September 8, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)


If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism. If you steal from two, it's research.

Wilson Mizner

Plagiarism is a very special form of lying. It is a lie that only a writer can tell, because it has to be written. What the plagiarist says is that he wrote something when he didn't.

Most writers have unconsciously plagiarized a phrase, sentence and sometimes a paragraph. Helen Keller unconsciously plagiarized a whole poem and was brought to trial for plagiarism. She insisted that she did not do it consciously. One of the factors in her acquittal was than Mark Twain came to her defense. In a letter to Annie Sullivan, the teacher of Helen Keller, Twain said: .....substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. . . . It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone, or any other Important thing -and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite -that is all he did. In 1886 I read Dr. Holmes's poems, in the Sandwich Islands. A year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my "Innocents Abroad" with. Ten years afterward I was talking with Dr. Holmes about it. He was not an ignorant ass -no, not he; . . . and so when I said, "I know now where I stole, but who did you steal it from?" he said, "I don't remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anybody who had."

It's okay, and legal, to use someone else's words in your writing, provided that you tell your reader who the author is. I do this almost every week. Not only is it okay, but it is a complement to the original author. Anyone can use my words, provided they acknowledge my authorship. Recognition is one of the main reasons that writers write.

Congressman Joseph Biden used a whole speech from a British politician, without acknowledgment; not just a phrase or two, but the whole speech. He was caught at it, which not only marked him as a plagiarist and thief, but also as a fool. However, being a liar, a thief and a fool has never been a handicap for a congressman, so he is still in congress. This incident prompted Barry Goldwater to say "If you're going to plagiarize, go way back."

You may have already noticed that almost all of this column was written by someone else, but it is not plagiarism for the simple reason that I have acknowledged the source. Tom Lehrer, in a song about the renowned mathematician Nokolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky, sings(with a Russian accent) "plagiarize! plagiarize! plagiarize! but be careful please always to calling it research."

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