Plagiarism Symposium Part II: My Own Words?

Through the lens of Infinite Jest (on a moderately-related note: I, along with co-blogger Tim, have officially begun our infinite summers… maybe this should have been a footnote), John S digs into some really interesting issues surrounding plagiarism in creative endeavors.

John admits uncertainty on why David Foster Wallace’s possible plagiarism makes him feel betrayed. In his process of understanding what is causing this feeling of betrayal, he first looks at music and comedy. Let’s examine comedy more closely: John rightly implies that Carlos Mencia’s jokes sound an awful lot like George Lopez’s (and many other comedians). John’s conclusion is that: “The real ‘crime’ in situations like this is unoriginality or parallel thinking, not theft.” I have to respectfully disagree. Isn’t there something between unoriginality and theft?

Unoriginality does not imply bad intentions but simply a lack of the ability to develop novel ideals and concepts. Theft meanwhile generally does imply less than noble intentions. Cases when theft occurs without such intentions cause news stories. Yet, there is an in-between area where unoriginal is too light of a description and theft too harsh. Dishonesty may be the best word for it. If I copy 90 percent word-for-word from another source and include it in a book (or a comedic act), there is generally an assumption that I wrote it. When you hear a comedian do stand-up, you assume that he writes his jokes unless told otherwise or presented in a context where it is clear that he did not, like The Aristocrats.

John argues that based on the context of Wallace’s presentation of the phony insurance claim (e.g. in a chain email), it is presumable that Wallace is not being dishonest or trying to trick the reader. This may be debatable, but the relevant point is that there are cases (e.g. Mencia-Lopez) where the plagiarism is clearer, and it is not simply unoriginality or parallel thinking since there is a conscious intent to copy. While the intent itself may not be malicious, it is at the very least dishonest. Someone like Carlos Mencia should be (and has been) put to shame for his dishonest behavior, not simply dismissed as unoriginal.

John determines that Wallace’s move bothers him (and presumably others) “because we look on the works of writers, musicians, comedians and really any creative individual as some reflection of their personal individuality.” I agree, but would put it even more strongly. Not only do we look at the work of creative artists as a reflection of their individuality but, also, we should. Who deserves credit for their masterpiece work of art but the individual who created it? If we do and ought to assume that works are the reflections and creations of an individual or a group of individuals, then it follows that anything to the contrary requires notification or else it constitutes dishonesty. If one of the jokes you use is not your own, cite that person and give her credit for developing the joke. Sometimes this can be done contextually without overt citation, as Wallace arguably does with his phony insurance claim story. But, without context or citation, the artist is betraying an assumption that is essential to the creative process.

Let me conclude by acknowledging that it’s not always easy to determine what constitutes plagiarism, especially in music. In fact, I think it’s very difficult if not impossible to answer John’s question “At what point does something become ‘original’?” in a general manner without specific context. Nevertheless, it makes little sense to stick with a binary of unoriginality and theft when so much plagiarism is something in between.

Stay tuned for John S’s reply…

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