We Are all Plagiarists Now!

14 Mar

When I googled “We are all plagiarists now” I got 8 hits.

So the title isn’t original but I kept it anyway.

Incidentally, neither is it plagiarism.

I’m not trying to pass it off as original, so there’s no intent to deceive, although a citation would be good manners*.

It’s not just Lady GaGa who gets hit with charges of plagiarism.

Plagiarism.org wants to prevent it in high schools, which is laudable.

Sites like copyscape.com claim to be able to detect it, I have no idea how well it works, but I’m pretty sure no one can detect paraphrasing.

Writers have always stolen from each other.

Hence when Oscar Wilde remarked, “I wish I had said that”, Whistler famously quipped “You will Oscar you will”.

To stop it getting out of hand, there’s an unwritten rule.

You can steal the idea, but you can’t steal the phrase.

It’s a bit unfair if you ask me.

If Duchamp can hang a urinal and get away with it, why can’t I nick a page of Ogilvy, re-print it in a different typeface and color and take the credit?

Critics could say, “The exquisite combination of chartreuse and Van Doesburg sheds new illumination on the subjunctive clause.”

The Flarf movement approaches this, by turning found language mostly from the internet, into random poetry which is sometimes funny, sometimes bad, and usually forgettable.

A description which also applies to the output of most agencies — appropriate perhaps when the Flarf type mash up is not unknown to advertising.

In fact, the unwritten rule of advertising is that you can steal from a movie, book or just about anything as long as you don’t steal from another ad.

The principle at stake beneath this smidgeon of idealism is real.

It is — that originality sells.

So finding that sliver of originality appropriate to your client and their product is the holy grail of advertising.

However, I think the internet is changing our notion of originality, from what we might call pure originality of the lone genius in an attic type, to a more widespread adaptive or collaborative type of originality.

Remember those Youtube mash ups from a few years ago?

If you haven’t seen A few Good Creative Men an old favorite from 2007, you must be new to the industry.

While the Internet transforms our view of what constitutes originality, paradoxically it’s made it easier to both plagiarize and detect plagiarism.

You can steal ideas from ads of the world or you can use it to check you’re not inadvertently ripping-off ideas.

That seems like a pretty level playing field to me.

So are we are all plagiarists now?

Or have we always been?

* www.slate.com


4 Responses to “We Are all Plagiarists Now!”

  1. Creative Services June 24, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    Lately I’ve noticed that when I come up with a killer tagline, there is an immediate suspicion that it must have been lifted from somewhere. I wind up having to Google half of what I write to assure the client of originality.

    True creativity is paying a price for the copycats. I’d call this a copycatastrophe, but somebody’s probably already written that…

    • drownthatpuppy June 25, 2011 at 10:33 am #

      Yeah, I do that too and it leads to a lot of rewriting. It’s getting harder to be truly original because of the exponential growth of writing on the web. It’s the old 100 monkeys theory but with hundreds of millions of monkeys.
      “Everything” is getting written and this is just the beginning.

      • Scott Fogdall March 21, 2014 at 5:39 pm #

        Great post and smart comments. Yes, I have cultivated a practice of almost constantly Googling whatever phrase, title, or headline I come up with. Sometimes it’s “taken” and I go back to square one. I feel as if I’ve “scored” when nothing comes up (assuming that Google’s search powers have exhausted all possibilities, of course) but the feeling of artistic achievement is short-lived since I know I’ll have to do the same thing again and again, whenever I feel protective of some new “invention.” Some friends caution me that this isn’t healthy, it’s no way to live, stop worrying about every little phrase, dude. And maybe I should get some therapy, but on the other hand I think most writers understand the impulse.

      • drownthatpuppy March 21, 2014 at 8:09 pm #

        Hi Scott,

        Thanks for your comment.

        Have to admit I do this quite a lot, especially when writing for clients and usually being paid for some degree of original thinking..

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