I’m about halfway through The Best American Essays 2008 and am greatly enjoying it. There are some stunningly good essays in the collection, and even the ones that aren’t stunningly good are still entertaining. There’s one on a lesbian wedding that I liked and one on how often great and famous quotations aren’t quoted correctly — the phrase “nice guys finish last” was originally “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place,” but the longer phrase was shortened to make a better headline.

I also really liked Jonathan Lethem’s essay on plagiarism called “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Lethem argues that our copyright laws are too strict. All art is essentially borrowing and we should be encouraging the free movement of art and ideas rather than trying to turn them into property and to increase profits from them as much as possible.

These aren’t the most original ideas in the world, but, it turns out, that is kind of the point. I enjoyed reading the essay because about halfway through it I decided to flip to the end to see how long the essay was and I noticed some interesting-looking endnote-type things there, although there weren’t any endnote numbers. I looked a little more closely and realized that the endnotes explained where he got his material from — and that much of the essay was plagiarized. I just now looked over the essay to write about it and realized that the essay is subtitled “A Plagiarism.” A big clue I missed, right?

That made the essay even more fun to read because from that point on, I kept flipping back and forth to see what was original Lethem and what was plagiarized. I had to laugh at myself for really liking a certain line that I later found out is plagiarized from the introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, something I’ve read multiple times and should have remembered:

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of the void but out of chaos.

That’s a good sentence to steal for my class on creativity, I think.

Lethem has taken big chunks of text from lots of different sources; I don’t really know what percentage of the essay is from other people, but that percentage is pretty high. But the essay isn’t really plagiarized, obviously, since he documents where his quotations come from pretty carefully. He also says the whole idea of writing a “collage text” isn’t new to him — of course.

One of the most interesting ideas in the essay is about how art participates in a gift economy, in addition to the market economy — the economy we are used to thinking of where things are bought and sold. The difference between the two is that “a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.” We buy things and feel no connectedness to the salesperson, but when we receive a gift, there is an emotional connection between us and the giver.

Art participates in both these economies at once — it can be bought and sold, obviously; we buy books, tickets to plays, and paintings to hang on our wall. But it also means something to us beyond that:

Art that matters to us — which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience — is received as a gift is received.

The way art participates in both kinds of economies is complicated, but what it means is that while art is a commodity, it can’t be fully reduced to a commodity. The problem with copyright laws as they exist now is that they push art too close to commodity status and try to negate the gift element of it:

But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. I don’t maintain that art can’t be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising.

Interesting, isn’t it? Should I give Lethem credit for these ideas? Who knows.


Filed under Books, Essays

17 responses to “Plagiarism?

  1. I’ve heard about this essay before and admit that I think it sounds kind of cute if a bit gimmicky!


  2. Edd

    Dorothy W.,

    I find your post and Jonathan Lethem’s take on plagiarism very interesting also as I am now trying to teach my fourteen year-old the meaning of plagiarism as we now define it. He just completed a complicated Science Fair project and now is wrestling with the correct terminology in his write-up.


  3. zhiv

    Cool stuff. I have a couple of reading buddies who are big Lethem guys, through some kind of Berkeley connection, and I know I should be getting started on reading his work. Funny you should mention the “gift economy,” as I just came across something similar for the first time, a statement about a giving-based female economy, versus a hoarding-based male economy. Kind of struck me.


  4. I remember once being struck by a quotation about writing that said, roughly, there’s nothing new under the sun, what matters is what you do with the ideas you steal. If only I could remember it more closely, I could look it up, but you get the idea. I keep thinking about how much work it must have been to find and thread through the essay all those quotations – it would have been quicker for him to write it himself! 😉


  5. I should look up that essay. We just had a HUGE university wide copyright conf. It is the topic of the moment at work!


  6. We are always talking about copyright at work and school and while copyright law gets rather tedious, it is important to know about because it has very wide-reaching affects. I agree with Letham that our current copyright laws are bad and I find the collage method of his argument amusing, clever and to the point. What a good essay!


  7. The essay probably took him some effort to produce, so he has added something to the process, but it seems empty if his only point is to try to rationalize plagiarism. Naturally a balance needs to be struck somewhere, but if we are going to adopt others ideas, it is something different from merely copying their words. Once we’ve digested the ideas which we believe, I would expect that we could find a way to express them in our own words.

