Cases in copycatting


If ‘been there, done that’ is what denotes your immediate response to the plagiarism mention, then you aren’t alone in pleading guilty to an offence that many of us have taken to at some time and in some way irrespective of our absolute knowledge or ignorance of it. For the many different assertions through which plagiarism rules the realm of the creative, or more broadly the intellectual world tend to be both numerous and ambiguous as well as difficult to be ascertained and tricky to be identified. That does not mean of course that one can take advantage of this loosely defined understanding of plagiarism to avail for themselves such gains in identity credibility or in material benefits that might be easy to land indeed but can ruin reputations and thwart prospects not just in its occurrence in the current context but probably for a whole future span of life as well.

Such content that adheres to the ignominy in being plagiarised is indeed no curation in amusement but the first ever case recorded of it in human history definitely happens to be a source of particular intrigue. The ‘beginnings’ itself of plagiarism are a bit eccentric even where there exists no certainty as to the actual origin of it. Perhaps as time tested a practice as old as human civilisation itself should be this idea in assuming for oneself the ownership of a certain thought or articulation or art or verse or whatever residing essentially in a quality of being decent enough to invite citations of it.

The prevailing mode of plagiarism in early times happened to take the more convenient way in word by word relaying of the idea, which endowed upon it a peculiarity of dual dimensions. First, it was plagiarism indeed most evidently and secondly, it wasn’t exactly plagiarism as well since the practice prevailed as one rather common and recommended even. Modern day plagiarism would be often more clever attempts at passing off as one’s own the original work of some other brain. But that does not make our current encounter of this concept any more ambiguous than what it had been in its earlier exhibition of a dual personality. The nature though is different in what renders it not glaringly evident today as against what had been in times past, but for the inescapable reality that has ruled through eternity of adapting to the changing tides of time and plagiarism continues to be as tricky an issue to maneuver as ever.

Returning to the amusing reference from where the identity of plagiarism as a word took shape, we have as far back as the 1st century to go back to, precisely to the year of 80 A.D. when Roman poet Martial chose the Latin word plagiarus meaning kidnapper to refer to one of the many copycats constantly citing his verses in the public domain. Martial particularly had been rather direct in going on to name one Fidentinus in this context of relaying his exact copying of the former’s verses. And thus went the ‘diss’ that Martial directed towards the ‘kidnapper’ of his ideas, whom he chose to address as a ‘miscreant magpie’ instead, to convey not just his displeasure of it but interestingly to suggest also a ‘means’ of how to make use indeed of his vision as originally accruing to Fidentinus instead.

Fame has it that you, Fidentinus, recite my books to the crowd as if none other than your own.
If you’re willing that they be called mine, I’ll send you the poems for free.
If you want them to be called yours, buy this one, so that they won’t be mine.

Interestingly though, a poet himself, Fidentinus was only partaking of a custom that was prevalent at that time which expected indeed to authors and poets to be able to recite such works of others. The idea then held was of the ‘naturality’ of imitation, advocated by none other than Aristotle himself which meant that originality in this intellectual area of assertion would not be a very serious something to hold on to. That might come across as appalling a prospect that one would have to entertain but consider the circumstances that defined those times and the logic behind it would not emerge as so flawed.

In an era and age where technology did not exist to make plagiarism as easy a case in the control+C’s and the control+V’s, the skill that it took indeed to deftly deliver existing specimens in creativity to a greater audience would be commendable enough to compete with the now highly prioritised aspect in originality. One would then wonder, what was it that bothered Martial so much about so prevalent and widely accepted a practice of the times that he lived in that led him to yield his command over the words to have it accruing to himself yet another distinction in definite originality? The answer to this turns out to be even more amusing- and relevant than what one would think it to be.

Hiroshige Van Gogh history of plagiarism
Source: Wikipedia

What concerned Martial regarding the quoting of his work without acknowledgement was not so much an encroaching upon his creative faculties in establishing his credibility as it was in expectations more materialistic. Willing very much to confer his works upon someone’s else’s man was this much practical perhaps creator who made it clear in no uncertain terms to Fidentinus- and by extension to pretty much everyone furthering the same practice- that it was pay that could lead him to happily do away with his scathing commentary on something that wasn’t merely a personal trait of character but explored in fact larger a realm of societal existence.

No matter what his motive might have been in bringing to light such rampant issues in what definitely is plagiarism in some way or the other of its characterisation but we owe indeed to Martial the basis of treating this stealthy stealing of someone’s else’s words and passing off as one’s own as a phenomenon needing indeed to be called out. But it wouldn’t be until several years and centuries later that plagiarism would come to be lain within that domain of dubious distinction where it presently dwells. The shift in notion occurred only in the 17th century, or sometime between the Age of Enlightenment and the Romantic movement that plagiarising other’s works took that frowned upon assertion although it wouldn’t come to be regarded as unlawful yet.

Precisely in the year of 1601 when the word plagiary found first use in English that the foundation was set for this saving grace of creativity to emerge as something worthy of consideration. Attributed to English dramatist and poet Ben Johnson would be the derivative upon plagiarus, with the more definite term plagiarism following in 1620 even though it wouldn’t be for yet another period of more than a hundred years that dictionaries would accord listing to this supremely necessary concept.

What helped this transition of ideas associated with plagiarism from something majorly dismissed to come to chart importance was the growing measure of writing as a form of occupation which therefore essentially had monetary implications attached to it. In this trail of thought, one cannot help but laud the accuracy in which Martial had rose his voice to disprove of the plagiarism idea in monetary terms establishing therefore the eternality of some universal truths that continue to define humankind irrespective of the time and place through which it has been continuing with its identity.

Source: Facebook

Corresponding to the ancient idea in imitation being natural enough a ‘skill’ for humans to possess in varying degrees that which accorded perhaps in fact greater status to those relaying the ideas of others, there emerged a contrasting interpretation of plagiarism as a lowly act in stealing the works of others in whatever capacity and form of them particularly due to the ease in which this act could be carried out. With the advancement of technology, starting from ideas asserted in print to the even more convenient mode in web access to virtually each and every single thing, plagiarism wasn’t any more about extending the area of reception for creativity. It instead is a very easy way in gaining fame as well as in getting work done without putting in actual efforts which is what ruined the not exactly reputed but decent still image of it.

Such morally wrong as well as economically robbing essences in which plagiarism came to be embroiled in also brought upon it the non ethical awareness in considerable chagrins of its employment as a ‘literary device’. Liable to be taken offense at obviously in negating the hard work of so many genuine creators deprived of a portion of their due in terms of identity as well as in earnings and often prevailing rather rampantly and openly even without their exact knowledge while affording for the copiers the riches in those as myriad capacities, threatening also credibility as well as compromising with quality in some cases is this age old practice of plagiarism that however is more relevant than ever in the contemporary times along the alleys of a world equipped with all resources to make it happen.

Interestingly though, it also is these very means and ways that has made plagiarism more affordable that seeks also to disrupt the flow of it. With newer and more and more advanced tools and platforms emerging in helping detect plagiarism very conveniently and most accurately in pinpointing even the exact account of their drawing, this largely unethical, sometimes illegal and rarely criminal ‘tradition’ long believed as obligatory for humankind might be up against some serious retaliation. But will it cause the tendency to plagiarise wane by also expanding equally the prospects of it? Or will its intention be even furthered by drawing upon such interesting world view as ‘originality is undetected plagiarism’? Amusing indeed we see, much like it has always been!