Sunday, 26 July 2009

Cut, Paste & Copy - A Polemic

Is Copying Others Always Plagiarism?

Good old Jane Smith has designated today* as Anti-Plagiarism day. (This sentence was stolen from Nichola Morgan by the use of copy & paste. How easy it is to lift words out of the pages of others these days.) *Today, as in two weeks ago.

Let me state my point of view at the outset, which is I do not condone theft in any form, and intentionally passing off the work of others as one's own is theft. It is the intentionality of the act that in most respects defines it.


There have been times when individuals have unintentionally copied another; musically, the most famous case I can think of is George Harrison's song, My Sweet Lord, which proved to be practically a note for note copy of a minor hit some years earlier of He's So Fine, composed by Ronald Mack, recorded by the Chiffons. In 1976, the case went to court and Harrison lost. A detailed account of the case may be read here.

Though he lost the case, Harrison preserved his reputation because no one could credit a man of his ability and integrity would deliberately rip off another.


In the world of painting, artists constantly copy others, either in homage or in parody. My favourite is Manet’s Olympia. His is a comment on the nude as typified by Titian's Venus of Urbino where the female is essentially anonymous and on display for the male gaze; whereas in Olympia, Manet personalises the naked woman – note the difference in connotation of the word ‘naked’ compared to ‘nude’ – she is definitively a recognisable individual. His model, far from being coy, stares at the viewer challengingly, and the hand that covers her pudenda does so in a gesture of ownership not promise.

Today, the subtlety of Manet's critique may escape us but not so his contemporaries: "A yellow-bellied courtesan", "A female gorilla made of india-rubber outlined in black", “the Queen of Spades after her bath", were some of the comments made after its first exposition at the Salon des Refusées exhibition, the last, needless to say, being a racist comment.


Writers have similarly parodied the work of others, but some have gone so far as to take the words off the page of others in a deliberate effort to create a new work: William Burroughs is one such writer who immediately comes to mind.

I have done the same. I wrote a 5,000-word short story as an exercise in existentialism where I took passages from the works of Henry Miller, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. In effect, it was a collage and, indeed, the main character, who inhabits the skin of his mentors, would insist on being called Henry, Bill or Jack depending on his whim. If it were ever to be published, I would, of course, acknowledge the action I have taken and reference the passages I lifted – though not directly, as half the fun in reading it is to identify what has come from where.

Shakespeare Baffled

Playwrights of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would be puzzled by the fuss; they constantly took wholesale earlier works of others to rewrite and pass off as their own.

T. S. Eliot in his critique of Hamlet, ‘Hamlet and His Problems’, from The Sacred Wood, ascribes the problem of the leading character, as he sees it, arising from the manner in which the play had passed from hand to hand until it arrives at the quill of Shakespeare. By now, what started life as a simple story of revenge, becomes ‘a play dealing with a mother’s guilt upon her son’, [p83] with the effect ‘Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion that is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear’. [p86]

Do we own our ideas?

My favourite aphorism of earlier days would be to say, God had the original idea and man has copied ever since. And I stick by the sentiment. We are all consciously or unconsciously influenced by the world through which we wander, and, inevitably, these thoughts pass into our own works.

The Statute of Anne, 1710, was the first law to establish the notion of copyright. It is, of course, a determinedly capitalistic concept, and this idea of ownership, to my mind, is the textual equivalent to the enclosure, or inclosure, of the common land in the Tudor period.

Anyone who has read The Golden Ass, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Boccaccio’s Decameron will recognise the common thread to many of the stories told. Before Claxton first established his press, when the oral tradition persisted, and which still does so in Africa and elsewhere no doubt, tales were passed on to be elaborated by the individual storyteller, the most famous being Shahrazād in The Thousand Nights and One Night: there was a common ownership of plot and character. Even now I believe this to be true, for, in a sense, plot and character arise out of the actions and personality of common humanity, and sometimes I find it difficult to understand how any individual can claim possession.

But I suppose we all need to earn our bread.

(Damn - I have read this several times and still find typos!)

1 comment:

Kingsdowner said...

A plagiarism o' both your houses? I expect that phrase has been used before as well!

When did good old retelling a story, or singing an old song, become plagiarism? When the copyright laws were drafted?