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Cover image for What is Plagiarism?

What is Plagiarism?

lethargilistic profile image Mike Overby ・12 min read

What is a doujinshi, or a doujin? If you ask the average 14-year-old American child, they might hesitate and insist they don't know. In their lack of eye-contact and bashful, knowing smile, you'll see the truth: your child is checking out online porn.

Doujinshi is a Japanese word for a comic created by an amateur. Japan has an incredibly active comics market, so don't think that means doujinshi artists are small time. Every year, they meet up at the largest comics convention in the world, Comiket, to trade their wares. Creating doujinshi is one path towards building a portfolio, often by making fan based on popular ongoing series, which may be a stepping stone toward a more traditional artist jobs. It is a job, though, so they must move magazines. That means doujinshi artists generate a significant amount of porn. They create so much of this amateur porn, specifically hentai manga, and the fanfiction among it is so popular with the kids, that the terms doujinshi and hentai have essentially merged in English understanding. The definition of doujinshi, essentially just "comics," thus became "comics plus pornography." This merger happened not because of anything the artists did, but because of how most of their audience in a certain part of the world approached their market.

Before I talk about plagiarism in a constructive way for the rest of this book, I must define it. Before I do that, I need to discuss the effects of definitions on our conceptual thoughts. To an American child, a doujinshi is porn. As I say, this is a definition with a "plus," and we could otherwise call that a "connotation." The longer this connotation persists, as it becomes more pronounced, it also becomes more inextricable from the concept itself. For doujinshi, this means the automatic reaction to "do you like doujinshi?" becomes more like someone's reaction to "do you like hardcore pornography?" Again, this is entirely independent of the people who actually produce these comics in a general sense.

The consumers, likely enough including your child, belong to a sub-culture that defines doujinshi based on their sexual use of the comics. Although pornography is not necessarily a negative connotation among a more enlightened population, it is something non-essential to the thing being defined which is yet inextricable from it. When a word comes with a "plus," it is only natural for that connotation of the word to expand in whatever direction, positive or negative, that the connotation leads it. For doujinshi, this means its perception will become more pornographic the longer the definition persists in this form. With this definitional drift, the semantic meaning of the word in concert with its connotation can become increasingly fluid and undefinable. As this ambiguity and inextricability become more pronounced over time, it increasingly easy to dismiss discussion of the thing in terms of its connotation. Doujinshi became associated with "porn" and then, over time, it became "merely porn" to the majority of people who know nothing about Comiket and Japanese comics culture.

These increasing inextricability and ambiguity are far from restricted merely to language differences or a norm like plagiarism. A more generally-recognizable example of this phenomenon is the definition of the term marriage. Of course, the unquestionable right same-sex couples have to the marriage institution is recognized in many countries. If we can overcome the memory hole and turn back our minds to when that was not the case, recall that marriage was defined by all sorts of dictionaries as "a union between a man and a woman." Most popular dictionaries aim to be descriptive and follow usage, so it may not be surprising that this was the case. However, I submit to you that, just as much these dictionaries may have described usage by people with beliefs, these dictionaries were written by people with beliefs. A definition with a "plus" connotation must survive with majority support at each previous level before a dictionary's ink certifies it "official." At each of those levels, the majority will believe that the word’s connotation is their connotation. Perhaps marriage is between a man and a woman because of sexual characteristics; perhaps it is God's will; perhaps the government is only interested in incentivizing families (and gay couples obviously can’t adopt); perhaps they believe gay people violate the natural order.

None of these things would even make marriage a gender-specific term, mind you. We would still recognize a "marriage" between two concepts or two companies, for instance, because marriage is more a synonym for a union than it is anything else. And yet it was rare for a dictionary to remove the plus from these "union plus man and woman" definitions until marriage equality reached their own shores in legal capacities. Bigots would go down screaming after decades of activism in defense of the connotation they wanted this word to have, even if the secondary meaning never seemed so important until the "gay agenda" asked for it to be removed.

This is the difference between a case like doujinshi and same-sex marriage or, yes, plagiarism: it is unlikely any English speaker will ask for the "plus" in doujinshi to be removed because nobody in the English-speaking manga community is oppressed by the "plus." The mangaka in Japan do not care about the English audience because they don't pay, and it's true enough that the English-speakers do not care because they're getting off on it regardless. On the other hand, gay people and plagiarists have been actively suppressed by their "plus" for a long time, and their opposition to that "plus" was made unspeakable to facilitate that oppression.