    Another thought about how to assign value to things. I thought about teaching English lessons for ‘free’ and just having a tip jar out for people to put in what they felt appropriate. A true ‘gratuity’ system. Would it attract the free-loaders? Would it attract volume because of its kind sense?


  8. That’s very interesting. Is there a distinction made between borrowing phrases for art’s sake and copying for your own personal gain (like plagiarizing on an essay)? I can understand “supporting” plagiarism for the former, but not really for the latter…

    I wonder what Lethem thinks of copyright laws and their lifespan. Does he think art (and subsequently literature) should be offered as freely as possible? Does he look at this in the essay?


  9. Two things come to mind after reading your post: first, I hate that we cannot quote one line of poetry or song lyric in a book w/out having to pay enormous permission fees. How many people miss the beauty of the exact words in a line, because an author-critic-scholar must paraphrase in order not to infringe copyright? If a student were to read the exact lines, perhaps they’d be intrigued enough to find, and buy, a copy of the poet’s work or songwriter’s CD. If we are allowed to quote <300 words of prose, why not at least one line of poetry?

    Secondly, I am intrigued about the idea of the dual economies of art. I had a small art work commissioned for SOC for Christmas. I paid the artist of course, but the process as well as the finished product, was so personal and full of meaning, that it was a gift for all three of us, I think. That is very different from those who have a decorator buy something to hang on the wall to coordinate with the sofa; my point is that maybe a piece of art is a gift or a commodity depending on the intentions of the buyer. Fun ideas to contemplate — thank you!


  10. I love the ideas Lethem is working with here. I strongly agree that copyright laws have gone too far, and articulating art as belonging to an economy of gifting is a useful way to approach the quagmire that is copyright issues. His collage approach is amusing, too! It’s kind of a meta-level that not even the idea of constructing an essay in that fashion is original with him…very clever.


  11. From a pragmatic point of view, let’s just see the financial component as the reward for the creator of that piece of art. While some may not need it, others, and I bet a whole lot others, need that ‘reward’ to buy bread and pay for the roof over their heads. Copyright laws could be loosened if these creators are given bread and lodging as gifts.


  12. I remember when this looked like it might become a big deal to the blogging world, when authors started questioning whether it was acceptable for bloggers to quote lines and use jacket photos without permission (2 years ago maybe). Then I think someone realised this would kill book blogging and end that free line of promotion.

    I really like Cory Doctrow’s approach to copyright and plagarism where he’s happy for anyone to translate his work, make fan art, base other forms of creativity on his books as long as it’s not done for commercial gain. He’s also really oppossed to this ‘you don’t own an ebook, you license it’ nonsense which means that if one day your ebooks disappear you have to pay to buy them again, you can’t pass on your copy without passing on your own digital reader etc.


  13. Steph — I guess I don’t mind something that’s gimmicky, if it’s done well, and this one certainly is. It’s a great way to make his point using more than one method.

    Edd — I teach students about plagiarism all the time, and it’s such a tricky subject. Lethem’s essay certainly shows just how tricky it is. It sounds like your 14-year-old is learning some valuable things!

    Zhiv — I suppose I’m not fond of the gender distinctions associated with the different economies, but still the distinction between gift and market economies was a useful one to think about, particularly since they aren’t mutually exclusive. Lethem handles the ideas well. I’ve listened to The Fortress of Solitude, although I’ve heard Motherless Brooklyn is his best.

    Litlove — I know, the essay was surely a lot of hard work! He said he frequently revised the phrasing of the things he stole, which means even more work. A lot of times the students I catch plagiarizing seem to have done more work than it would take to write the paper (which tells me it may be more about lack of self-confidence than about laziness). I really love the idea that what matters is what you do with ideas you steal, because that makes creativity seem less scary or inaccessible.

    Amanda — I hear a lot about it at work as well. It’s justifiably a huge deal as it matters so much for the kind of work we do.

    Stefanie — yes to the tediousness and to the importance of it! When our librarians talk about what faculty are allowed to copy and show in class, I’ll admit my eyes start to glaze over sometimes 🙂 But the issue really does matter, especially in the larger-scale aspects of it.

