Even taken together, the charges didn’t seem to amount to that big a deal — just a matter of quoting a few factual statements and a Wikipedia passage without attributing them. But as Rand Paul discovered, the word “plagiarism” can still rouse people to steaming indignation. Samuel Johnson called plagiarism the most atrocious of literary crimes, and the word itself began as the name of a real crime. In Roman law, a plagiarius was someone who abducted a child or a slave — it’s from “plaga,” the Latin word for a net or a snare. That connection was first drawn by the first-century poet Martial, who accused a rival he called Fidentius of stealing his works in order to garner undeserved praise. Martial compared Fidentius to a man who wears a toupee, and others have depicted the plagiarist as somebody who “shines in stolen plumes.”
The offense can be quite straightforward. Joe Biden was forced to withdraw from the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries when he was caught lifting autobiographical passages from the speeches of the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. That was classic plagiarism — Biden wasn’t just helping himself to Kinnock’s literary children, but to Kinnock’s childhood as well.
But in the higher precincts of cultural criticism, plagiarism has come to seem more cloudy and complicated than it once did, as it jostles with imitation, homage, allusion and postmodern appropriation. And technology has compounded the possibilities — so much stuff out there to repurpose, so many new ways to adapt and transform it. What do we say when A Tribe Called Quest samples the guitar licks from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”? Is it the same as Rossini working Mozart motifs into The Barber of Seville, or is it something wholly new?
But nuances and complexities are set aside when it comes to pedestrian forms of expression like term papers, news reports and political speeches, where plagiarism is greatly simplified. Technology has played a role here, too — it may have made plagiarism easier to execute, but it has also made it easier to detect. Time was when spotting literary pilferage could take some serious detective work in the library stacks. Now you just dump a passage into a search engine and run it against everything that’s out there — or you can just let some software do it for you, the way some universities do. Along the way, the practical definition of plagiarism has become more cut-and-dried than ever before. It doesn’t matter what you copy or where you take it from, or whether it was deliberate or accidental. Not long ago, Time magazine’s Fareed Zakaria and Fox News’ Juan Williams were both obliged to apologize profusely when they published columns with unattributed passages copied word-for-word from other sources. It made no difference that the passages in question were just bald factual recitals or that the copying was almost certainly inadvertent, most likely the work of a research assistant. Cut and paste, you’ll be disgraced.
And now Rand Paul is being pilloried for a couple of similar offenses — particularly for a speech in which he quoted verbatim the Wikipedia plot synopsis of the 1997 movie Gattaca without attributing it. That doesn’t seem quite as grave an offence as the literary larcenies of Joe Biden. Wikipedia isn’t an individual author, just an anonymous collective project. And its prose has all the beauty of a pile of scrap lumber. Paul could hardly be accused of trying to shine in stolen plumage. Still, by modern definitions of plagiarism, Paul clearly crossed the line. If you’re going to use a Wikipedia synopsis, you should run it through a Mixmaster to the point where nobody could Google it up and see where you got it from.
But considering the nature of offense, the condemnations were pretty severe. Theft is theft, people said, echoing Martial’s vilifications of Fidentius. A journalism professor from Paul’s alma mater Baylor announced that if it had happened in one of his classes, he would have failed the student and asked the university to investigate a possible honor code violation.
I’d just soon leave honor out of it. These aren’t like those classic cases of literary theft, they’re just infractions of the conventions we’re bound to adhere to. But that doesn’t make them trivial, as Paul implied when he said he was being hounded by “the footnote police.” Whether the copying itself was the work of Paul or of a staffer, he has to take personal responsibility for the cluelessness of that response. The rules for quoting and attributing can seem arbitrary at times, with little connection to the respect for intellectual property that originally motivated them. You could think of them just as a kind of literary etiquette. But etiquette is just what comes of reducing moral principles to the explicit codes of conduct that govern our civil life. Paul may not have been guilty of dishonesty, just cavalier disrespect for the rules. You don’t put on the feathers of another, not even the drab ones that you find lying around on the ground.