Alexander Lindey’s 1952 Plagiarism and Originality

One of the most pleasant things that can happen to me in a library is when I am looking for a book and I find others that I wasn’t specifically looking for that are also compelling.

This one was sitting horizontally on the shelf by itself in McWherter near the rhetoric section; someone had, evidently, plucked it from its vertical home, flipped though, found it wanting, and set it down. I picked it up, flipped through, instantly recognized good mid-XXth prose and took it with me.

Lindey’s approach to plagiarism is twofold. He examines it from the legal perspective of copyright law and important casework, and from a genre perspective through the arts – plays, novels, short stories, scupltures, paintings, music, and movies. He is very well read, pulling examples from all historical era – dodging, of course, the early Christian one with a single sentence under the ‘Plagiarism in Reverse” section – “To gain a wider and more heedful audience, the early Christian preceptors often ascribed the authorship of their commentaries to one or another of the apostles.” He seems to be a lawyer first and an academic second.

Now his take is limited for me as he is not writing in the age of the DMCA or the Internet, and he is not concerned with academic plagiarism – he doesn’t even mention it. But he does note, interestingly enough, how the “word-eating dragons,” radio and TV (still pretty new in ’52), have made “borrowing and theft” much easier.

Let’s see if I can summarize his position, though. His last chapter, “Summing Up,” makes this easier, of course…
All artistic works are interrelated and codependent; all artists borrow to some degree; the great and famous get away with it more easily than the humble and unknown; new media is making it easier to plagiarize; most cries of plagiarism come from innocent and legitimate borrowing; anyone can be charged with plagiarism despite their station; almost no one knows infringement law; nobody gets sued for copyright over a flop, only successes; fallacious reasoning is a standby of copyright trials; and judges are usually pretty good at decisions in these cases.

But perhaps most importantly, all cases of possible infringement are contextual and have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, partially because the definition of plagiarism is constantly shifting, and entirely dependent on genre (Copying in the art world is very different from novels, for example). Regardless of form, though, there is always a huge gray area between “definite” borrowing and “definite” plagiarism.

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