Plagiarism doesn't exist

So I have managed to completely avoid what is possibly the worst aspect of journalism in this season: the lazy end-of-year list. Still, you, dear readers, are not going to get off scott free. Oh no, instead of compiling a list of irrelevant factoids I shall now treat you to an example of the internet's own native form of writing: the bizarre rant.

So here we go: plagiarism doesn't exist. And if it does exist, it does so largely in the minds of Americans.

Not strictly true, of course. All around the world academics regularly rail against the Xerox-like characteristics of the Smurf-brained intellectual delinquents in their charge and the corporate entertainment complex is rather priggish about what it likes to call "intellectual property", a term which surely invites the counter "intellectual poverty". Corporations have profits to protect, so their view on these matters is easy to understand - and fun to dismiss. What is impossible to understand, however, is why, at undergraduate level at least, anyone would want to pass off someone else's work as their own. Properly cited references will get you the marks you want - neither original thinking nor primary research are required for a BA or BSc degree.

Nevertheless, the last year has been that of the plagiarism scandal. Bloggers have been up in arms about other bloggers not properly citing their entries. Some have excoriated journalists for apparently borrowing from their perpetually beta-stage-bound holy texts.

Much of this occurs in America where, I can only assume, the currency of an new idea is higher than elsewhere.

Not that the UK is immune to copycat hysteria. April of 2006 saw a high court suit against author Dan Brown brought by Michael Baigent and Richard Lee, two of the three co-authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

Baigent and Lee claimed that Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, plagiarised their book, and indeed there are a very many similarities. The only problem was that The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is not a novel - it is marketed as a work of historical fact. As a result, even if Brown had taken ideas from it, the end result would be no different from an author taking ideas from a newspaper story. 

Baigent told the Daily Telegraph that, "It makes our work far easier to dismiss as a farrago of nonsense," an opinion of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail that many independently came to without reading so much as a line of Brown's clunky, cliché-ridden prose.

On the matter of the alleged plagiarism, the judge thought otherwise, if I may quote his hilarious summing-up:

It would be quite wrong if fictional writers were to have their writings pored over in the way DVC has been pored over in this case by authors of pretend historical books to make an allegation of infringement of copyright.

That said, I'm not quite sure what a "fictional writer" is unless the judge meant Luther Blissett.

The whole copying carnival reached its hysterical apogee when a Harvard student, Kaavya Viswanathan, was accused of stealing chunks of prose from another book and reusing them in her debut novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.

As I wrote above, it occurs to me that on one level plagiarism is largely an American, US-only even, concern. Something perhaps connected to that nation's puritan foundation and how that lives on in the collective psyche? Who knows? I'm not going to pursue that particular avenue here. Lazy stereotypes of free-wheeling and incompetent Catholic nations aside (I am Irish, after all), there is something seductive about the notion that only the descendants of up-tight ultra-Protestants could possibly give a fig whether an idea is entirely new, but it seems a tad unlikely to me.

Here's the thing, though - there is no such thing as a new idea. At least, not in the broad "I have invented something that no-one has ever though of" way. As a result, lots of things look, sound and probably even smell rather like other things. 

Moreover, in the realm of graphic design at least, most cases of plagiarism simply do not matter.

Today innovation and invention are increasingly narrow in scope - and, frankly, all too often centred on surface issues alone. Even in the physical sciences important discoveries are increasingly difficult to comprehend without prior specialist knowledge.

There are a number of factors that inform this trend. Firstly, capitalism tends toward specialisation - it's called the division of labour. And for good reason.

As Beardy Carlos tells us:

The division of labour had to be conceived as a major driving force in the production of wealth as soon as labour was recognised as the essence of private property

Nothing Adam Smith would have found controversial (as Marx says: "Adam Smith's argument can be summarised as follows: Division of labour bestows on labour infinite productive capacity.")

Hell, even the late, unlamented Milton Friedman agreed - as the video below demonstrates. 

