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Plagarism - The Motive Center
July 23rd, 2005
10:57 pm


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My wife, mystery writer Toni L. P. Kelner (yes, that's a plug) suggested "plagiarism" as a theme, and I agree it's a good one. The question is: why would someone plagiarize at all?

I'm not talking about a late night writing a term paper; I'm talking about publishing work already published, and taking credit for it. There are numerous examples of people doing just that--even submitting it for an award! You would think a moment's thought would stop someone from sending a plagiarized work to a bunch of judges, the people most likely to recognize the source material, but no.

There are three reasons, as far as I can see:
1. One is a pathological liar
2. One is stupid or ignorant enough not to understand what plagiarism is
3. One is motivated to plagiarize more than you are not to.

The first stands on its own, and needs no explanation, I think. The second is most likely in those unable to publish anyhow, or because someone doesn't understand the difference between a "fair use" quotation and plagiarism. And many scholars and writers have certainly taken stories and rewritten them--perhaps not enough.

The third, on the other hand, may be something deeper.
Motives are powerful emotional drivers--what if some of them drive you in the wrong direction?

Some studies have indicated that when one has high Achievement motive and it has been strongly aroused by a situation--like a game or a contest--it is more likely that someone will "cheat" to get to the goal. This may account for the bad reputation that some kinds of salespeople have, since short-cycle salespeople tend to be driven best by Achievement motive. David Winter, who has studied American presidents extensively, has found that Achievement-motivated presidents tend to get caught more often in campaign finance irregularities, Nixon being a classic example of this. Think of it this way: if you need $20 million for your campaign (chicken feed, I know, but go with it), is it more efficient to get a 20 bucks each from a million people, or a million dollars each from twenty millionaires? We know how Nixon answered that question. Being more efficient is a concern of the Achievement motive. Power/Influence-motivated Presidents tend to come from grassroots movements, because they'd rather know they touched a million people, even just as little as 20 dollars' worth.

You can see where I'm going here.

Achievement-motivated plagiarists are being more efficient--it's faster to cheat than write it out on your own.

Power-motivated plagiarists may just want the attention they can't get any other way and are desperate to get.

I see two other necessary traits here:
1. A lack of empathy in that you can hurt someone else implicitly by stealing their work or indirectly their reputation. I suspect a lot of people can persuade themselves that stealing from someone like Stephen King (say) is harmless--that they are entitled by the differences between them: "King would never notice if he lost five bucks, but that means a lot to me." Sorry folks, it is still stealing!
2. A lack of awareness of implications: ever consider what will happen if you are found out?

Or it could be simple selfishness, which has elements of both. It is worth noting, however, that if the emotional drives are powerful enough, they can overwhelm good sense and reason and even empathy. Someone who is desperate can rationalize what they are doing.

One of the classic "moral dilemmas" used by Lawrence Kohlberg to study stages of moral development has to do with a man stealing an expensive drug to treat his ill wife, who may die without it. Is it justified? The way people grapple with this is more important than the answer they come up with--how do they reason?

But moral reasoning is still reasoning -- it's conscious thought. And this can fall by the wayside when you are emotionally aroused. There's a reason they talk about someone being "desperate" as being dangerous.

"I'm hiding in Honduras...I'm a desperate man.
Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money--the s*** has hit the fan."

--Warren Zevon, "Lawyers, Guns and Money"

Now, we're talking about writing, not life-or-death, right? Well, the funny thing about motivation is that it is unique to the individual. Things that make no sense to most people are overwhelmingly important to others.

"Man is not a rational animal--he is a rationalizing animal." --Robert A. Heinlein

And hence comes unethical behavior...

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(4 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:July 23rd, 2005 08:55 pm (UTC)
It seems to me that plagiarism could be spurred by any motivational reason, really, stemming from a lacking in said person to achieve what they think said author has. It also seems that plagiarists might be committing said act to shore up an unreasonable picture they have of themselves, possibly even concluding that they "could have written said piece if they'd only had the time." Belief in a self worth that's not really in existance, I bet, could push one into taking credit for work that's not one's own. Influence, money, friendship, I can see all of these things being reasons for stealing.

Strangely, in the art world, there are accepted forms of 'plagiarism,' though it's not really the same thing. Van Gogh was known to repaint works from Hiroshige and Millet. Picasso and Braque were almost indistinguishable for a short period of time. In their case, the point of copying work was to learn. Can the same examples hold with writing?

Good stuff as always, Steve!
[User Picture]
Date:July 23rd, 2005 09:12 pm (UTC)

Plagiarism and art

Good points, all! I was just discussing with Toni the notion (alluded lightly to in the post) that someone who feels strongly that King, for example, has more than he needs shouldn't mind them taking some. I left out the point you made, that someone who thinks they deserve more may feel entitled to stealing from someone else who gets more attention. "I know I'm a genius--they'll come to appreciate me eventually."

Actually, there is the idea of "forgery" in the art world, which is probably the closest comparison. I think part of the notion is how you sign it! Picasso was known to take credit for forgeries if he thought they were good, and deny his own work if he wasn't happy with it.

The question for plagiarism in writing is "how far does it have to be to be safe?" As I commented to Toni earlier, with really stringent standards (e.g., ideas, formulation, structure), half of the fantasy genre would be condemned as plagiarists of Tolkien, and half of the mystery genre as plagiarists of Christie, Chandler, or Conan Doyle. But there is at least a subtle difference between hommages, or acknowledged copies (which I assume the Van Gogh example was), and plagiarism, which takes credit for someone else's work. By the way, I don't mean to offend any of those mystery or fantasy writers--there is such a thing as being inspired by a concept that works so well that nothing else seems as good. Christie seems hackneyed today because she created a lot of concepts that have become standard or even cliched. They weren't at the time.

Anyway, there is a difference between doing the work to copy a piece, and making one painting, than cutting-and-pasting swaths of text and publishing it. Or so I think. It takes similar time to repaint a painting as to paint the first one. The same is not true of copying prose, or even retyping.

Certainly learning through imitation is legitimate in writing--Shakespeare had perhaps two original plots, after all--and that's why ideas are not a case for plagiarism, despite what many amateur writers think. It's what you do with the idea that counts, and that is where the "copying to learn" comes in. You you can copy style on a different work, or take an idea and play with it, or do a Harry Potter fanfic about a character you want to explore, or even rewrite an ending (though I think that's obnoxious). But rewriting a story exactly--characters, place, plot, language--is retyping, not "reimagining."
[User Picture]
Date:July 23rd, 2005 10:03 pm (UTC)
Generally, with forgery, as far as I can tell, the only motivation is for money as it would be really really hard to pass one's version of a famous painter's work off as one's own. "Art's a small world." There's actually a passle of recently discovered "Pollocks" that illustrate this point. Writing, I think is easier to conceal, unless it's something really just ubiquitous like Shakespeare.

You're totally right about the "so and so has so much, they won't miss my stealing a little," or "taking from a rich person is different than taking from a poor person" points. It's how folks justify stealing music, movies and the like as well.

There actually is a parallel in the art world, sort of. There are lots of cases online of folks stealing work of semi-pros, posting it and taking credit, likely for all the same reasons as folks would do so as a writer. So there is direct connection there.
Date:July 24th, 2005 09:07 am (UTC)
Power-motivated plagiarists may just want the attention they can't get any other way and are desperate to get.

I believe these people are simply seeking the end (receiving acclaim and recognition) rather than the means (receiving satisfaction from developing a quality product.) You are correct in saying that these people are motivated by Power rather than Achievement.
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