Monday, November 22, 2004


Plagiarism article

I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell's interesting essay on plagiarism in the New Yorker. It's definitely worth a read, though I still haven't reached settled judgments about it. But I've promised myself that this blog is open to unsettled judgments, so here goes ...

Gladwell's comparison between musical plagiarism and verbal plagiarism is a provocative one. Musical borrowing, as he points out, happens all the time, and the history of music is the better for it. What we call "the blues" is really a series of chord changes that has been beautifully pilfered countless times. One could certainly make a case that this pilfering was often literal: widespread commercial success did not come to the blues until it was performed often by white musicians, to the material loss of the original African American musicians who created the music. So one could argue, I suppose, that there are structural problems of "theft" and inequity built into "the blues." But if we took the same view of "intellectual property" in music that we do when it comes to words, then "the blues" would never have been copied into innumerable psychadelic rock songs and classic jazz standards. Indeed, part of the magic of "the blues" is creative copying. And although Gladwell doesn't point it out at length, so is the magic of jazz. The bebop genre was essentially formed around creative uses of the same chord changes from "I Got Rhythm."

What is true of blues and jazz is true of most music--if you listen hard enough to any song, you can almost always hear bits and pieces of other songs. Gladwell gives a few examples, but more could be offered ad infinitum. But if our intuitions are that this is acceptable in music, our instincts go in the opposite direction when it comes to the written word. This is despite the fact that phrases and cadences that are now commonplace in our ordinary language were coined by some person at some point in time. Who said "point in time," a phrase that had to have been invented relatively recently because the idea of there being points in time is itself an idea of recent coinage. And who first thought of phrases being "coined"? Someone said it first: did I just plagiarize him or her?

Obviously, no. But it's less obvious why. I'm not talking here about legal and professional definitions of plagiarism. If I were, then it would arguably be easier to decide whether I plagiarized or not. Instead of offering clear guidelines for detecting plagiarism, Gladwell's article made me think about the larger question of how snippets of language and words insinuate themselves into our writing, just like "I Got Rhythm" pops up all the time in jazz. It would be impossible to trace these snippets back to their original authors, even though in many cases there must have been an original author. There must be a threshold, determined largely by time, that determines when a phrase or a way of writing is in the "public domain." (I don't have to track down who first said "public domain," for instance.) But even this threshold is hard to define.

Our urge to define the threshold is also a relatively recent phenomenon in history. In the early nineteenth century, there were clearly concepts of intellectual property and conventions of attribution, but there were also much more fluid understandings of what phrases were borrowed, or simply commonplace, and what phrases belonged uniquely to a particular writer. You can "hear" the same kinds of chord changes all the time in antebellum newspapers, for instance, just as you can pick out "rhythm changes" in Charlie Parker's tunes. And attempts to fix those chord changes to a particular author are often fruitless.

For example, who said "government of the people, by the people, for the people"? Lincoln, right? Well, yes, but Theodore Parker had also said before Lincoln that the "great political idea of America" is "a government of all, for all, and by all." At the end of the first volume of his Parker biography, Dean Grodzins thus credits Parker with coining the phrase that was immortalized in the Gettysburg Address. But a Hungarian historian I read recently, Steven Bela Vardy, credits Lajos Kossuth, the great Hungarian revolutionary, as Lincoln's inspiration. In 1852, while touring the United States, Kossuth said democracy was "All for the people, and all by the people. Nothing about the people, without the people," a construction that Vardy says was "borrowed in a slightly altered form by President Lincoln." It's not impossible: Lincoln was a fervent admirer of Kossuth during his tour, as was Parker. But how could such a question really be settled? And how would we set the bounds for the questioning? (Who first started referring to "the people" with a definite article? And how far back in the Western canon can we trace the habit of stringing the prepositions "for," "by," and "of" together?) Wouldn't answering these questions be like trying to figure out who first "said" the blues?

Collective Improvisation:
One thing that grabbed my attention was Gladwell's inclinations towards aesthetics. He liked Lavery and her play, which was "good art", and that made it, almost, ok. Would he have been so charitable if a Lifetime Original Movie had ripped his words?
As for musical borrowings, one can go back since Bach and see phrasings, chords and fugues being used over and again as challenges, homages and improvements.
So, my question is whether plagiarism in the public space should be up to the artist to determine? Do whistleblowers and corporations(copyright holders) needlessly drag the law in, causing precedence to become the primary focus?


Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 11/23/2004 05:34:00 PM : Permalink  

I think you're right about Gladwell's aesthetic bent. But I didn't take him to be saying that all legal definitions of plagiarism ought to be done away with. Rather, he was reflecting on how difficult it is to explain the cultural impulses behind those laws: why do we hold music to different standards than the written word, or do we?

I also don't want to imply in my post that precedence is not a good legal guideline for copyright law. Yet I would contend that if the basic reason why plagiarism is illicit is the fact that something is borrowed, then it is hard to see how one can even write a paragraph without plagiarizing. Language is a tangled knot of borrowings; it has to be if we think that word meaning is tied to word use. But that thought is, like Gladwell's, intended to be purely reflective. I do think we need intellectual property laws, however hard they might be to define, and I do think plagiarism, as laid down by legal and professional conventions, is wrong.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 11/23/2004 08:07:00 PM : Permalink  

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