In plainer terms, a very large subculture defined marriage based on their heteronormative use of the institution to disenfranchise gay people because of their "perverse" love. Similarly, a very large subculture defined black based on their white-nationalist use of those black people as a "perverse" underclass to raise themselves up. Transphobic people define gender based on their supposed interest in preserving outmoded ideas about how sex characteristics require people to behave, even when presented with evidence that demonstrates they're not describing reality. For obvious reasons, it feels awkward to invoke the struggles of major oppressed communities in the defense of plagiarists, perhaps a less-existentially integral community. However, I do so for a reason. Majority oppositions arguing against a right, no matter the relative importance of that right, will bring to bear all the language and tactics innovated by majoritarians to oppress major minority groups. We will see some of these as the book goes on. For now, know that among those techniques is the definition of the minority out of existence. Gay people's love could not be recognized as legitimate because it could not be legitimized by the state after they were defined out of the marriage institution. Black people were defined with now-unprintable words out of their own humanity. The plagiaristic artist was defined out of their own artistry. They no longer counted. To sequester them from "polite society" was worth any and all costs. We import these sorts of biases into the future by teaching them to our kids.

The thing that defines the contours of "polite society" when it comes to artists and how they may acceptably benefit the public is the copyright system. This book is not about the copyright system. Nonetheless, we must address some key facts about what artists believe the copyright system means before we can understand the objectionable definitions of plagiarism they concoct. Copyright is one form of what's inaptly called "intellectual property." Intellectual property is not a "property." It is an incentive structure in which we create artificial scarcity on the non-rival goods created by artists on the theory they will be paid better and make more stuff. The term property conjures up metaphors about homes and food in ordinary people, and this deliberate conflation leads to various definitions of plagiarism which label it "theft" or otherwise "unjust taking." You wouldn't download a car, so this theory goes. Of course, if downloading a car for free were possible, then everyone would absolutely be doing it because cars are an investment of several thousands of dollars and the world would die in an combustion-engine-fueled climate change death spiral. We seem to be doing well enough on that front without the extra help.

But we should be wary of such intellectual property metaphors, as they are prone to lead us astray. We should not permit analogical reasoning to allow guilt by metaphor. What does the plagiarist "steal"? What is the nature of the "property" that anti-plagiarism norms restrict? It is not physical property. A plagiarist does not steal books; or rather, stealing books does not make one a plagiarist: This lexicon of loaded words is intended to inhibit the timid, intimidate the brash, and punish the perpetrators. In fact, the intellectual world has itself purloined the entire vocabulary of theft to characterize literary stealing, which is the ultimate in intellectual laziness. It is disconcerting that so little effort has been made to look beyond the surface features of plagiarism.

Most of the discourse on plagiarism does not even take into consideration that plagiarism comes in different forms. While a plagiarist can appropriate an entire work for a new purpose, a plagiarist’s copying may be quite attenuated. A novelist may insist with complete sincerity that plagiarism is the wholesale copying of someone else's work—that is, simply changing the name on the cover—and then condemn another writer as a plagiarist because certain sentences seem plagiarized in an ultimately distinct book. A plagiarist need not even copy a single word from a work to run afoul of their local plagiarism police in academia. There, the anti-plagiarism norms prohibit copying even ideas. Yet, curiously, no act of plagiarism is actually prohibited by law in the United States. Plagiarism is not a crime. Infringing a valid copyright is the crime at issue there. Copyright can curtail marginal plagiarism from certain sources in certain circumstances, but copyright in no way defines the practice.

There's a curious choice of words, though: copyright does define the relationship of authors to their works in a profound way. That definition, fueled by incorrect notions of "property," takes on connotations with the same inextricability and ambiguity as our previous examples. The notion that copyrighted work is "property" and a rival good has become so inextricable from folk conceptions of copyright that many authors over the years have referred to their work as their "children." (Children are not the property of their parents, and that sort of controlling language is a sign of an abusive household, but I'mma leave that alone.) The ambiguity of what people believe copyright covers has them claiming that ideas can be infringed or that lists of functional instructions like computer programs can be copyrighted. "My work is copyrighted" means whatever they want it to mean at any given time, and they want it to last forever. But, although its principles could use a restatement, copyright law is clear on the fact that copyright infringement is a crime and plagiarism is not. Copyright can limit the extent to which you can wantonly plagiarize copyrighted things, but copyright in no way defines the practice of plagiarism. Facts do not sustain the accusation that the plagiarist is a hindrance to inceptive writers who copyright their works and plagiarists who do the same.

So, what definition of plagiarism was imposed upon the plagiarist? There is a general theme to plagiarism definitions that follows the oppressive path sketched above. We can all agree that plagiarism involves copying from things other people created. At its core, plagiarism is "unattributed copying." However—inextricably and ambiguously—plagiarism is bad and why it is bad depends on who you ask. There must be a "plus" in the definition for communities opposed to plagiarism, which often insist that certain forms of unattributed copying are acceptable. Because those forms are acceptable, they are not bad and therefore not plagiarism. Generally, very large sub-cultures defined plagiarism based on their desire for extra-legal property rights in their work. The motivations for those extra-legal property rights vary by community, which is why there can be so many different "plus" definitions. Each one attempts to suit the needs of its community, and perhaps that would be a laudable goal if not for the fact that anti-plagiarism policies so rarely dovetail with the stated goals of those communities.

