|Creating Hands, Sarah Myers|
THE ETHICS OF PLAGIARISM
The history of human creative effort is that of humanity itself; and any discussion of the matter of authorship, originality and plagiarism must understand that we are not looking at a mere two hundred year question of copyright and commercial uses. It is fortunate, with so much time to account for, that the three major drives of the creative human, sharing his work with a larger public, are the same now as they always have been. At this moment I am not discussing the elemental drive to create, or the basic desire of man to provide for his own individual needs and that of his family. I am speaking of those goals which induce him to share what he has made with a larger group of people not directly tied to him by personal interest.
The three incentives are these - money/wealth, name/recognition, and the attempt to build for a higher purpose. Not rightly placed in that order, from an ethical standpoint, but in our familiarity. To each one of these drives could be appended an image: the starving composer dashing off a great piece of music to buy food for the table; the artist, finishing his work and signing it proudly with his name; a craftsman anonymously carving angels on a cathedral with the conviction that he is bringing glory to God and that heaven will reward him. Whether or not any of these pictures is good or bad, sad or happy, is not the question; what they represent is an eternal reality.
We are so familiar with the first drive, that of obtaining money or wealth, that it is on this basis that most of copyright and legal rights of authorship are based. This leads to great disproportion in understanding the creative world - but cannot completely be decried in the sense that it was an effort to prevent the starving composer (for instance) from starving. And most members of the First World are very clear that if the inventor, or artist, or author, made something to bring himself a living, to steal his ability to make that living - by plagiarizing or stealing his work or his credit for the work - is a crime. Copyright laws were enacted for just this reason. It is on this basis, and no other, that any current legal argument over creative rights are based.
But this leaves out - and in our current age, tends to deny or denigrate - the other two great incentives that make people build a culture with all the skill at their command. And gross advantage is being taken of this "overlooking". "Because," say the plagiarists, "if the creator couldn't get any money out of his creation, his creation belongs to those who can!" And the credit, the name/recognition, the control of the work, goes to those who have an idea for cashing out on it. This is not only unethical - it is a sordid, stinking wrong. Because there are still those two other motives, in their own way, perhaps, better and certainly more remaining motives, for sharing one's work with others.
The second is that of name/recognition. By this, I do not for a moment mean celebrity. Celebrity is actually a position of very temporary power in a basically hostile environment, it is artificial and has nothing to do with creativity. I am talking of something quite different. I am speaking of a very general but lasting form of human gratitude, being distinctly attached to a name and to a man. It is our thankfulness to Galileo for his new conception of the world; to Da Vinci for his paintings, to the Wright brothers for the conquest of the air, to Beethoven for the Ninth Symphony, to Rumi for his poems. We not only know the name, we take care to preserve and revere the name. Many, many creators have worked for this memory, for this gratitude, and some almost solely for this, with little or no monetary reward accompanying. In fact, this due of name and recognition is often the only reward worth the exhausting effort of original creation. This is something almost impossible to explain to the non-creative: both the unusual amount of mental travail that goes into original creation, and the fact that your name being on it - and remaining on it, because of men acknowledging the benefit you have given them - can be a thorough reward for the effort. Good indeed that it's so - considering that we have no other way to now pay Homer for his ballads, or even the Wrights for giving us wings. And the fact remains that Galileo's physical reward for his work was imprisonment; Mozart died without enough money to provide for a proper tomb, although he had just written one of the greatest requiems in history for an importunate nobleman; the Wright brothers' main patent had only to do with ways to flex the airplane's wings, a development that was quickly outmoded; and there is a rumour that the painting of the Mona Lisa remained with Leonardo because it was refused by the client who commissioned it.
To take this reward of name and recognition away from the creator can be more devastating than merely taking away whatever monetary result he might obtain from his work. Few true originators can easily bear the idea of being a Cyrano - the poet who allows his best poems to be ascribed to someone else. It is usually only in the face of existential difficulty, maintaining your own life or that of those you love, that you could easily stomach seeing another individual's name across your original work. But because the current infrastructure is based solely on monetary outcome, and laid out by non-creators, this instinct is often looked down upon as a ridiculous possessiveness. Why, they say, cling to anything that cannot bring you money?
