Our conception of plagiarism, including using words from another source, is largely modern and academic. It's a concept that would have been as foreign to the Bard as cell phones would have been to Alexander Graham Bell.
As an English professor, I sniff out plagiarism like a bloodhound; all it takes is an odd adjective-noun combination or sentence construction.
In one memorable week, I discovered two students plagiarizing--three times each. They were duly processed by Lake Forest College's Academic Honesty Judicial Board (on which I have served), which reinforces the stricture to always create work that is original.
But how can we expect students, or anyone else--even when they use proper citations--to actually be original? In fact, a strong counter-argument suggests, oddly enough, that originality is fiction.
Take the last phrase--"originality is fiction." You've read each of those words before. No originality in my usage. How about the arrangement? I Googled the phrase and found it in a poem by Muhammad Ismail at Helium.com. Of course, I remain free to make use of this particular phrase. I have cited the "original" author, and aside from not using quotation marks, I've met the academic criteria for avoiding plagiarism.
On a whim, though, I Googled "to make use of this particular phrase" from the preceding paragraph, and found several hits. These include a Wikipedia article about the words "Surrender Dorothy" from "The Wizard of Oz."
Wikipedia notes that the "Surrender Dorothy" phrase was later recycled as graffiti on a bridge adjacent to a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near Washington. The reason? To exploit a similarity between the church's facade and the Emerald City. Not exactly an original usage.
I can no more cite the "author" of this Wikipedia information than I can tell you who pens the speeches of John McCain or Barack Obama. Our politicians may speak for the people, yet their press aides and policy wonks usually speak for the politicians, scripting everything down to their jokes.
For most of us, the line between originality and attribution remains murky. How many members of corporate project teams have produced reports, abstracts, summaries and statistical analyses only to find their words re-integrated, re-articulated and sometimes just plain abused in derivative documents such as annual reports, project proposals and team statements?
We cannot start crediting every word we write or speak, because our entire culture is based upon recycling and plagiarism, and it's not just a function of the Internet.
Sure, it's easier than ever to incorporate previous works into new media: Amateur musicians make their own mashups; fans write their own Harry Potter sagas; gamers create machinima--"home" movies made within the world of their favorite video games.
Shakespeare reworked the story of "Romeo and Juliet" just as John Coltrane remade "My Favorite Things." Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, produces cutups on a grand scale, including the fantastic "Rebirth of a Nation," a remix with a new soundtrack to D.W. Griffith's cinematically influential pro- Ku Klux Klan epic, "Birth of a Nation" (1915). Spooky's work exposes the ideological underpinnings of Griffith's film using a most powerful demonstration: the material of the film itself.
This is not a new concept. In Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" (1759-1767), Volume 5 begins with a tongue-in-cheek screed against plagiarism, proclaiming, "Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring .|.|. out of one vessel into another?" In Sterne's case, yes, for without the direct influence of Francois Rabelais, John Locke and Miguel de Cervantes, there would have been no "Shandy."
Our culture's opposition to plagiarism derives from a legal code that protects copyright. The concepts of copyright and plagiarism's opposite--originality--became closely joined in the Romantic era. At the start of modern copyright law (1710), the statute primarily protected publishers from pirating, and not authors from impositions on their "genius." By the time poets such as William Wordsworth argued for a special internal character--a so-called poetic sensibility--to make art, things had changed.
Originality is thus a legal reality, but also a creative fiction. Our art, sometimes explicitly and sometimes quietly, continues to be made by us all.
I am not suggesting that we don't hold contemporary plagiarists to standards of appropriate usage, only that what's appropriate in the digital age will continue to remain an open question--and open source.
Davis Schneiderman is an associate professor of English at Lake Forest College and co-author of "Abecedarium."