(For the record, Friedman just didn't think that coercion was worth mentioning in the functioning of a liberal economy - or that it was worth researching where the various constituent parts of a pencil actually do come from. By the way, I'm sure I read that somewhere when I first encountered the video of Friedman - I just can't remember where.)

Secondly, we, as a society, know more today than ever before. It's not that economics has chipped away at grand new ideas, it's largely a result of the fact that we've already discovered most of the really world-changing stuff: the world is a sphere, we orbit the sun, how gravity works and so on. What is important now is an ever-increasingly nuanced understanding of things, the end result of which is knowledge that cannot be understood by a lay person without an appropriate grounding. Despite the jolly phrase, the last man who knew everything most probably died long before Thomas Young was even born.

Doubtlessly there are cases of outright copying out there, but they are not as significant as is often assumed to be the case. 

In design especially, copying and sampling of ideas, texts and images - intentional and unintentional - is not just common, it's a vital aspect of the discipline.

What would graphic designers be without so-called "plagiarism"? The advertising industry, for one, would be in serious trouble. Think of how many times have you seen an advertisement that looks suspiciously similar to a well-known image from another discipline, how many advertisement contain nods and references to popular films and so on.

And then you have fine art. At the risk of alienating my entire audience here, I consider that the relationship between graphic design and art is best thought of as being like that between a vampire and its prey. That graphic design is usually better and more wholly conceived that contemporary art and certainly tends to have superior production values is neither here nor there.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with designers taking ideas from art - or from any other source material. In fact, often it greatly improves design which could otherwise slide quite happily into visual onanism. Once again the advertising industry is the most egregious "offender", though the art world itself does seem to be giving it a run for its money when it comes to proving that culture will eat iself.

Of course, simply stealing someone else's images is wrong, but I would argue that if someone is doing that they're not going to get very far as a designer. Learning from other people's work and from the world around you is central to the entire discipline.

It's not just graphic design, of course, that suffers when people start throwing accusations of plagiarism around. Satire would also cease to exist overnight. Worse still, if corporate attitudes to, cough, "intellectual property" were brought into the academy we would soon find ourselves in a new dark age: plagiarism is the ethical equivalent to so-called copyright "piracy" in academic circles. However, in academia reference to existing scholarly work is not only legitimate, it is essential. Without the ability to reference - and quote from - the work of others, academic writing would cease to exist. In the corporate entertainment world similar use of, say, music would be considered piracy if a recorded sample is used or plagiarism if a passage of music was recreated, even inadvertently.

I could write something about the need to rest perpendicularly on the shoulders of Brobdingnagian individuals, but I'm afraid that the estate of Isaac Newton might not approve.

Yes, yes, citation is everything but are designers supposed to add a series of asterisks and footnotes to posters indicating that they once looked at a photograph by Aleksandr Rodchenko? 

Michael Beirut wrote about his personal experiences of a similar occurrence in "I am a plagiarist" for the Design Observer. It's worth reading.

And what about independently coming to the same conclusion as someone else?

In 2005 much hilarity erupted when it was discovered that Quark's new logo was somewhat similar to that of the Scottish Arts Council. I am not aware of there being any serious accusations of plagiarism in this case and this is why I think that was so: it was transparently not plagiarism.

No offence to the Scottish Arts Council, but in the scheme of things Quark Inc. is a rather more important organisation - at least if you measure these things solely by counting Milton's magic beans (and that seems to be the way of the world these days, so who am I to differ?).

Quark's designers, whomever they might be - like Milton Friedman I'm in no mood to find out - cannot be expected to know every single device used in the world that could possibly bare a resemblance to their own creation, especially ones used by organisations with a purely local focus - it's not as though the Quark logo looked suspiciously similar to that of Royal Dutch Shell.

Maybe you think I'm wrong, doubtlessly most people will. Maybe I just don't like lynch mobs, a phenomenon that is all too common in the internet-based "discourse" on these matters, but I think that there's more to it that that. The idea that some lone genius (cf. nutcase) is sitting in a potting shed somewhere coming up with ideas that nobody else has ever come close to does seem rather unlikely to me.

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