Plagiarists face many pitfalls in the electronic age

It is easy to use the internet to lift phrases and use them as your own; it is equally easy to use programmes to check for plagiarism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 4:56am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 4:56am

It's not that hard to think of something totally original. If you don't worry about it being any good, it's easy. "Colourless green ideas sleep furiously," was Noam Chomsky's spirited attempt in his ground-breaking 1957 book on linguistics, Syntactic Structures.

"Hold the newsreader's nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers," was Stephen Fry's during an episode of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie. But when novelist John Gardner used the phrase "opening the throttle at the last moment" in his 1983 book Icebreaker, it was unlikely that he sat back and congratulated himself on being the first to have written it.

Innovation wasn't what he was aiming for, after all; he was just trying to describe someone driving a scooter. But Google Books, that vast indexing project, informs us that Gardner's was the only book to contain this phrase until another, Vestige Of Evil by Len Vorster, appeared on Amazon in 2011. A section of the novel, one of two books self-published online under that name, featured other phrases that were no longer unique to Icebreaker, such as "the ice and snow were not as raw and killing as this" and "the slope angling gently downwards to flatten". The many coincidences were startling, though if it wasn't for the internet, nobody need ever have known.

In fact, if it wasn't for the internet, there might never have been a Vestige Of Evil. Vorster appears, like millions of others, to have been inspired by the sheer quantity of online content and the new opportunities for digital self-expression.

With a potential audience of billions, the prospect of contributing can be thrilling; meanwhile, the moral responsibility we traditionally attach to creative expression has been downgraded by the sheer ease of copying someone else's work.

When Richard Condon lifted sentences wholesale from Robert Graves' I, Claudius and quietly stuck them into The Manchurian Candidate, he did it the good old-fashioned way. Today, technology covertly assists us: ctrl+C to copy images, prose, code, video and more; ctrl+V to paste. The consequences of this can range from sly postings of other people's witticisms on Twitter in pursuit of retweet glory, to print-on-demand books that are merely duplicates of other books.

Driven by a combination of greed, confusion, ignorance, pressure, laziness and ambition, an increasing number of people are looking at stuff other people have done and thinking, "Wow. That's really good. I'll pretend that I did it."

Justin M Damiano, a story by American comic artist Daniel Clowes, was published in 2008 as part of a collection of 23 short stories entitled The Book Of Other People. It told the tale of a film critic experiencing an internal struggle over whether or not to review a film positively, and it may have languished in relative obscurity had the storyline and dialogue not been used by actor-director Shia LaBeouf in a short film entitled Howard which received its online premiere last December.

The similarities between the two were quickly noted, as was the absence of any acknowledgement of Clowes' work. By effectively pretending it was his own story, LaBeouf had committed what American judge Richard Posner describes in his book The Little Book Of Plagiarism as "the capital intellectual crime".

Intellectual, because there's no law against plagiarism. Sure, copyright violation is a prosecutable offence, and Clowes' lawyer immediately pursued LaBeouf's for a response on that score. But copyright eventually expires, and even if Clowes had been dead for 200 years, LaBeouf would still have stood accused of plagiarism. It was that moral offence, the act of passing off someone else's work as your own, that caused a familiar tsunami of offence to roar across social media channels.

"It's a problem for me, it really is," says Edward Champion, managing editor of an American blog, Reluctant Habits, which has frequently expressed contempt for plagiarists. "When you see someone desecrate this wonderful, noble medium by not being assed to try to find a new form of expression," he says, "it's basically a writer signalling utter contempt for the reader. The plagiarist, to me, is the kind of irredeemable hood that would take bad writing to a ne plus ultra level.

"When you're published, you raise yourself to a position of power. If you feel that you can get away with it, what's going to stop you carrying on?"

It's a good question. The courts, as we've established, don't deal with plagiarism, and suing a plagiarist for breach of copyright is unlikely to be lucrative. The most punitive action available is publicly to humiliate the perpetrator, an option that citizens of Twitter and Facebook seize eagerly.

The act of uncovering and investigating acts of plagiarism is becoming easier by the day. Search engines, online plagiarism checkers and the viral publicity opportunities afforded by social media all play their part. Plagiarism searches can be compelling, like addictive puzzles where positive results elicit mental fist-pumps of delight.

[It's unlikely that the unwieldy phrase "mental fist-pumps of delight" will be plagiarised, but I've set up a Google Alert in case.] Still, it's laborious, unpaid work. "It takes discipline," Champion says. "You have to sit for hours looking through documents, and it can be a tedious task."

As I have read and then subsequently written about plagiarism, I have almost inevitably been plagued by doubt as to whether I am having my own ideas or merely expressing other people's in a different way. But maybe that's an anxious by-product of my desire to have my own ideas. The plagiarist, meanwhile, nearly always makes a conscious decision to plagiarise, and by doing so is taking what is largely deemed to be the easy way out.

The Guardian