I love the idea of Intellectual Property. I love the concept that what I think and create from the sheer power of my own mind has an innate value, a value I can appreciate not merely from a purely subjective stance but also from a purely objective and empirical, pecuniary standpoint. Even more than the idea of my intellect owning property, I love the reality built into the legal system in the form of copyright law that what I think and write belongs to me and to me alone, until such time I should choose to sell it to someone else. Intellectual Property, and its attendant laws, makes me feel as if I can sit back and look at all the great heaving mass of my writing and feel like I have created something as real, as tangible, and as valuable as a shopping center or an automobile.
As I’ve become more and more comfortable in this new skin of a writer, as I’ve more and more often gotten remuneration for my writing, and as I begin to see my future as a bright and shiny horizon of publication, I have come to take my writing more seriously. It is, after all, not merely the musing of my scattered mind, the emo off-gassing of a burdened psyche, or the busy work of a person who really should be doing something else; it is increasingly my livelihood. More and more, my writing puts food on my table, keeps a roof over my head, and buys me all those DVDs, Frye boots and books I need and love.
Therefore, I take it very personally indeed when I am plagiarized. A person who steals my writing is not merely stealing my words and my ideas; he or she is potentially stealing money from my bank account. A person who plagiarizes—and in the specific case of the plagiarism brought to my attention by an unknown reader last night, she—is doing more than just appropriating something that is not hers; she is also diluting my voice, reducing my ideas with her unethical appropriation, and taking credit for a creation that is not hers.
I recognize the praise implicit to someone stealing my writing. One doesn’t steal stuff that one doesn’t value, not unless one is more into the act of stealing than one is into the actual stolen goods. I know that the woman who lifted my post “so a girl walks into a bar…” did so because she felt impressed by my writing. Nonetheless, it angers me that she stole it, stole it willingly, and stole it so that others would read the post on her blog—edited of some difficult syntax, embellished by ellipses and increased in length by a Sex in the City quote—and think that she wrote as well as me, though she clearly does not. I recognize this blogger’s inherent appreciation of my writing, but it provides only some small cold comfort.
In other cultures, plagiarism doesn’t exist in quite the same way. In some Eastern traditions, notably Japanese painting and print-making, aspiring artists are encouraged to copy, to copy studiously, to copy copiously, and to copy until such time that they have reproduced every nuanced brush stroke with reverence to the original. This, however, is not the tradition of the West.
The tradition in the West, beginning with Hogarth’s Law enacted in England in 1735, a law that sprang from artist William Hogarth’s anger and frustration at having his prints ripped off by every immoral man with a printing press, gives legal weight to the person who created the reproducible art the exclusive rights to reproduce the art. When we sell a piece of art, be it music, writing, or visual, we sell our rights to reproduce it. When a person copies the art without attribution and/or payment, depending on the venue, she does so illegally.
The Internet has complicated copyright law. The Internet is, of course, a hot-and-cold running stream of writing and images. They seem free for the taking, and some of them are. I have no problem if someone uses a paragraph or more from my writing and gives me proper attribution. This kind of borrowing and citation is equivalent to when print writers cite other articles in their own pieces; plus with the immediacy of hyperlinks, my writing gets exposure that it might not get otherwise. If there’s attribution, there’s no copyright violation. If there isn’t, there is. But the Internet is so big, and growing every day, that policing plagiarism is nigh unto impossible.
I can even forgive new bloggers, people who don’t understand how to do hyperlinks, or haven’t been blogging long enough to know that when one borrows, one should give proper attribution. I have taught college on and off for years; teaching Freshmen what is and what is not plagiarism comes with the territory. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn from mistakes.
It’s another thing entirely, however, to not merely make a mistake in attribution but to steal piecemeal and then, as the blogger who plagiarized my piece did, act as if the writing is her own. Responding to comments that praised the writing of the stolen piece, this blogger said that she had “two sides” to her writing, averred that she could “pull out the high-falutin’ vocabulary” when needed, and offered that she “would do more of this kind of editorial writing” if she had more time. The blogger in question is also a thirty-something year-old college student. It’s impossible that she didn’t know that what she was doing was wrong; it is, however, possible that she didn’t think she would get caught.
Plagiarism really hurts me. It makes me red spitting angry. Plagiarism in this Western culture is wrong. It is stealing. It is lying. It is unethical. And it is illegal. It is also a problem that is growing with the bloated urgency of J-Lo’s belly. To that end, let me do a little good and provide three links to help people like me who have found their work stolen, as well as help those of you from having your work stolen.
This link helps you to protect your work from plagiarism: How To Protect Your Website's Copyright When Someone Steals Your Content
And this one, for a small fee, helps you detect if it has been: Copyscape
(The title to this post comes from a common misconstruing of a lyric to "Blinded by the Light" copyright Bruce Springsteen, ASCAP.)