PLAGIARISING AND DECEPTION
You go to a bookstore and buy a book. It’s an expensive book, but you don’t mind, for it is a book you have always wanted. It is a book for you to keep, to cherish. Yes, it’s yours, all yours. You take it home, settle in a comfortable chair and open the cover. That first page leaps out at you. “This book is copyright under the Berne Conventions. No part of it may be copied or used.” You suddenly realize this book is not yours at all. It might be in your possession, and legally it is yours, but the only right you have i to read it.
No, you don’t own books. The person who wrote the book is the owner. You only bought the right to read it. Or you use it for anything other than for your own reading pleasure, and you do use it, any part, even a sentence, you will find yourself in a court of law.
It might sound strange, but we can say the same thing for all property. We buy a house, our name is on the title, and we move in. We are so proud. We own a house, and it is all ours. No one can touch it. We think it is ours, but we are wrong. The state owns it. If you don’t believe it, don’t pay your taxes for a year or two. The state will take your house away from you. That’s a fact.
So what do we own that we can call our own? Fortunately, there is one thing, and that is our ideas. Intangible thing like an idea, and it is ours, all ours. If we have an idea, we can register it, and no one can take it away from us. Ideas are infinite, endless. No idea is too foolish, too outlandish. If someone approaches me with an idea, I never turn him or her away. Ideas are ours, and if someone copies our words, our ideas, without our permission, we call that plagiarism. Another term, stated more harshly, is stealing. Stealing is punishable by law, and so is plagiarism.
Writers commit plagiarism whenever they present words or ideas taken from another person as if they were their own. In our capitalistic economy, words and ideas are regarded as property. We plagiarize when we don’t give credit to the person whose idea it was. The rule is we cannot pass off someone’s ideas or thoughts as our own. The solution is to depend on other people’s words as little as possible.
I make sure when quoting someone to put what they say between quotation marks. Then, I’ve been told, it’s not plagiarizing. But I find the overuse of quotes, the over-reliance on quotations that is, can undermine an author’s writing. I get the feeling that he is unable to use his own words to articulate his own thoughts. I like to use quotes, but I attempt to use them sparingly.
Yet in spite of the law, or moral issues, we continue to steal and we try to get away with it. Often in the literary world when we do copy another’s words, we call it borrowing. Writers forever borrow from one another. They say there are no original ideas, that all ideas have all been conceived at one time or another. That belief becomes an absolute; there is no originality. I find that hard to fathom. I contend that an artist or a writer is original when he is being himself. I find that even an absolute can be affected by personal judgment, training and habit. One would think when an object is recognized as beautiful, it would contain enough merit to retain its beauty for us indefinitely. We know it doesn’t. We get tired of it. Familiarity breeds indifference.
We can say then that there are writers who have their own original thoughts regardless of whether or not someone else thought them up before. Take a look at some of the master writers. Take a look at James Michener whose list of books covers a couple of pages. He was a great writer, admired by many and some seventy-five million of his books went into print. As we know, several were made into movies-Hawaii, South Pacific, Sayonara. The one I liked most was Hawaii. He told in detail how the islands were formed, and he related the “universal savagery of the sea.” Wonderful stuff.
Then I picked up Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It was like reading Michener again. It was all there, how islands and atolls are formed, and about the universal savagery of the sea. Melville came a hundred years before Michener. Did Michener steal from Melville? Hardly. He borrowed. And then I made another startling discovery. Melville was an avid student of the Bible, and he got much of his material and ideas from the Bible. Low and behold, Melville had found out from reading Genesis in the Bible how islands and atolls are formed and passed it on to his readers. Perhaps the Bible is where it all begins, and where it stops. You can’t get much more original than the Bible.
