Unattributed: A Reading List on Plagiarism

Image by ThePixelsFactory (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s been just over a day since the internet exploded with analyses, memes, and hashtags on Melania Trump’s liberal use of phrases from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. The awkwardness of this particular case of (alleged) plagiarism will soon be drowned out by other stories. But debates around plagiarism never quite disappear: they touch on originality, authenticity, and property, concepts that are deeply linked to our modern sense of humanness.

Here are six meaty reads on plagiarism: from deep dives into infamous recent cases to essays that question the very possibility of writing that isn’t, to some extent, an act of unattributed borrowing.

1. “The Ecstasy of Influence.” (Jonathan Lethem, Harper’s, February 2007)

By now a postmodern classic, Lethem’s piece is a passionate, erudite defense of plagiarism — composed almost entirely of passages he himself lifted from other works.

2. “Something Borrowed.” (Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, November 22, 2004)

Taking the Broadway musical Frozen as a case study, Gladwell explores the ever-blurrier lines between influence and theft. His essay has aged well — not in the least because of his own embroilment in a plagiarism scandal, which adds a layer of poignancy and playfulness to his assertion that “the final dishonesty of the plagiarism fundamentalists is to encourage us to pretend that these chains of influence and evolution do not exist.”

3. “He Stole a Lot More Than My Words.” (Macarena Hernandez, Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2003)

Almost 15 years after being unmasked as a serial plagiarist and fabricator, Jayson Blair is still one of the most notorious of disgraced journalists. Here, one of the writers whose work he used without attribution reflects on seeing her words misappropriated by a former colleague.

4. “Plagiarism Inc.” (Andy Mannix, City Pages, June 30, 2010)

Students have been presenting other people’s work as their own for centuries, whether intentionally or out of sheer sloppiness. But the internet has made it possible to acquire an essay with a few easy clicks, while detecting academic dishonesty is still a tricky endeavor. Here, Mannix profiles Jordan Kavoosi, a college paper mill magnate with a checkered past (and a tattoo of the Chinese character that means “deceptive”).

5. “Stairway to Heaven: The Song Remains Pretty Similar.” (Vernon Silver, Bloomberg Businessweek, May 16, 2014)

Sure, Led Zeppelin recently won their copyright infringement trial (a jury ruled that their signature tune isn’t, in fact, stolen goods). But this piece from two years ago, chronicling the complicated history behind “Stairway to Heaven,” is still a fascinating read that tests our automatic association of artistic achievement with originality.

6. “Steal This Idea.” (Marc Fisher, Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 2015)

A senior editor at the Washington Post, Fisher points out how our zeal for outing writers who copy others’ words masks a more serious issue: the uncredited use of other people’s ideas. In a surprising twist, he acknowledges the near-impossibility of being a true original in an age where bottomless archives and databases are mere clicks away, and asks, “is it time for a ceasefire in the war on plagiarism?”