< Cribbing Through the Ages


Friday, March 19, 2010


Our friend Mike Pesca, erstwhile OTM producer, now NPR correspondent, wrote about the stealing of words when he was co-hosting the show a few years ago. The references are a bit dated, but his point still stands – plagiarism is eternal.

ACTOR: Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?

MIKE PESCA: Today we end with the Bard, or a least, a bard, because that was Christopher Marlowe writing about Helen of Troy. This is Shakespeare, writing about Helen of Troy.

ACTOR: She is a pearl, whose price hath launched above a thousand ships

MIKE PESCA: Marlowe.

ACTOR: Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia. What, can ye draw but 20 miles a day?

MIKE PESCA: Shakespeare.

ACTOR: And hollow pampered jades of Asia, which cannot go but 30 miles a day.

MIKE PESCA: Marlowe died before any of those Shakespearean plays were written. Some people, such as the producers of the PBS special from which those clips were lifted, have concluded that the similarities mean Shakespeare was Marlowe. The less radical interpretation is that Shakespeare was a plagiarist. Such a charge in Elizabethan England would result in scratched heads, and not just because of the prevalence of lice. Back then, plagiarism was no big deal. Fair was foul, and foul was fair, as Shakespeare probably stole from Ben Johnson. Aristotle stole from Democritus. Homer stole from folklore. Virgil stole from Homer. The point is getting one's papyrus in a twist over plagiarism is a relatively recent phenomenon. This week alone, University of Colorado professor and 9/11 victim antagonist, Ward Churchill, was found to be a plagiarist. And an NBC producer writing about the Kentucky Derby stole not just a phrase, but the idea of repeating the phrase after a pause, [PAUSE] after a pause. Of course, the most picked-over case is that of Harvard freshman Kaavya Viswananthan, who got half a million dollars for writing How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, a book that had the unfortunate quality of having already been written. A reading from Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Seconds:

READER: But in a truly sadomasochist dieting gesture, they chose to buy their Diet Cokes at Cinnabon.

MIKE PESCA: And, from Opal Mehta:

READER: In a truly masochistic gesture, they had decided to buy Diet Cokes from Mrs. Field's.

MIKE PESCA: As a truly sadomasochistic gesture, I can read to you a couple dozen more of those parallelisms but then I'd ruin the literary experience. Suffice it to say, the outrage against the teenaged author was swift and furious, and deservedly so. She, James Frey, Jason Blair, cheats and liars all, a pox on all their houses - Shakespeare, but probably also John Webster. Of course, journalists, who have bylines, tend to be more aggrieved by instances of plagiarism than the layman. The consumer probably has an Elizabethan mindset about all this. No big deal, because when you think about it, how can the layman possibly keep up? Can he watch a TV report and definitively say it was written by the on-screen correspondent or by an off-screen producer? Can he watch a movie and be sure the credited screenwriter wrote the lines, or was it one of the dozen scribes who punch up every script? And that DJ's beat, his own or a KC and the Sunshine Band track from the ‘70's? None of those things are theft, but it convinces the consumer that a byline might just be a vestige of a bygone era. The last big institution holding the line against plagiarism is the Academy. Doris Kearns Goodwin seriously hurt her status as a historian when she plagiarized, but as a television commentator and author of page-turning biographies, we can forgive her trespasses, to quote the King James Bible, which was written by a team of writers stealing from God! I predict that in 20 years, whatever version there is of Wikipedia will refer to plagiarism as a short-lived concept in the history of communication. Eventually, the open source reference guide will say, “Plagiarism, once seen as a dire pitfall, came to be discounted as a sin. Eventually, plagiarists were treated like hack comics. You can steal a joke, but you can't steal a career." And you can quote me on that, or feel free to pass the thought on as your own, especially if I'm wrong.