    Bikkuri — I don’t think he’s rationalizing stealing other people’s ideas, exactly (he did give his sources credit!), so much as showing how art and creativity work. People use other people’s ideas to create their own, and the art world is harmed when people can’t share ideas freely. Your idea about English lessons would be an interesting experiment! I suspect you would get both free-loaders and people who would pay a good amount.

    Biblibio — he doesn’t really take up the problem of people stealing for their own gain (cheating), but that’s not the subject he’s grappling with. He does have a lot to say about the lifespan of copyright laws and is against their extension. I think he wants artists to be able to profit from their work, but that our current copyright laws have gone too far.

    Debby — absolutely, and Lethem would agree with your point entirely — we should be able to quote poetry and lyrics in order to produce better work and to promote the art itself. Your example of the painting is exactly what Lethem is talking about — it is a commodity, yes, and the artist profited from it, but it’s more than a commodity and has elements of a gift. Lethem says art can participate in both economies at once and I think you are right that the intention of the buyer has a lot to do with how the two economies work.

    Emily — yes, very clever! He’s written a great essay that’s not original at all … but really, it IS original because of the particular way he’s written it. I like the idea that what matters is the personal sense he has made of the ideas, not so much the ideas themselves, which many people have already thought of. I think I would have chosen this essay for the collection too, if I were in charge 🙂

    Arti — Lethem isn’t arguing that people shouldn’t make money from art. He says that art is a commodity that can be bought and sold, which means that artists make money. But it’s also more than a commodity and shouldn’t be reduced to a commodity. I don’t know for sure, but my sense is that the way copyright rules have been extended in recent years doesn’t benefit the artist so much as publishers or others who make money off it. The problem isn’t the artist making money while alive, but the copyright extending for too long after the artist’s death.

    Jodie — it’s absurd that bloggers might not be able to quote without permission — I’m glad that argument died out. Aren’t bloggers able to quote short bits under the “fair use” idea, just like other kinds of writers? I think Doctorow’s approach makes sense — it’s in the artist’s best interesting for his/her ideas and work to get discussed and passed around and responded to. The problem, of course, is how to keep people from profiting from it and how to profit from the art yourself.


  14. Copyright is such a messy issue–how do you make sure an artist/creator is compensated adequately and that his/her work is protected, yet that there is also a fair exchange of ideas. This sounds like an excellent essay and how creative in the way he wrote it to show his point (I wish I had that sort of cleverness/creativity)! I’ve pulled my own copy of this collection out and think I will read one of these essays this weekend. Not sure I will tackle the whole book right now, but I think this is a book that can be dipped into at whim.


  15. I like the notion of this clever-sounding essay. And I appreciate the work that had to go into producing it.

    Despite working in the publishing business, I have always had trouble with the notion that the author only owns the copyright to his or her own work, which means nothing, because, basically, once someone agrees to publish it (and what writer doesn’t, really, want to be published?), the real rights, the important rights, the ones that say what can be done with it afterwards and how much money can be earned from it, belong to the publisher, not to the writer. And all that publisher really cares about is making money in the most expedient fashion possible, which sometimes means (as Debby points out) losing money, because whoever owns the rights might decide to charge for one line of a poem, when the place it’s quoted might have inspired sales of many copies of the collection in which it can be found, and more often means losing something that could add real meaning to a new text.


  16. Danielle — you’re absolutely right that the book can be read at whim. I see that you pulled out a volume from this series, which is fun. I love how he made his point here — it’s great to be able to argue about something and demonstrate it at the same time. I’m so not clever that way myself!

    Emily B. — well, I suppose it’s futile to complain about how foolish publishing companies can be, but aren’t they awfully foolish sometimes?? It shows how complicated the market vs. gift economy idea is, because as much as a book might be a gift from author to reader, the book’s status as a commodity causes a whole host of problems sometimes.


  17. I’m not convinced. Yes, all art is derivative and yes, I still love Doris Kearns Goodwin and chalk up the plagiarism charge to sloppy notetaking on her part and those of her assistants, but stealing is stealing.

    I read a book eons ago by Neal Bowers called “Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist,” and I think he does a good job of describing the soul-numbing sense of loss when one’s work is wholesale lifted. Creating one’s own work is work–being influenced and creating a collage is different from lifting and renaming and taking the credit and royalties.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s