There is the third drive - that of building something for a higher purpose. It is because of this that anonymity is often accepted among creators. The greater structure of benefit and usefulness is enough reward for its authors. This was not so common in ancient times as it was, for instance, in the Middle Ages, when men working on church commissions often hoped for reward from God; it has been common also in the East. But it is by no means solely restricted to the service of religion. Men simply working to benefit humanity by building some large mental, social or physical structure have also laid aside their claims to wealth or direct recognition. They feel they are labouring to design a better, more fit and more inspiring world, and that this result is all that matters . Some have worked for the glory even of oppressive regimes or comparatively worthless infrastructures, but it is to be hoped that this was under the deception that they were, in fact, building something of usefulness and benefit for all. In any case, this one drive, in its most unadulterated form, is much more of a factor now than it was two hundred or three hundred years ago - perhaps than it has been since the Medieval Era - and we must look at its effects in its contemporary form.
Some of our best creators and inventors in the current age are working on beneficial structures, and for greater ease and reach (as well as in the goodness of their motives) are laying aside financial reward and recognition of authorship. Into their new structure for the world they are pouring content - instructional, functional, educational, inspirational - a great sweeping cataract of mental, creative, and even physical material. But it is going into their new structure, to build and to fill it. It is absolutely necessary to recognize that, although all this material is being contributed for an altruistic purpose, it is being contributed for a purpose. It is not creative work launched absent-mindedly into the void, without expectation of return or result. And no creator should be expected to thus give. Definite results are being expected from this flood of effort, just as a cathedral and the glory of the Catholic church was expected from the craftsmen labouring on a stained-glass window. This is far from attributing underhanded motives to these originators; there is no use in sitting out in the middle of a field making bricks without any purpose for the effort. For everyone's benefit, those bricks must go into constructing a weather-proof house, or a library, or a bridge, or a dam-wall. The bricks need not be signed; and if the result is good enough, payment may come not in the form of money but in the form of being able to use a library or bridge or being protected by a dam. And to the best minds, being able to see that the village is now protected from floodwater or is provided with a library, is a satisfactory reward for the effort.
This too, however, has been misunderstood and taken advantage of. Since so many top creators are working "for free" and without attribution, there are individuals and institutions who choose to ignore that the originators are busily building a larger structure with their work. Instead, these plagiarizing entities reason from the new flood of anonymous creative activity that all creative labour should now be without monetary reward or recognition of authorship, that it can be relegated to any use and used for any advantage to those who grab it. They even go so far as to claim that the material is worthless until it is stolen. Under this excuse parts, or even whole bodies of creative work, are taken without remuneration to the originators, without correct attribution, and without respect to the maker's original intent. The creations are used to build different, and much less beneficial structures, to bring credibility or popularity to other names, to amass wealth to the appropriators. This indeed is theft.
So what is plagiarism? What is theft? At the very least:
If the original work was created by its author to bring him money, it is a crime to preempt his ability to effectively use it so - a crime to take it over in order to bring wealth to someone else who did not originate it.
If the original creation was made by its author to bring him a name and recognition, it is plagiarism to take away that type of credit and lay it on someone else who did not originate the work.
If the original work was created by its author to build up some greater structure, it is plagiarism to take it and subvert its use to some other goal.
As narrow and restricted as these definitions are, they would cut nine-tenths of current idea-fraud; an area where there is at present no recourse and very little understanding or formulation. Respect must be given to those who create to gain the friendship and goodwill of humanity, to create a name. Value must be acknowledged in the work of those who give their efforts to build and benefit their kind. In such an era as we are entering now, it is not legal or governmental protection that is asked for. It is a culture and an accepted code that will give the creator liberty and the assurance to create; to share what he has among his fellow men, freely, readily, and with joy, for the reward that is his chosen due.