As said above, defining plagiarism as "unattributed copying plus theft" is incorrect, and so is defining it as "unattributed copying plus appropriating the entire work" to inherently only include wholesale copying. Anti-plagiarists often take a different tack to the same arguments. If "literary theft" does not deprive someone of physical property, what sort of thing could be stolen? This is where we enter the encounter concepts like "credit" and definitions of plagiarism as "unattributed copying plus claiming the credit for someone else's work." This is obviously inaccurate because a plagiaristic piece can be as anonymous as any other, but what is "credit?" You can think of credit as a mental model where the grades we give to children at schools are reconceptualized by adults as currency. Of course, credit not being actual currency, they cannot reliably spend these rewards and even the largest store of credit can be wiped out by circumstances outside of the person's control. Allegedly, publishing the same piece as someone else deprives the "true" author of credit for their work, but is this really so? Unless the environment builds in anti-plagiarism norms, almost certainly not.

For example, a student's essay will almost always be thrown away almost immediately after having been written; what credit is being taken from anyone else? Once the grade is put in, nobody questions how it happened. On my transcript, there is one 0.0 from a class with an actively hostile teacher so awful I may have been able to get it expunged, but the reason for it is irrelevant to everyone who was not there. The only thing a low grade practically indicates is "this student is less worth hiring," and anti-plagiarism norms do not necessarily exist outside fields that orient themselves around credit economies with academic-ish bents. So, to preserve the credit of creators whose works are plagiarized, whose credit will be entirely unaffected by that plagiarism, we are endangering students' lives outside the context of the academic environment? Not to mention that those grades are supposedly given to measure student learning, and no singular metric can even measure that. The assumption that all plagiarism is "wholesale copying" helps justify this policy to teachers and anti-plagiarism creatives, but they will almost certainly punish even when that is not the case. What are they actually defending when they are defending nothing? So wide sometimes is the gulf between theory and practice.

No matter the specific "plus" chosen in the definition of plagiarism used by an anti-plagiarist, the connotation will be bad. It will be inextricable from their priors. If you ask them why a specific kind of plagiaristic copying is bad, they will say it is bad because it is plagiarism. If you then ask them why plagiarism is bad, they will say it's because every form of plagiarism is bad and, moreover, equally bad. This "plus" allows those who oppose plagiarism to ignore every act which would absolutely be plagiarism if they, themselves, did not believe that act was good. This is how you get into issues with notions of authenticity and personality. Allegedly, a work of authorship is imbued with the personality of the person who composed it, and they retain an (extra-legal) interest in that piece after writing it because it represents themself. Like credit, these concepts don't actually benefit the old author in tangible ways because, y'know, they already have their own persons, but the hypocrisy of these ideas is most apparent when you examine cases where everyone agrees it is OK to discard them.

Consider ghostwriting. Ghostwriting is the unattributed copying of work written by someone else; it is almost certainly the "worst" of plagiarism, wholesale copying. The named author received writing from somewhere, crossed the name out, and put their own in its place. But writers will go to their deathbeds saying that ghostwriting is not plagiarism because they made some kind of arrangement with the named author. Well, every author who enters the copyright system makes an arrangement with the government and the people that government represents. In publishing and copyrighting their works, authors absolutely do consent to their works being used in many ways implicating fair use while copyrighted, and authors absolutely do consent to the unfettered use of their work after that copyright expires. That is the arrangement. Ghostwriting with public domain resources is simply ghostwriting with ghosts, exhuming dead and forgotten things for the sake of the common welfare as well as the plagiarist's own. There is no need to exclude this form of unattributed copying from "plagiarism" just because it makes authors uncomfortable to think of themselves as plagiarist or plagiaree here. The fact that the named author paid for the ghostwriter does not change the fact that the writing is unattributed to the ghostwriter; the fact that the named author had the idea does not change the fact that the writing is unattributed to the ghostwriter; the fact that it may have been a collaboration does not change the fact that the writing is unattributed to the ghostwriter. Ghostwriting is simply unattributed copying; that is, plagiarism.

We must see plagiarism for what it actually is, not what its opponents want it to be. We must define plagiarism for what plagiarists actually do, not what its opponents want to punish. It is not necessary that any one should be condemned to monotonous toil in creating. Mind, not muscle, is the motor of progress, the force which compels nature and produces wealth. In turning people into machines producing in one mode we are wasting the highest powers. Already in our society there is a favored class who need take no thought for the morrow—what they shall eat, or what they shall drink, or wherewithal they shall be clothed—with resources earned from honest work. The act common to all definitions of plagiarism is merely unattributed copying. The plagiarist, currently unfavored, is no less deserving.

We who see the truth, let us proclaim it, without asking who is for it or who is against it. This is not radicalism in the bad sense which so many attach to the word. This is conservatism in the true sense. By agreeing that that is the thing at issue, we can separate the negative connotations and assumptions from the idea of the practice, leaving them open to direct discussion.

Plagiarism is "unattributed copying," plus nothing.

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Mike Overby

@lethargilistic

Mike Overby is a software developer looking for work, host of a law review podcast called Amicus Lectio, and a moderator of Programming Discussions (invite.progdisc.club). Follow me on Twitter!

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