Seemingly pervasive from elementary school student to researcher to politician, today’s word is easy to spot but hard to understand deeply. Jokingly (at least partially), comedian Steven Wright is credited with saying: “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.”, so it’s clear that we could all use a little better understanding of plagiarism.
In very broad, generalized terms, plagiarism is defined as simply passing off someone else’s work as your own, either deliberately or accidentally. Looking at the word, other than the -ism ending which denotes a noun being used in practice, the root itself, plagiary, comes from the Latin plagiarius (originally meaning ‘kidnapper or plunderer’) and was first utilized by Latin poet and epigrammatist Martial in the sense of a ‘literary thief’. The first usage of the term in English can be found in Richard Montagu’s reply to John Selden’s History or Tythes, the Diatribæ Upon the First Part of the Late History of Tithes, which rhetorically inquires in 1621: “Were you afraid to be challenged for plagiarism?”
Later, in 1780, the term was expanded to include the thing (work, idea, design, etc.) that was being plagiarized, as can be seen in playwright Sophia Lee’s The Chapter of Accidents: A Comedy, where she prefaces the work by stating: “Conscious of my own originality, and imagining even my worst enemy, if he charged me with a plagiarism, would at least allow, while the subject was new to our stage, my only crime was in denying it.—I returned the translated play, and mine lay dormant several years.”
When it comes to understanding plagiarism, it seem relatively straightforward on the surface, until dealing with statements like that of James Tait, who, in his 1884 work Mind in Matter: A Short Argument on Theism, posits: “Advanced languages are ‘evolved’ chiefly by plagiarism and by phonetic corruption.” Conversely, Mark Twain famously noted that: “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” So, where do we draw the line and what can be considered as “common knowledge” (aka something that can’t be plagiarized due to its widespread understanding), especially in this age of a constant, massive bombardment of information?
In short, we don’t know. Due to a fluid definition of what, in fact, constitutes plagiarism as well as the knowledge that plagiarism, as opposed to copyright infringement, is only immoral and unethical (as opposed to criminal), there has never been a static understanding of how far it reaches, what it specifically is and isn’t, and where things like parody, style, tradition, fair use, or even negligence fit into the equation. At the same time, the best way to assure your compliance is the same as it has always been: give credit where it is due, whether it be a specific photo, data, a quote, or even when paraphrasing someone.