Is plagiarism bad? People have discussed it before, but I can’t exactly tell you what they said, now can I? I guess I could, if I put it in my own words. But I don’t have any words. I got mine from a dictionary written by this guy—I don’t want to say his name because you bastards will probably tip him off that I’m stealing his words. Or I could cite the source, but I don’t have my own system of citation, and I’m not about to just rip off the Modern Lang…er, I mean, no one.
That first paragraph is what’s called satire. We learned about it in 10th grade. It’s when you say something really smart, but then you trick people into thinking you want to eat babies for food. I’ll spare you that part and just tell you: The really smart thing I was trying to say is that plagiarism isn’t easy to understand, and it’s not necessarily bad. I bet we’ve all benefited from plagiarism at some point in our lives. I know I have. Let’s just say that without plagiarism, this would be my very first column.
Of course, some people benefit from stealing, and that doesn’t make stealing right. But literature tells us that stealing can be right, so the same must be true for plagiarism. We can’t condemn the modern Jean Valjean for performing “Hungry Eyes” in Paris night clubs so he can support his family, just like we can’t be mad at today’s Robin Hood for stealing research from the academic elite and publishing it under the names of the stupid.
Now you might be saying “I bet that Jake guy plagiarized part of this post, you know, as a joke.” Well guess what, you just plagiarized me, because I wrote that before you said it, and unless you can produce an earlier written record I will take you to court and destroy you.
Okay, in fairness, I think a little moderation is in order. The truth is, of course plagiarism is bad. If it weren’t bad, why would people get upset over it? We have this sacred notion in our country of intellectual property, which is why someone can’t take your idea for an invention and go make it first, or go have a baby after you already told them that you and your wife were trying to conceive. And if someone violates that, we respect your right to take them to court, to show the judge their baby and say “Your Honor, that looks exactly like what I was going to make!” The problem is, what if the other couple is Asian, or even worse black? Then obviously yours wouldn’t have been exactly like it. So you see, plagiarism is hard to define, so you can’t always distinguish between plagiarism and influence. As I’ve said before: If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you copy from two, it’s research. (I have said that before, but some people say that playwright Wilson Mizner said it even before me.)
So let’s get down to the etymology of the word. After all, that’s where the real theft occurred, am I right? You see, plagiarism is simply a borrowed form of the word “plague.” During the Black Plague, when one person had the plague, surprise surprise the next day their neighbor had it. So people started calling it plagiarism when you did what your neighbor was already doing. I know what you’re thinking, but neighborism was already in common use throughout Old England, having been used to describe the act of fornicating with one’s neighbor, as in, “What say ye, Smithey? Out for a bit of neighboring, are we?” Oh, that Smithey!
Plagiarism might be a powerful buzzword and the favorite soapbox of America’s restless professors, but the real point is this: Ownership of words is as meaningless as ownership of anything, especially of words. So maybe you don’t agree with this, but hey, you said it, not me!