Plagiarizing?

Anna Clare McDuff amcduff at math.sunysb.edu
Thu May 15 05:06:40 EDT 2003


On Wed, 14 May 2003 jstallcup at juno.com wrote:

> Those are good questions... I would say with folklore, it's anything goes
> because they are not copyrighted and are in the public domain and they
> make use of such basic story elements.  But if someone used something
> specifically from Garner's use of a folktale, that would be a problem.
>
> Stickier issues for me are using ideas or passages that are in the public
> domain due to the age of the text, but that an individual did come up
> with themselves.  For example, there are passages in Joan Aiken novels
> that are almost word for word out of 18th c novels (bits of Burney's
> Evelina, for example appear in The Smile of the Stranger).  And there's
> Colleen McCullough's use in the Ladies of Missalonghi of Montgomery's
> basic storyline in the Blue Castle.  I've read both, and there's not a
> single line that is the same, but the basic story IS the same.  So, is
> that plagiarizing?  Hard to say.

	I'm not sure. As far as the UK law is concerned ideas cannot be
copyrighted, so a work can be protected by copyright, but the idea behind
it can not. But I think by plagiarise we often mean something a bit more
than a mere violation of copyright, we mean "passing off someone else's
work as our own", claiming that something someone else dreamed up, or was
lolling around in the public domain eating peeled grapes, was our very
own... I think in general I'm willing to assume that even if people don't
diligently list every source for their work, especially when we are
talking about an imaginative work rather than a scholarly work of
research, they are aware that they *have* sources for their work and don't
imagine that they are the world's one & only True & Original Thinker.
Scholarly works of research aren't totally original either, but I think
the rules of the game there are that sources had better be scrupulously
listed and quotations properly attributed or else. Even then I would
probably assume that an omission *was* just a mistake unless claims to the
contrary were made by the author. I mean, I've had student's essays where
the student has nodded off & begun to copy out bits from the source text &
I've just hauled them in & frightened them a bit so they'll learn that
academics Really Care About This Stuff and be more careful in future, but
I don't assume there is malice aforethought involved.

	I think the question of plagiarism only arises when an author
claims that a specific element of their work is totally original & it
isn't. So if JK Rowling ever claimed that she was the very first person to
have written about a young everyboy who has an utterly miserable,
downtrodden life until he discovers he has great powers & is actually a
very special person indeed, I would, when I had finished laughing, begin
to list sources... But I don't have any problems with JK Rowling for
example, because I think it is clear that pastiche, parody, satire &
general riffing on British culture & heritage are a major part of her
books. She's having a lot of fun playing around with these things & I have
a lot of fun reading about it & seeing how she's managed todo with it all
this time. To me a lot of the joy in her books stems exactly from the
point that they didn't just appear out of the blue and they *aren't*
totally original, but variations on many, many themes at once. It *is*
unfortunate & galling though that a lot of children seem to have got the
idea that Rowling Thought These Things Up First, but from what someone was
writing here the other day about overly suspicious students accusing
Rowling of constant plagiarism & Minnow's daughter spotting sources first
go, maybe things aren't so bad after all...

	What you write about Joan Aiken using word for word passages from
old novels does worry me though. It's probably not illegal, but it
certainly sounds a bit unscrupulous, unless she acknowleges her sources or
it is clear she is quoting *someone*... I suppose it could just be a
mistake, rather like a sleepy student forgetting that the phrases that
first spring to mind, spring to mind because they've just read them in
their course reading, but if I was her editor I'd ask some questions... In
a case like that I think I'd like to see at least a thank you to Burney...

	Anna

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