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Justifying Plagiarism. Good God, What’s Next?

I read a Week in Review piece last night in the New York Times.

It made me sick.

Here’s the thumbnail. Many creative endeavors are done in a collaborative way (screenplays, agency work etc.). But writing remains largely a solitary craft. We expect the creation that we consume to be the author’s and his or her alone.

When it’s not…we call it plagiarism.

Which is a fancy way of saying: hey slimebag, you just cheated.

And, in general, it really pisses people off.

(Note the James Frey fiasco and even our beloved historian David McCullough, both taken behind the proverbial shed.)

But in this article, the New York Times explores the idea that recent author Helene Hegemann–now caught for stealing big chunks of text from a blogger for her new novel–is merely restructuring media for a new creative pursuit.

“A child of a media-saturated generation, she presented herself as a writer whose birthright is the remix; that use of anything at hand she feels suits her purposes, and idea of communal creativity that certainly wasn’t share by those from whom she borrowed.”

The Times even tries to put forth–only for argument’s sake– that Andy Warhol did something similar with his Campbell soup can.

Are they serious? I’m having trouble making the connection.
Hegemann is taking something original and passing it off as her own in the exact same context. How hysterical the idea of Warhol selling chicken noodle to unsuspecting consumers. In a can. With a red and white label.

No doubt, the game of ripping off content is easier than ever before. Surely social networking, blogging, twitter updates and the incredible free flow of content is blurring the lines of authorship and ownership, commentary and creation.

But is that a good reason to throw in the towel?
It seems like a very, very slippery slope we’re on.

Okay, I admit it. I’m judgmental.
I look at the photo, I read the story, and I think:
Isn’t this just the epitome of entitlement? Yet another example where people want the payoff without the persistence that goes with it?

Helene: you. got. caught.
I give you credit for a very, very, very, clever defense.
But you’re guilty.


(Or, folks, please tell me: am I missing something?????)

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Carole Cornell #

    I absolutely agree with you! Used to be that people got in huge trouble for plagiarizing – and now it’s acceptable? Just try selling that to the good Sisters who taught me in Catholic school!

    March 2, 2010
    • I can only imagine how difficult it is for schools (Catholic or otherwise!) to deal with plagiarism. At U. of Virginia, we had to sign every exam, paper etc. with the University Honor Code, which basically included that the work was our own. But you explicitly wrote out the code and signed it every time. You felt incredibly accountable and the weight of the code–as the penalty for violating the code was dismissal. I would hope that Virginia is applying the same stringent standards to plagiarism today.

      March 2, 2010
  2. Patrick McDonnell #

    Great piece Katy. You are correct that there seems to be a dirth of persistence and perserverence. Too many are seeking the route of short-term gratification. Their work usually reflects it! The motto today seems get noticed FOR ANYTHING and someone will pay you for notoriety rather than accomplishment.

    However, we do need to broaden the boundaries of ownership, inventiveness and plagiarism. There are instances where people have taken others’ ideas and improved or enhanced them. They still need to give others credit where credit is due.

    Maybe the Times’ authors should learn proper analogies rather than plagiarism!

    March 2, 2010
    • In terms of enhancing ideas–I saw some discussing about ‘remixing’ of music. There is an area where ownership is broadened–as the new version of the song is typically considered okay. But I guess I have always assumed that licensing rights or other legal structures are accounted for on the back end–therefore, ‘protecting’ and acknowledging the original content. But perhaps that’s not correct?

      March 2, 2010
  3. Mary #

    What amazes me as much as anything is that the plagiarists seem to be incapable of even a modicum of rework of the material, they are thieves and lazy. Maybe it is the new norm though, since even writers who can deliver the goods on their own like Ian McEwan succumb to the temptations of facility.

    March 2, 2010
    • I hadn’t heard the McEwan story. Do tell!

      March 2, 2010
  4. Chris #

    Has David McCullough been accused of plagiarism or of some misquotes? Still bad, but morally a different type of misfeasance: error not intention.

    March 2, 2010
    • Good clarification. You are right:
      “A month later, McCullough was criticized in Harper’s Magazine for writing in “John Adams” that Thomas Jefferson had called the second president a “colossus of independence.” The only problem: Jefferson never said it. McCullough admitted he had erred.” Perhaps not the best example. Although, in the history realm, Doris Keane Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose were both accused of stealing material.

      March 2, 2010
  5. Mary #

    This article link about McEwan gives specific examples of the two works if you click on the “sidebar” link, so you can judge for yourself. McEwan had also had the same charge leveled against him for his first novel “The Cement Garden.”

    March 2, 2010
    • I hadn’t known this Mary–thanks for sharing this great article. Exactly in the same vein as the current conversation…

      March 4, 2010
  6. I’m glad that you brought up Doris Kearns Goodwin: I believe in forgiveness, but, as a former history teacher, it made it awfully hard to convince my students that plagiarism is a serious offense when a person who’s confessed to it is able to continue a career as a best-selling writer.

    March 4, 2010
    • Agree completely. Next on CNN will have news conferences with public apologies from authors for their behavior : )

      March 4, 2010

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