Plagiarism Symposium Part III: Which Words Are Your Own?

Josh, first of all I agree that there is a wide spectrum between unoriginality and theft; perhaps I was a little too Manichean in my wording.

With that said, though, I think intent is often hard, if not impossible to determine. Take the Mencia/Lopez examples. The jokes in question are pretty standard “Mexican-culture-is-funny” jokes. I think Josh will agree that neither of them “owns” or has propriety over this genre of jokes.

Within this genre there are obviously a wide variety of jokes, but they often overlap to a very large extent, without any obvious malice or dishonesty. When jokes are obvious or unoriginal, they often sound the same without any ill intent. Take, for example, this video:

Whoever made this video is right. Are they all stealing from the same person, or are they just making an obvious joke?

Now, of course, there are clear cases where someone steals something verbatim from someone else, but these are hard to prove and not all that common. It is much more common to take something and make slight variations on it. With “The Aristocrats” this is not only acceptable, but encouraged.

In other contexts, this is the middle ground that Josh talks about. If I write a play about, say a prince who attempts to avenge the murder of his father, and then someone else comes along and writes something with almost the exact same plot, is that plagiarism? What if he makes all the characters lions?

In some ways, Shakespeare is more of a plagiarist than Mencia, since he almost certainly knew of the antecedents and gave them absolutely no compensation or recognition (does anyone learn about Thomas Kyd in high school?). Now, obviously Shakespeare made Hamlet “his” play, but he did so while partially plagiarizing existing works.

This indicates both that the line between plagiarism and inspiration is different for different people, and that originality and “creative borrowing” often coexist. This is what makes “intent” such a mercurial and pointless standard. Is it better to authentically create something that every hack comedian can come up with, or to rewrite an existing work into a masterpiece? I think we would all side with the latter.

And this works against the theory that creative works are the products of individuals. Josh says, “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?”

While part of me wishes that were true, I don’t really believe it. Who “deserves credit” for coming up with “the Aristocrats”? Or Mexican jokes? Or ethnicity jokes? Or the “revenge play”? Or the “Happy Birthday” song?

These things were developed unintentionally, by groups of people who worked individually, but within the same parameters (stand-up comedy, the theater, etc.). Newton’s statement about standing on the shoulders of giants was meant about science, but applies just the same to creative works as well.

Which brings us back to the Wallace example. It seems unfair to say he “plagiarized” this story since A) he does offer an implicit citation and B) the story is like “The Aristocrats” in that it has no “author.”

I think Josh and I agree that the betrayal comes from him passing off as his own (which, again, he’s not really doing, I just missed it) something that is not. But how much of a novel can be “his own” anyway? Wallace based the plot structure of Infinite Jest loosely on Hamlet, but nobody would say that this constitutes plagiarism. He includes stories of AA members that were at least partially gathered from visits to meetings. Does this constitute plagiarism? (Whether it constitutes an ethical breach of AA’s confidentiality is a whole other issue.)

Now, obviously, individuals do create things. Words don’t magically emanate from a cultural milieu onto the page. Wallace wrote Infinite Jest. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. But concerns about plagiarism and who “deserves credit” for an idea put an unjustified priority on who said something first, when the real question is who said it best.

Pierre Mendard, an unabashed plagiarist, will offer his viewpoint next…

One response to this post.

  1. […] Ah, how quickly a joke can get old. I just can’t wait for Carlos Mencia to tackle Tiger Woods. […]


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