Plagiarism is as American as apple pie.
The discovery this week that passages in Melania Trump’s Republican National Convention speech were lifted from a 2008 speech by Michelle Obama scurried up a storm of complaints, accusations, counteraccusations, and questions about what plagiarism is, what it isn’t, and whether it even matters.
Necessary to any serious conversation about Mrs. Trump’s mistake — or rather, her speechwriter’s mistake (for which the writer has now apologized) — is shaking the dust off our forgotten memories of similar incidents of plagiarism by public figures, from President Barack Obama to Vice President Joe Biden, from Ben Carson to Rand Paul. (No one ever seems eager to recall the plagiarism by Martin Luther King Jr. in his doctoral dissertation.)
But if plagiarism does matter — and as an English professor, it matters to me very much, every working day — it matters in whole, not in part.
Pointing to this historical example or that cultural trend about plagiarism leads only to incoherent and incomplete conclusions about plagiarism within its current place in the history of ideas. Plagiarism, like most things, is best understood within a long evolution of concepts such as authorship, originality, and intellectual property.
The concept of plagiarism is modern — and very American
The concept of plagiarism as we understand it didn’t exist in ancient cultures. Societies in which knowledge came from divine revelation—an Author, if you will — didn’t value individual ownership of words and ideas, as we do now in modern Western civilization.
Consider how Plato recorded the words of his mentor Socrates in a way that makes the two men and their works difficult to distinguish. Or how Greek and Roman mythology share many of the same deities and stories, merely swapping out names and other details. Even the greatest writers of the Renaissance, including Shakespeare, borrowed and adapted freely from other writers, as was the norm. Indeed, current-day debates over the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works merely reflect that era’s lack of concern with originality and attribution.
As one college publisher points out in its plagiarism tutorial for students, "Throughout most of history ‘originality’ has been met with suspicion or disdain, and writers have been scorned as mere ‘scribblers.’" And even now in some non-Western cultures, the understanding of plagiarism we hold to in Western countries doesn’t exist (a cultural difference that’s a tricky and frequent challenge to professors in the college classroom). In such societies, "knowledge-making is not open to everybody as it is in the West," but, just as it was in ancient cultures, "is a privilege belonging to a handful," explains one expert.
The Author is a modern, Western invention, really, and plagiarism exists only as its flip side. It was the invention of the printing press that made the proliferation of original authorship possible. Then Descartes’s declaration, "I think, therefore I am," bestowed greater importance on individual experience — and expression — and the conditions were created for the author to emerge: the rise of the individual and of print culture. Both print culture and the modern concept of the individual helped replace the Author with authors.
Not coincidentally, the Author was invented by the same force that helped give birth to America: literacy. With its ability to foster ideas and empower individuals, literacy both fostered and was fostered by the pamphleteering that promoted democratic ideals from religious liberty to the Rights of Man.
In the first years of print culture, printers paid writers for their work, and all proceeds for sales went to the printer. This meant that an author could make as much writing anonymously (and in years of civil unrest, better avoid imprisonment or execution, too), so authorship and therefore plagiarism weren’t important at first.
In the years leading up to the Revolution, what we would now consider plagiarism was as rampant as taxes on tea. In his article "How Plagiarism Made America," Todd Andrik describes what print culture was like in that early stage before the principles of copyright and intellectual property had emerged:
Without professional writing staffs of journalists or correspondents, eighteenth-century newspaper printers relied heavily on an intercolonial newspaper exchange system to fill their pages. Printers often copied entire paragraphs or columns directly from other newspapers and frequently without attribution.
Thomas Jefferson, plagiarist?
We can actually witness the notion of plagiarism emerging historically in a contemporary controversy surrounding the founding documents of our nation. Some of Thomas Jefferson’s peers accused him of plagiarizing parts of the Declaration of Independence, and while these charges have carried down through history, scholars generally agree that Jefferson did not actually plagiarize. Written when print culture was still in its infancy, these suspect lines from the declaration perfectly illustrate the gray area that persisted as the oral culture finally gave way to print culture.
Within the context of the times, one scholar explains, Jefferson’s aim was merely to synthesize widely circulating ideas that were increasingly held in common. Liberty was, after all, in the air, even across the pond. Originality was neither Jefferson’s goal nor anyone else’s expectation. Without the expectation of originality for its own sake that is so valued today, there was really no possibility of plagiarism. But this controversy does offer a historical marker: With the founding of America, originality would come to reign.
The US Copyright Act of 1790 codified originality as an American value. According to the Association of Research Libraries, this law, passed by the first Congress, "was meant to provide an incentive to authors, artists, and scientists to create original works by providing creators with a monopoly." Where originality is a virtue, theft of intellectual property becomes a vice.
By the 19th century, the line between imitation and plagiarism was taken seriously enough that Edgar Allan Poe, in an essay called, "Mr. Longfellow and other Plagiarists," accused fellow poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of crossing it.
Originality is a quintessentially modern value. A society like the one found in America, one founded on ideals that emphasize the individual over the community, uniqueness and creativity over tradition, progress over preservation, and exceptionalism over globalism, will naturally also value ownership, including that of intellectual property. Plagiarism goes against all these ideals. (On the other hand, notably, there is no plagiarism in the world of George Orwell’s 1984.)
Ironically, I’ve found in nearly three decades of teaching college students that a misguided belief in the primacy of originality over research and scholarship is the root of much of their plagiarism. Students mistakenly think that citations make their work look inferior when, in fact, evidence of studying authorities makes their work better — much better. Politicians (and their speechwriters) seem increasingly prey to this same kind of thinking.
However, the same technologies that make research more easily accessible to more people also make both plagiarism and its detection easier as well.
How digital technologies make plagiarism easier to commit — and easier to detect
Furthermore, as we slip, according to some formulations, from the modern age to a postmodern age, the role of the author will likely go the way of the Author in society. In fact, one central tenet of postmodern literary theory is the so-called "death of the author," which, among other things, erases the significance of an author’s identity, background, and context in the interpretation of a text. (Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 absurdist play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, illustrates the idea brilliantly.)
Now with the growth of the World Wide Web and its increasing emphasis on curation and collectivism over creation, ownership of intellectual property may become less important. And with that, citation and attribution, too.
Whether or not this erasure of the author happens — and with it concerns about plagiarism — will depend on how we respond to the recurring incidents of plagiarism in our midst. Despite the various methods and forms now used for citations across disciplines and forums, the essence of plagiarism is the same: presenting material from others as if it were your own. While a culture’s expectations about how to use others’ material may change, using that material in a way that opposes that community’s standards is, ultimately, a form of theft and deceit.
That is a sin in every society.
Fortunately, where there is the concept of sin, there is also the concept of repentance. And forgiveness.
Plagiarism — like all sin — happens all too easily. But when public figures are guilty (not only the writers or staff who act in their stead), they must own it. It's the American way.
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University, a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions—The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.