Wish I’d Said That

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com

I recently read a review of a movie about a frustrated, wannabe poet who discovers a literary prodigy in her kindergarten class.  Driven by envy and a desire to impress, she represents the five-year-old’s original verses as her own.  It started me thinking about plagiarism, a vice that’s been around since ancient times.  “I wish I’d said that” must be one of the oldest, most oft-repeated sentences in the language.

In this Internet age, young people have taken to poaching other people’s content in record numbers in spite of software that promises to detect copycats.  The prevailing attitude seems to be that information wants to be free, originality is overrated, and who cares anyway?  Boosting a few bits here and there is as easy as Control + C, Control + V.  And it’s not just the kids who are helping themselves to the intellectual output of others.  The University of Oregon handbook that warns students against plagiarism was copied from the Stanford handbook.

In ancient Rome, a plagarius was a kidnapper who lay in wait to steal away unsuspecting children in his plaga – or net – and sell them as slaves.  The word acquired fresh meaning when a disgruntled poet named Martial accused another poet of kidnapping his poems and passing them off as his own.  A plagarius thus became a literary thief, although stealing other poets’ words wasn’t frowned upon by anyone but Martial for several hundred years.  Shakespeare filched from Plutarch, Milton from Masenius, Lawrence Sterne from Robert Burton, and Oscar Wilde stole shamelessly from everyone.  But by the middle of the 18th Century books began to be mass-produced, there was money to be made, and authors grew touchy about pilferers – particularly if the pilferer profited off another writer’s hard work.  In 1601 Ben Jonson called one such word-napper a plagiary and by 1755, the word had found its way into English dictionaries.

“That was an awfully witty remark you made last night. I wish I could say it was mine.”
“You will, my boy, You will.”

Writers tend to think of their books as their children and when their children are kidnapped, they get riled.  Thomas Mallon wrote a fascinating book about the history and psycho-pathology of plagiarism called Stolen Words.  In it he says, “The real mystery of writing, like all forms of creativity, is that we don’t know what makes it happen.  Where did [the author] find the words?  We marvel over an arresting passage.  More rare, and therefore more shocking, are those moments when we come upon a paragraph and can say…I know where he got that!

In Colin Dexter’s The Wench Is Dead, Inspector Morse experiences just such a shock.  Morse is in the hospital recovering from a bleeding ulcer and the wife of a recently deceased patient gives him a book about a murder that occurred on the Oxford Canal in 1859. As the mystery unfolds, his attention snags on the phrase “conjecturally damned.”  Instantly, he recognizes it as a crib from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Two little words and ding!  An alarm bell sounds.  Plagiarism.

Morse’s pronouncement struck me as a teensy bit persnickety.  After decades of reading, how many catchy phrases have lodged in the crevices of my brain?  Must I always be wondering, did I make that up or did I absorb it from some long forgotten source?  Mark Twain adopted a more liberal stance.  He thought that if a writer used another’s phrasing unconsciously – “snaking it out of some old secluded corner of his memory, and mistaking it for a new birth instead of a mummy,” the transgression was forgivable.  Subconscious kleptomania happens all the time.  Memory, influence, imitation, sloppy note keeping, cutting and pasting, cryptomnesia – the lines are hazy.  A little two-word echo may not amount to plagiarism, but deliberate copying of entire passages is a serious heist.

Quite a few famous authors have been caught lifting material from others without attribution: Lillian Hellman, Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alex Haley, Dan Brown, James Frey, and Ian McEwan to name but a few.  Bob Dylan appropriated his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature verbatim from the SparkNotes for Moby Dick.  Plagiarism isn’t a prosecutable crime, but copyright infringement is illegal.  It can get a writer sued, not to mention the damage it may do to his reputation.

Writers draw their ideas from a million outside sources and influences, but each of us views the world from a different vantage point and we describe what we see in our own unique words.  T.S. Eliot said, “immature writers imitate, great writers steal.”  It was a glib retort from a writer known for his borrowings and allusions.  Still and all, there’s dangerous ground between wishing you’d thought up a clever turn of phrase and pretending you actually did.  No author wants his brainchild snatched and rechristened by a plagiary.  It ain’t murder, but it could provide a motive for one.