non-fiction, such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, could escape the accusation, and indeed why should there even be an accusation in that kind of case - surely non-fiction is a set of ideas and theories that could be open to creative interpretation?. He was unsuccessfully sued by the authors of a non-fiction book discussing the subject that Mr Brown developed into a fictional theme. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief owes just about all the plot to the presence of ancient Greek gods. Is the author plagiarizing from the ancient Greek myth masters? Shakespeare borrowed many of his themes from a variety of sources, both contemporary and classical. One way to avoid the accusation would be for the author to openly acknowledge the influence of a particular author or theme or book in a preface. That said, our brains absorb ideas and themes through general reading. The seeds are planted and may only flourish when an author comes up with an idea - an idea they think is their own because, of course, they have fogotten the book or story they read a while ago. Recently I read a novel where the (quite famous) author had embraced a theme of two evil children. The entire history of these children was quite horrific. The author had developed the theme into what they became as adults and so the story progressed. However, the prehistory nagged at me ... I was sure I had read it before. I had. It was taken directly from a story by Edgar Allen Poe. Now, is that plagiarism or is it accidental influence though reading, or is it common knowledge?

Liz H. Allen said...

In college I think there is a fine line of what plagiarism is because we are taught to quote others and "find sources" ect. But what if the source says it the same way you would say it? Do you still need to site your source?

Also, music borrows heavily from other music. Most of the time it is perfectly acceptable. You know when an artist appreciates other musicians because their work has the same feel or tone.

So why in writing is it so awful? Possibly because so much time goes into novel writing? But, that leaves the question of fan lit... would that be nice to know your fans were doing that or would you be pissed for plagiarism?

KathleenL said...

Contrary to Liz, I don't see a problem of knowing what Plagiarism is. We were taught many moons ago, by some effective teacher that – if memory servers me correctly, two or more words directly copied from someone else’s work without giving them credit is, in fact, plagiarism and wrong. I was also the benefit of a great professor who taught me how to take someone else’s writing and flop it around and make it fresh, new and my own, thus keeping legal all of the way around.

I do understand that there is a mode of teaching that says imitate writers you like… but imitating is not plagiarism. Those of us who write are often readers… and as Dan, the author of “The DiVinci Code” was able to prove… using someone’s work as research material is different than copying it.

Analisa said...

Great blog and I love what Kathleen L said and agree.

I personally am opposed to a method of teaching that says imitate writers you like. I think you can learn from them but find your own voice. We could all tell a story about a cheating wife, but not all would tell it the same. Each person has a unique way of speaking. When you learn to trust yourself enough to put that down on a page I think you can successful avoid the pit of plagiarism. Also give your work an honest look. If you sound like someone you have enjoyed reading take a step back and strongly consider a rewrite.

Anonymous said...

In our time plagiarism can happen everywhere, intentionally and unintentionally!!! That's why you need to check your writing at some Plagiarism checking service. I use - Their service uses a vast amount of resources in plagiarism checking and offers up to 10 papers check for FREE.

Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top