Jack London admits he learned to write by reading Robert Louis Stevenson. He proved that there is no better training for the would-be writer than to read a passage every day from a classic, by a noted author, but more than read it, devour it, study it, and then close the book. Without looking at it again, hours later or, best, the next day, attempted to reproduce it. Nothing can be more demanding upon our memory. Jack London followed this method by reading and studying Stevenson. He read a paragraph or two, closed the book and then tried to put down from memory on paper what he had read. Maybe it wasn’t direct plagiarism, but I do believe that somehow borrowed thoughts do become engrained in our minds and sooner or later, we find ourselves, as writer and thinkers, using them. I remember as a kid reading The Cruise of the Snark. What an inspiration that was to a farm boy who had never seen the sea. I read with abandonment how London had built his own schooner, which he called Snark, and sailed it to Hawaii. From there he continued on to Tahiti, via the Marquesas. The leg from Hawaii to the Marquesas is a near impossible passage, against fierce winds and unyielding currents. It took Snark a month of beating into the wind, but his tiny 43-foot schooner made it. When I had my own schooner and sailed to Hawaii with plans to sail to Tahiti, I had to make the same passage. I didn’t know why, but I just wanted to do it. Everyone thought it was an insane idea, but nevertheless, I drove the crew to what almost became a mutiny. But we made it in a grueling twenty-nine days. Why did I have to do it? Because Jack London had done it, and yet I had completely forgotten about London’s passage. But it was there in my subconscious mind. When I re-read The Cruise of the Snark, I realized it then.
But where do we draw the line? When does borrowed writing become plagiarism? Since words and ideas are regarded as property, as I mentioned, when are these words considered public domain? If individual knowledge is capital, a term the legal pundits use, when then is it public domain? The legal boys call it group knowledge, a suitable name. Group knowledge includes dates, events, facts, general information and those concepts that belong to the public. No individual owns the facts about geography, current events, history, physics, social behavior and society’s common culture and traditions. Here I reached the bottom line: what the public knows collectively constitutes common knowledge. Nor can I assert or claim, as an individual, even if it’s publicly, theories, opinions, studies, research projects, and the likes, to be my own. It’s Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 all over.
It always makes news when an author uses deliberate deception in his work. When discovered, the press loves to play it up. The sad part is it seems we have reached a point in our society where deception and stealing is acceptable. Take the example of James Frey. He wrote his memoir called A Million Little Pieces. Oprah Winfrey reviewed it on her talk show, and the book became an instant success. It was then discovered that some of it was fiction, made up, but Madame Winfrey didn’t care about that. She had passed judgment on it and gave it the good seal of approval. She couldn’t go back on her word, and she had to defend what she said about the book. The press went wild. Matt Liddy, a journalist, wrote: “Frey, Oprah stands by controversial memoir.”
James Frey stood by what he called the “essential truth” of his memoir. Even after accusations were leveled that significant parts of the Oprah-approved best seller were fabricated, Frey went on CNN’s ‘Larry King Live’ show to defend his memoir. At the end of the show Winfrey phoned in to say that she remained happy to recommend the book, despite the controversy. Does this mean that Oprah Winfrey believes it’s all right to lie, that she believes in Machiavelli’s “The end justifies the means.” It seems so.
Frey used the excuse the book is 432 pages long, while the page count of disputed events is a mere eighteen pages, less than five percent of the total book. “You know,” he said, “that falls comfortably within the realm of what’s appropriate for a memoir.”
That is one man’s sordid interpretation of the rules of plagiarism, but it is not the accepted norm. A lie is a lie. Frey would have been all right had he maintained, as he did in the beginning, his book was fiction. In fact, he shopped the book as a novel, and it was turned down by publisher after publisher. The publisher who did finally buy the right to the book thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir.
In his warped reasoning, Frey contends his book is “a long tradition of what American writers have done in the past, people like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Kerouac and Charles Bukowski.” He argued at the time when these books were published by famous authors, the genre of memoir didn’t exist. “I mean,” he told Larry King, “the genre of memoir is one that’s very new and the boundaries of it have not been established yet.”
There is no question that Winfrey was misled. Yet she sidetracks the issue. When she includes a book in her book club, an endorsement by her, it is virtually guaranteed to become a best-seller. She admitted when she read A Million Little Pieces, it had stunned her and moved her. After hearing Frey’s interview, Winfrey told her “old friend” Larry King she would still recommend A Million Little Pieces.