Thursday, July 7, 2011

Does plagiarism matter?

I have noticed that writers get extremely hot under the collar when they suspect somebody of plagiarizing their work in some way. And I always wonder why. It seems to me that all the words of all the writers we have read echo within us for a long time without our realising it, and of course this is particularly true of the oft-repeated sayings of famous writers. I don’t think any of us would now write “to be” without hearing the echo of “or not to be” in our heads. And I was pleased to read the following yesterday in a book I bought at Stratford-upon-Avon after I had watched that marvellous actor, Patrick Stewart, re-create Shylock for me in The Merchant of Venice in a totally absorbing new way.

“Scholars have long and fruitfully studied the transforming work of that (Shakeseare’s) imagination on the books that, from evidence with the plays themselves, Shakespeare must certainly have read. As a writer he rarely started from a blank slate; he characteristically took materials that had already been in circulation and infused them with his supreme creative energies. On occasion, the reworking is so precise and detailed that he must have had the book from which he was deftly borrowing directly on his writing table as his quill pen raced across the paper.” (Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World, Pimlico 2005, p 13)

I think Shakespeare would be flattered if he had realised how deeply his words have scored us. Inevitably, then, the chances of our inadvertently including some figure of speech into our writing, some juxtaposition of colouring or shape into a painting or some musical expression into a composition, all garnered from other writers, painters or composers, are extremely high, so high indeed that I was told that Andrew Lloyd Webber is so frightened of copying somebody else’s work that he refuses to listen to other people’s music for a time as he composes. I don’t know how true this anecdote is, but it certainly illustrates the fear that we may be accused of somehow not being original.

This has never worried me, since I am always happy to acknowledge my own debt to all the many writers I have ever read. Only a few days ago I heard the cadences of William Faulkner’s idiosyncratic and beautiful prose in a sentence I wrote. I know that behind every sentence of mine lie banked up many thousands of others’ writings which have each in their differing ways created the foundation upon which I build up my own thoughts in words. I am also flattered, rather than dismayed, if I find, as I do, echoes of my own words in other people’s writings, particularly in my field of acupuncture. One such incident comes to mind. When I started my acupuncture school in the mid-90s, I coined the, to me, happy and thought-provoking phrase, “An ancient form of healing for a modern world” to describe what we did, then took it as a compliment, rather than as something worrying, when another acupuncture college a few years later used nearly the same words in their promotional material.

I think thought should be free wherever this is reasonable, not circumscribed by lawsuits and trademarks. I suppose this depends on the level and amount of copying and the purposes to which it is being put. A student cutting and pasting large chunks of other people’s writings without adding anything of their own and without acknowledgement is obviously one thing. A writer echoing a few words or cadences of speech in an entirely new creation is quite another.

Somebody recently asked me whether I had protected the translation of my Handbook in its Chinese edition with enough copyright safeguards. I have done what I have been told is sensible to do, but if by some chance some publisher somewhere, perhaps in one of the far-flung countries, such as Indonesia or Venezuela, which read my blog, decides to bring out an uncopyrighted edition of any of my books, I think that I might say, “Good luck to them”, rather than pursuing them, usually fruitlessly, with the law. At least in this way more people will read the books, and what I may lose in money (and there is little enough, if any, money to be made in publishing these days), I will gain in readers, surely the aim of all writing.

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