History of Plagiarism

Plagiarism isn’t anything new. It might feel like it as we don’t hear about it that often, yet it has been around for hundreds of years and more. Been around and continues to grow. That is the very sad part. But to understand plagiarism today, you have to understand the history of it.



Defining Plagiarism

The best way to define is to go the Webster dictionary. According to this trusted source, plagiarism is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own : use (another's production) without crediting the source” and “to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source”.

In other words, saying you created an idea or the words are completely original from you and it is not is plagiarism. It is more than just a word we are discussing. It is theft.

Stealing is never acceptable. Yet some will continue as though nothing is wrong with plagiarism. Maybe their definition is different than Webster’s and the law. Or it could be the old argument raised by the leader of our country at the time over the definition of ‘is’. Such a shame when we argue over matters that really are black and white in nature. Forcing grey into the picture only causes a lot of trouble.

Why Do Writers Plagiarize?

I guess it comes down to asking ourselves why writers plagiarize. Is it because they are lazy? Is it because they are desperate? Or are they just stupid? Well, those could be very real reasons. But still I ask why?

Some of the guilty parties say it was an accident.

Stephen Ambrose and xxxxxx both claimed their theft was accidental. An assistant didn’t copy the information down right was one excuse. Another was that the author had forgotten that the notes were a direct quote and not a summary of her own. It was not done on purpose. That could happen, but… In today’s age with technology, can’t they double check?

Others claim time demands.

Some authors caught in plagiarizing other works claim that they were in a hurry and the pressure of getting the book done on time caused them to inadvertently not give credit. Is that really a good excuse? If you take the time to write a book, shouldn’t you put the time into it for high quality and to be in your own words? If your editor/publisher is pushing you to steal, then you need to find new ones or learn to manage your time better.


Still others say they just wanted to see if they could avoid getting caught.

Can you believe some people just do it to see if they can get away with it? And they admit it! They aren’t ashamed they did it. They are only saying they regret getting caught.

Successful Plagiarism

So how do authors successfully get away with plagiarism? The truth is that they don’t, at least not for long. Somebody out there will always catch them.

Okay, students might get away with it. In fact, they do quite often. I personally know of several who copied and pasted straight from the internet and the teacher never caught it. Why is that? I attribute that to lazy instructors or at least careless ones.

Many schools have programs in place to catch plagiarism. The Turnitin software is used by the majority of higher education institutions as well as many high schools. It is not perfect, but can help root out many stolen and unethical works.

Teachers can also discover copied material simply by copying and pasting unique lines from an assignment into the search engine with quotation marks around them. The search engine will find any exact matches on the web. Funny how many students get caught copying directly from the Internet.

For books, there aren’t any programs set in place to root out plagiarism. There is no software where a manuscript can be uploaded and then compared. It falls completely on editors and publishers to discover. The sad part is that many don’t find these instances as there are so many books out there that they cannot have read them all nor remember all the words and phrases used in a book.

The main reason plagiarists aren’t successful are the readers out there who catch it. There are millions of people out there reading these books. If they are familiar enough with an author, they can catch it when someone steals from them. That is how many of the culprits have been caught.

So who has been caught?

The Hall of Shame

Who have been the big plagiarists over the years? You might be surprised at who has been caught.

Stephen Ambrose

A renown historical writer, Mr. Ambrose was caught using the words of other authors and only giving them footnote recognition. He argued that footnoting the source was enough. Yet it has been hammered in students through middle school, high school, college and beyond that if you use direct words from someone else, you need to use quotes. Sorry, Mr. Ambrose, but that is outright plagiarism.


James A Mackay

You wonder sometimes how many times someone can plagiarize, get caught, and not stop writing over and over again. This author was not caught once, but multiple times on multiple books. He claimed that the English language was limited to reword the information he found. So he copied older texts verbatim yet claimed throughout the process that he was innocent. Even one of his publishers shredded the book and removed it from circulation. What does that tell you?


