It's easy to become attached to your words, claiming ownership to their arrangement on the page and to the phrases you create. But how much do you really own what you write? How much have you, technically, plagiarised?
Back at the end of 2004, writer Malcolm Gladwell tackled the issue of plagiarism as it pertained to him, having felt that a stageplay called Frozen liberally lifted text from an article he wrote. He initially began his thoughts on plagiarism as most do:
Words belong to the person who wrote them. There are few simpler ethical notions than this one, particularly as society directs more and more energy and resources toward the creation of intellectual property. In the past thirty years, copyright laws have been strengthened. Courts have become more willing to grant intellectual-property protections. Fighting piracy has become an obsession with Hollywood and the recording industry, and, in the worlds of academia and publishing, plagiarism has gone from being bad literary manners to something much closer to a crime. When, two years ago, Doris Kearns Goodwin was found to have lifted passages from several other historians, she was asked to resign from the board of the Pulitzer Prize committee. And why not? If she had robbed a bank, she would have been fired the next day.
Gladwell wrote the author of the play to let her know he felt that she'd stolen his text for use in her work and immediately regretted it:
The truth was that, although I said I'd been robbed, I didn't feel that way. Nor did I feel particularly angry.
[...]On some level, I considered Lavery's borrowing to be a compliment. A savvier writer would have changed all those references to Lewis, and rewritten the quotes from me, so that their origin was no longer recognisable. But how would I have been better off if Lavery had disguised the source of her inspiration?
The question posed here is what do we gain by labelling this kind of quotation as plagiarism? Is it wrong to borrow text from another writer to recreate it in another form? It's become easy to answer yes because we place such a value on our intellectual property nowadays, but it's important to question whether or not that's really a good thing.
We can't really own words, no matter how they're strung together and used. Language exists because we've designed it together. As Stephen Fry points out we turn nouns into verbs and create new words to further language. Although sometimes awkward at first, it furthers the development of the vernacular. New words aren't designed to be used once and forgotten, or cited when borrowed. They're created to communicate more effectively, and if they succeed their place is to be repeated without attribution.
Why should this be any different for full sentences, or even a string of dialogue? We borrow clichés and common phrases in our writing all the time and do it without attribution. Although it matters to no one, this is a direct form of plagiarism. Yet in Gladwell's case, where a playwright borrowed some of his words to adapt them for the stage, it's considered more of an offence. The only real difference is that Gladwell was published and, by being published, he claimed ownership of his writing. After making that claim of ownership he came to realise the problems associated with doing so. Plagiarism isn't a net that ought to be thrown over every reference to one's work.
All of this is not to say that plagiarism should be ignored in all instances, but that we cling too closely to our words. The idea that they're our words, in general, is problematic. Words belong to everyone, and we ought to be more liberal in how we allow them to be used. Just don't actually steal other people's work and things should work out just fine.
This post makes reference to a Malcolm Gladwell article called Something Borrowed. While originally written in 2004, it was republished more recently in his latest book What the Dog Saw. If you've never read his work, you should go check it out. Something Borrowed [Malcom Gladwell]