In Defense of Plagiarism (Part 1)

Medieval and ancient authors cheerfully borrowed from one another in a glorious free-for-all. Folk tales were copied, added to, adapted, synthesized — and so were nonfiction works.

The same is true in music. Folk songs were passed down, modified, new verses added. Tunes were repurposed — sometimes for directly opposite ends, as when the tune from “The Battlecry of Munster” became the base for the Irish Protestant song “The Boyne Water,” and later for Dominic Behan’s IRA anthem “Come Out Ye Black and Tans.” (Which is actually a very recent example) No one thought of this as theft.

In the modern era, we have succumbed to the myth of the artist. According to this myth, an artist produces something utterly unique — as we would now say, an “original work.” Our changing conception of the artist’s role can be traced in the changing meaning of the adjective “original.” Initially, it referred to being the source, or close to the source, as in the theological term “original sin.” The meaning here is synonymous with “first;” it doesn’t mean “unique.” Not until the 1600s does the term have the modern denotation of something an artist made up out of his own head, something sui generis, and not until the late 1700s does “original” acquire the modern connotation “new, fresh, exciting” as we would use to describe someone as “an original thinker,” for example.

The modern take on artistry is not necessarily a bad thing as an option — we certainly want to be open to our artists and authors making things up out of their own heads — but under modernity, this understanding is not optional. We have put in place legal and moral structures that make this understanding into dogma. Today, departure from the modern myth of the artist is sin (even though we no longer use that word); it’s heresy. We denounce it in starkly moral categories.

Join me in a little thought experiment, and I think you’ll see what I mean. Suppose that you made up a children’s story about the adventures of an outsized red dog named Clifford and his human family. No publisher would take such a book, of course, but suppose you self-publish it. Norman Bridwell’s estate would join with Scholastic (his publisher) to sue you, and they’d certainly win. But it wouldn’t just be a legal/financial matter. You would be denounced in moral categories as a thief for taking a character that someone else invented and using it in your own story — doubly so if you didn’t even make up your own story, but just embellished one of Bridwell’s existing stories. Suppose the whole affair made national headlines. There would be somber think pieces in venues like Christianity Today about how plagiarism violates the eighth commandment by stealing, the ninth commandment by claiming something is your own when it’s not, and so on.

Now the author who dared commit this heinous infraction would be joining some fairly exalted company. Thomas Mallory certainly did not invent King Arthur, nor the overall story arc. Dante also did the same thing you would be doing, as did Chaucer and Shakespeare and…well, everyone back then. Prior to the modern era, retelling stories was simply a matter of course, and nobody expected a storyteller to have invented it all out of his own head.

But let’s say you were not quite as transparent as all that. Let’s say your animal character is a gigantic blue ox green parrot instead of a gigantic red dog, and you make up your own stories instead of embellishing Bridwell’s. You can probably get away without being sued or overtly accused of theft, but there will be lesser charges: “derivative,” “imitative,” even (ironically) “unoriginal.”

Now, I am not saying you should self-publish your own Clifford stories, or even your own Green Parrot stories (make them about Babe the Blue Ox instead — that should be safe). I am saying that modern people have developed a very peculiar, unduly prickly relationship with source material. Considered across the sweep of human history and culture, we’re definitely the outliers here. We definitely think any other way of doing things is morally wrong — and isn’t that the very definition of provincialism?

That doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to do things our way, and it doesn’t mean that our way has no advantages. It does, in fact. Our way makes it possible to get a return on a really big investment. As one recent observer put it, without modern copyright, we’d still have novels, but probably not summer blockbuster films — who’d put up the money for a $100 million special-effects extravaganza with no hope of return on investment?

However, the fact that we’re the outliers should mean that we can contemplate other approaches without reflexively condemning them all in starkly moral terms. And it does mean we should be willing to interrogate our particular take on things. Are our beliefs about artistry and originality even true? What’s the use case for doing things our way? What are the disadvantages? What situations might call for a different approach, a different set of standards?

Next week I’m going to make the case for one such situation that, even in the modern world, calls for a different approach.

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