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Plagiarism & Something Borrowed

In “Something Borrowed,” social science journalist Malcolm Gladwell (2004) and author of pop sociology tomes like Blink and The Tipping Point, wrestles with the notion of plagiarism. Gladwell’s confrontation with the issue starts with a British playwright who plagiarizes not only the autobiography of a psychiatrist as material for her psycho-drama stage play, but a profile he wrote of said psychiatrist in the New Yorker.

Gladwell (2004) argues that, although plagiarism is founded on the simple notion that stealing the words of others is a transgression against ethics, the increasingly obsessive fixation towards strengthening copyright law and court decisions favoring protectionist rulings is an alarming sign that society ceases to evaluate such charges in a qualitative manner. His attempts to re-frame conceptions of plagiarism lie on the side of creative culture its reliance on preceding creative works.

Having found that entire passages were lifted from his New Yorker piece, Gladwell (2004) recounts how he raised his concerns with the playwright, Bryony Lavery, noting that although he was happy to inspire her work, he took offense at being quoted without approval. However, Gladwell expresses second doubts about a hard line conception of plagiarism. Gladwell (2004) further emphasizes this doubt by pointing out how ‘copying’ serves to further a culture of creativity, as made evident in the history of popular music.

The Beastie Boys sampled a six second flute sequence from jazz musician James Newton, Led Zeppelin taps into the blues to enrich their rock artistry and how Barry Manilow’s work informs the Wham! holiday classic, “Last Christmas. ” Gladwell argues that what matters more than artists and writers appropriating the works of others is the matter of how they appropriate. “Old words in the service of a new idea aren’t the problem.

What inhibits creativity is new words in the service of an old idea. ” (Gladwell, 2004) He concludes that the problem with plagiarism discussions is that they have become extremist in nature, focused mostly on people copying than why they copy. However, Judge Richard Posner, a pragmatically oriented legal thinker who sits on the Court of Appeals is renowned for his clarity of legal theorizing.

Posner shares the same fundamental skepticism regarding outspoken cries against plagiarism, and as such, chooses to examine it from a legal perspective. In a piece for the Boston-based magazine The Atlantic, entitled “On Plagiarism,” Posner (2002) explores the spaces in which ‘copyright infringers’, ‘plagiarists’ and acknowledged unacknowledged forms of copying intersect and contradict to give rise to a phenomenological ethics of copying.

Posner (2002) differentiates plagiarists from copyright infringers by noting that copyright infringement is an act that carries legal and commercial connotations, while the former is an ethical transgression. As such, he defines plagiarism as the unacknowledged copying of other people’s work, copyrighted or uncopyrighted, but like Gladwell, he points out that many examples exist in which plagiarism served necessary to great art such as the writings of Shakespeare and the paintings of Edouard Manet.

Posner quips, “If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism. They show that not all unacknowledged copying is “plagiarism” in the pejorative sense. ” (Posner, 2002 Furthermore, lack of acknowledgement is not tantamount to authorial deception and plagiarizing can be done to add value. As such, the severity of criticisms to be directed towards those who plagiarize should be contingent on where execution and intent give context.

Plagiarism in a popular text is irrelevant to a readership that only cares about a good read, Posner argues, but in academics, it is of graver concern because they may lead the misled reader to act on mistaken perceptions of the author’s originality, creativity and/or brilliance that are directly related to the work, such as promoting a junior professor or giving good grades to a student. (Posner, 2002)


Gladwell, M. (2004, November 22) Something Borrowed. The New Yorker. Posner, R. (2002, April) On Plagiarism. The Atlantic.

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