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Plagiary and Moralism

Module by: Christopher Kelty. E-mail the author

Summary: Is plagiarism a historical category? Is its definition in question? How might it be related to copyright, intellectual property or legality? And what exactly is the difference between morally right and legally right?

Can you answer this question: is plagiarism a moral or a legal issue? What's the difference?

For the purposes of answering this question, we have bookended the glorious spectrum of human experience with two works: Christopher Ricks' article "Plagiarism" in Allusion to the Poets(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) and an Interview with the late Novelist Kathy Acker from Hannibal Lecter, My Father (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991) in which she discusses her techniques of authorship and plagiarism.

First Provocation.

Ricks suggests that the definition of plagiarism is not in question-- that it is only the truth of an accusation of plagiarism that can be questioned. Ricks, being English, chooses the OED:

The wrongful appropriation, or purloining, and publication as one's own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical) of another.
The OED also defines it as simply "literary theft" and lists "kidnapping" or "Manstealing" as the origin. Ricks relies heavily on Martial's use of this word as evidence that the concept is at least that old.

Interestingly, the American definition from Webster's 3rd Int'l adds:

to commit literary theft: to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.
A definition that may be more familiar to college students is:
quoting, paraphrasing, or otherwise using another's words or ideas as one's own without properly crediting the source. Rice Honor Council

Ricks stresses the notion that plagiarism is plagiarism when it is conducted "with an intent to deceive." Given what we've discussed about the vagaries of authorial intention, is such deception clear cut? What distinctions might we make?

"Using another's words with an intent to deceive."

  • that I said this. (deceive with respect to author)
  • that this is true. (deceive with respect to truth)
  • that I own this. (deceive with respect to right)
  • that I experienced this
  • that I discovered this
  • that I researched this
  • that this was told to me
  • that I have it on good authority
  • that I found this
  • that this is obvious
If we disagree with Ricks, what are we risking? Why is Ricks so sure that plagiarism is both obvious and morally reprehensible? Who are the targets of his ire? Why does he insist the following:
That no moral position is natural does not itself entail that moral positions are nothing but the insistences of power...the extirpation of ethical or moral considerations by such political history is a sad loss...(Ricks p. 223)
Why do "moral positions" demand different treatment than "political" ones?

Second Provocation.

Is plagiarism theft?

What exactly is stolen?

  • words?
  • ideas?
  • style?
  • form?
  • look and feel?
  • hard work?
  • originality?
  • identity?
  • credit?
  • right?
  • fame?
Ricks, again:
Far from lumbering, intellectual property law is limber, well aware of the complications. But, to moral considerations the law must always offer a handshake at arm's length. For although the law is a moral matter, being distinguishable form but not distinct from justice, the law acknowledges that there is a moral world elsewhere. (Ricks, p.224)
Where, and what is this moral world? Is it the same everywhere... how do we reconcile this moral world with our laws? Once again, Rice Honor Council has something to say:
Cultures differ in their views about the ownership of ideas. In some cultures people believe that ideas, like air and sunshine, cannot be owned, and they do not acknowledge those who first publish ideas. Some countries are only now developing laws for ownership of patents and copyrights. Rice University is not part of such traditions: it follows Western conventions for dealing with intellectual properties. Its Code of Conduct acknowledges the unique intellectual contributions of individuals at the same time it recognizes that all individuals rely on the concepts, creations, and inventions of others. Although some students come from countries and cultures that do not recognize individual contributions to knowledge, Rice University expects these students and all other students and faculty to participate in an academic community that honors the intellectual work of others and acknowledges their influences. This community's commitment is formally recorded in a system of rules called The Honor Code. Rice Honor Council

Third Provocation.

If I had to be totally honest I would say that what I'm doing is breach of copyright--it's not because I change the words---but so what? We're always playing a game. We earn our money out of the stupid law but we hate it because we know it's a jive. What else can we do? That's one of the basic contradictions of living in capitalism. I sell copyright that's how I make my money... The work isn't the property, it's the copyright. (Acker, p.12)

Question: Is Kathy Acker more or less moralistic than Ricks?

Question: Is Kathy Acker's "method of plagiarism" original? Consider what she says about it:

What a writer does, in 19th century terms, is that he takes a certain amount of experience and he "represents" that material. What I'm doing is simply taking text to be the same as the world, to be equal to non-text, in fact to be more real than non-text, and start representing text. So it's quite clear, I took the Harold Robbins and represented it. I didn't copy it. I didn't say it was mine.

Here's an example, from "Great Expectations" of Acker's more direct form of plagiarism.

Mr Jaggers had duly sent me his address; it was, Little Britain, and he had written after it on his card, `just out of Smithfield, and close by the coach-office.' Nevertheless, a hackney-coachman, who seemed to have as many capes to his greasy great-coat as he was years old, packed me up in his coach and hemmed me in with a folding and jingling barrier of steps, as if he were going to take me fifty miles. His getting on his box, which I remember to have been decorated with an old weather-stained pea-green hammercloth moth-eaten into rags, was quite a work of time. It was a wonderful equipage... (Great Expectations, Chapter 20).
My lawyer Mr. Gordon duly sent me his address; and he wrote after it on the card "just outside Alexandia, and close by the taxi stand." Nevertheless, a taxi-driver, who seems to have as meany jackets over his greasy winter coat as he is years old, packs me up in his taxi, hems me in by shutting the taxi doors and closing the taxi windows and locking the taxi doors, as if he's going to take me fifty miles. His getting into his driver's seat which is decorated by an old weather-stained pea-green hammercloth, moth-eaten into rags, is a work of time. It's a wonderful taxi... (Great Expectations, part 1, chapter 2)
It should be said that these passages are rare, and generally followed by violent or pornographic descriptions it is not meet to reprint here. These passages represent the most explicit plagiarism, Acker's novel very quickly veers into the present, into North Africa and into repeated ruminations on suicide, rape, S/M and poverty, only the last of which seems to play a central role in DIckens novel.

Question: What kind of moralism does willful plagiarism represent, and is it different from the moralism of Ricks?

What is the implication of accusing Acker of plagiarism? Is it a moral denunciation or a political one? Is Acker's plagiarism moral or political? What would it mean to accuse her of copyright infringement and how is, or should it be distinguished?

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