University of Western Ontario
I came across a "Speed Bump" cartoon recently in which two convicts are sitting on their beds in a cell. One says "Grand theft auto. You?" The other replies "Plagiarism." With the recent Purdue study and its Canadian extension on student cheating in the news, Marilyn Randall's award-winning book is a timely reminder of the complexities inherent in the academic, judicial and common perceptions of legitimate borrowing, imitation as a form of learning and unsanctioned stealing of others' ideas and words.
In Part One: Authoring Plagiarism, Randall traces the origins of plagiarism to the Greek discussions surrounding mimesis as a legitimate copying of ideas for the purpose of artistic and intellectual growth, in contrast to vulgar borrowing of ideas for profit or self-aggrandizement. She also explores shifting perceptions of what belongs to the public and private domains and how the separation of these domains is legitimized with the development of limited-term copyright laws in the 18th century with the Statute of Anne. These laws attempt to make a distinction between ideas, which belong in the public domain and are to be shared for the public good in the search for universal truth and printed words, which belong to the private domain. She points out the ironies of such hard and fast distinctions between property and proprietary rights in that the owner of the words is not necessarily the author, but is often the publisher who bought them. In Part Two: Reading Plagiarism, the author problematizes the identification of cases of plagiarism: is plagiarism to be found in the intention of the writer, or the suspicions of the reader? By questioning how cases of suspected plagiarism are brought to public light, she uncovers the fundamental assumptions of all accusers of plagiarism: that it is the reader, through judgment of artistic merit, who decides whether a work is plagiarized, or borrowed and improved upon. The intentions of the writer -- whether explicitly stated, as with John Dryden, or justified on the grounds of academic erudition as deliberate allusion or inter-textuality, as with Ouologuem--almost never resolve the public's perceptions of what does and does not constitute plagiarism.
One of the most interesting sections of the book is where she lists all the metaphors that surround the borrowing of others' words. Good borrowing is seen as a happy theft where bees sup on honey or the happy author finds gold in a dunghill or effects a conquest to create a floral bouquet, a patchwork, or a tissue that is better than the material it was taken from. Bad borrowing is somehow unnatural like a jay dressed in borrowed feathers or Johnson's "poet-ape." While we may be in some confusion about whether a piece is creatively borrowed or simply stolen, the creators of these metaphors are not! This discussion naturally leads Randall into Part 3: Power Plagiarism, which is clearly the heart of this book. Plagiarism can be used both by the profiteer and by the genius. What is to distinguish between Chatterton, Balzac and Dumas' use of others' words? Can we only say that one does not plagiarize if profit is not the motive? Further, in this section Randall sheds new light on issues of cultural appropriation and cross-cultural claims of plagiarism, in particular colonial plagiarism which, she claims, can be both a subversive and inherently powerful way of undermining the authority of the colonial oppressors. Marginalized people must appropriate the language of the oppressor in order to be heard by that oppressor. Yet, by taking the oppressor's own words out of his mouth and using these words against him, the marginalized person rises up against him and finds his/her own voice. Randall dubs this kind of plagiarism "guerilla plagiarism," and illustrates its use by authors such as Martin Luther King, Arthur Haley and the unfortunate Ouologuem. Are these authors opportunists, purely and simply? Are they, through mimesis, creating true works of genius? Or, are they taking revenge on the colonialist powers that have oppressed them?
Randall uses for her final arguments, an article written by John Perry Barlow in a 1994 edition of Wired magazine. Barlow argues that the word as it exists in cyberspace is half-way between the 18th Century concept of words, which exist in print and can be owned, and ideas, which have no concrete existence of their own and which must belong to the public domain. He calls these words "information" and asserts that because this information is not printed, it is beyond ownership and therefore a fitting subject for post-modern appropriation. He asserts that the information highway is the true signal of the death of the author as the creator of original ideas. Randall does not completely agree with Barlow. She feels that authorship, as separate from the commodification of ideas, is a durable concept which will morph back to what it was pre-18th Century where "authors see themselves engaged in a common project, the search for knowledge"(p. 269).
Pragmatic Plagiarism is basically about authorship, originality and the laws that protect the author both as creator and as borrower of others' ideas. What, you may ask, has all of this to do with university and college writing teachers and their students? There are two lessons that I took from Randall's book. First, our students have such easy access to the information highway that they are beginning to find it impossible to separate their thoughts from the information that they are constantly in touch with. Copyright laws cannot protect authors, publishers or artists from appropriation on the web. If academics live by their ideas and not simply by the words that they have written, it is their (and our) responsibility to teach students the difference between what rightfully belongs in the public domain and the private domain. We need to teach them that there is a difference between good borrowing -- for transformation, assimilation and intellectual growth-- and bad borrowing --the indifferent appropriation and application of whatever information is most easily to hand. If we don't make those distinctions clear to our students --- if we are too quick to jump to accusations of plagiarism rather than explanations of what constitutes proper academic erudition, we are in danger of making such accusations ineffective and obsolete. The second lesson to be learned is in how we deal with ESL plagiarism. Guerilla plagiarism is a natural consequence of leaving our students voiceless -- of leaving them no way to express themselves in academic discourse outside of the western academic tradition. How can we expect them to be original if we dismiss their real originality as non-academic, and condemn their imitation as theft?
Randall's book is a rich confection, full of ideas that are at once obvious and new, known and yet somehow not considered. By laying bare the assumptions and history of borrowing, Randall helps us to see that accusations of plagiarism are attempts to control authorship. At the same time, the act of plagiarism is the conquest of what has been learned. How do our policies and teaching strategies reconcile the ambiguities of both camps and lead students to discover truth for themselves?