By February 13, 2007 3 Comments Read More →

In Defense of Plagiarism

I spent my whole lunch hour reading Jonathan Lethem’s brilliant essay in Harper’s, “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Well worth a week’s worth of lunch hours, I daresay.

(Do people still say “daresay”? Anyone mind if I do?)

I copied out far too many quotes for fair use, and while the author wouldn’t mind if I reproduced them, I think I’ll take pity on those who are reading this blog not on their lunch hour but on a hurried coffee break:

In the contemporary world, though, the act of "copying" is in no meaningful sense equivalent to an infringement – we make a copy every time we accept an emailed text, or send or forward one – and is impossible anymore to regulate or even describe.

And, from the final courtroom scene, the defense’s dramatic summation:

The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, 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 caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks? 

At Publishers Weekly, Rachel Deahl did a quick Q&A with Lethem (“Lethem on Plagiarism“). Not too insightful (and can we please abolish the term “think piece”?), but this question-mark-free question is at least amusing:

PW: …This makes it sound like you’re, well, okay with piracy.

And if you want to listen to a free copy of Lethem speaking about the issue with some other bright folks (including Mark Hosler of the brilliant Negativland, a band that knows a thing or two about the fine line between satire and restraining orders), visit Open Source. I haven’t listened yet — maybe lunch hour tomorrow.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.