P for Plagiarism

You know, as a general rule I tend to think that kids are smarter and more savvy than many adults give them credit for being.

For example: plagiarism. Kids know what it is. You copy someone else’s work and pass it off as your own. Cheating. Kids know this. (And even if they don’t know the actual word for it, they’ll still recognize the action as inherently unfair.) Some of them will do it anyway, because we all do stuff we know we’re not supposed to, and on some level I think we’re all curious to see what we can get away with — especially since, when we’re young, we’re not fully convinced the rules even apply to us.* (Most of us manage to learn from experience that this is not the case. Which is otherwise known as ‘going through a period — usually in your twenties if not sooner — of getting seriously knocked on your ass’ or, more succinctly, ‘growing up’. And a few people never clue in to this at all. They tend to be what we often call ‘sociopaths’.)

So I’m irked by adults who will believe fiesty young plagiarists when they say they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong; or it was somehow completely unconscious on their part.

We are not talking about stealing ideas. Writers steal ideas from other writers all the time. It’s what we do. It’s how we operate. If you’re good, you take these ideas and sift them through your own unique filter of talent and vision and intellect and come out with something refreshing and new. If you’re bad, or mediocre, people will recognize you as derivative and your work will only make them want to go see that better, stronger, more interesting thing you were ripping off in the first place. (Although I could recognize the movie SAW as being intelligent and well-crafted in many ways, I sat through most of it just wanting to go see SEVEN again.)

It is the way these ideas are expressed and executed that make them your own valuable property. The ideas may belong to the public domain, where they circulate and breed different versions of themselves, so that people will reach into that same, shared air and grab hold of the same idea — witness all those parents, for example, who give their baby a name they proudly consider to be distinctive and unusual only to later discover it was the most popular name of the year (Dylan and Isabel, I’m looking at you)– but your words are your words.

So when someone steals your written language, changes it around a little, and then passes it off as their own, just because they were too lazy to come up with their own personal mode of expression (because, as we all know, Writing is Not Easy — in fact, Writing tends to be Bloody Freaking Difficult)…that, my friends, is plagiarism. Not a difficult concept. And kids get this. Kids know when they’re genuinely writing their own material — they also know when they’re lifting passages from the opened book beside them or the Internet right in front of them, and maybe changing the words around just enough not to get caught.

And when that kid in question is nineteen years old — old enough so that in many cultures and most historical periods you would no longer be considered a ‘kid’ — and smart and hard-working enough to get into the most prestigious university in the country?

Do I think it’s the crime of the century? Hardly. Should she be branded with a big letter P on her forehead and forced to go through the rest of her life as such? Hardly. (Although in many ways she probably will.) But to defend her simply because she’s ‘young’ — too young to know better — is an insult to all those kids who do know better, and to link her crime directly to her enviable and privileged situation (Ivy League, big book deal) is not just an insult to all those equally privileged, stressed-out students who don’t cheat, but a convenient overlook of all those less-privileged students who do.

*In my case, I just assumed that the odds of getting published at a very young age would rearrange themselves in my favor. I also went through a strange little period where I saw myself as some kind of femme fatale who could impose her will on men and not get her heart broken. So you see, I was clearly delusional, and quite possibly should have been locked up…but, well. I was young.

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