Monica Crowley

Ms. Crowley worked with President Nixon and has written several books about him and his presidency. When the 25th anniversary of his impeachment rolled around, Ms. Crowley published an article in the media to address it. It was discovered that her article was vastly similar to one published a few years earlier by another author. Noting the similarities, it was obvious Ms. Crowley had plagiarized. Yet not much was done or said about the incident.


Jayson Blair

This was one plagiarism case that hit the news media hard and fast. This was a reporter who was found not only plagiarizing some of his work, but he was known to fabricate his sources, his news, and everything. He would claim to be traveling to locations yet would be sitting in his apartment writing up fabricated articles that pulled quotes from other media outlets and not giving them recognition.


Helen Keller

This probably shocks you. We admire Helen Keller and respect her, as well we should. She was an accomplished woman who overcame insurmountable odds to go places that many of us fear to tread. Yet she got caught accidently plagiarizing someone else’s work. Let me explain before she falls in your estimation. The best explanation is her own words:

I wrote the story (“The Frost King”) when I was at home, the autumn after I had learned to speak... I thought then that I was "making up a story," as children say, and I eagerly sat down to write it before the ideas should slip from me. My thoughts flowed easily; I felt a sense of joy in the composition. Words and images came tripping to my finger ends, and as I thought out sentence after sentence, I wrote them on my braille slate....

Mr. Anagnos was delighted with "The Frost King," and published it in one of the Perkins Institution reports….. I had been in Boston only a short time when it was discovered that a story similar to "The Frost King," called "The Frost Fairies" by Miss Margaret T. Canby, had appeared before I was born in a book called "Birdie and His Friends." The two stories were so much alike in thought and language that it was evident Miss Canby's story had been read to me, and that mine was--a plagiarism. It was difficult to make me understand this; but when I did understand I was astonished and grieved. No child ever drank deeper of the cup of bitterness than I did. I had disgraced myself; I had brought suspicion upon those I loved best. And yet how could it possibly have happened? I racked my brain until I was weary to recall anything about the frost that I had read before I wrote "The Frost King"; but I could remember nothing,....

Mr. Anagnos, who loved me tenderly, thinking that he had been deceived, turned a deaf ear to the pleadings of love and innocence. He believed, or at least suspected, that Miss Sullivan and I had deliberately stolen the bright thoughts of another and imposed them on him to win his admiration. I was brought before a court of investigation composed of the teachers and officers of the Institution, and Miss Sullivan was asked to leave me. Then I was questioned and cross-questioned with what seemed to me a determination on the part of my judges to force me to acknowledge that I remembered having had "The Frost Fairies" read to me….

Miss Sullivan had never heard of "The Frost Fairies" or of the book in which it was published. With the assistance of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, she investigated the matter carefully, and at last it came out that Mrs. Sophia C. Hopkins had a copy of Miss Canby's "Birdie and His Friends" in 1888, the year that we spent the summer with her at Brewster. Mrs. Hopkins was unable to find her copy; but she has told me that at that time, while Miss Sullivan was away on a vacation, she tried to amuse me by reading from various books, and although she could not remember reading "The Frost Fairies" any more than I, yet she felt sure that "Birdie and His Friends" was one of them. She explained the disappearance of the book by the fact that she had a short time before sold her house and disposed of many juvenile books, such as old schoolbooks and fairy tales, and that "Birdie and His Friends" was probably among them….

(http://www.afb.org/MyLife/book.asp?ch=P1Ch14)

Her impressive memory was her own worst enemy. In fact, it would hurt her over and over throughout the years - “at the ages of eleven, twenty-three, and fifty-two—Helen Keller was assaulted by accusation, doubt, and overt disbelief.” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/06/16/what-helen-keller-saw) When she went before a council at a young age, “She was defended by Alexander Graham Bell, and by Mark Twain” when it became apparent that the story she had plagiarized “had been spelled to Helen perhaps three years before, and lay dormant in her prodigiously retentive memory; she was entirely oblivious of reproducing phrases not her own.” (ibid.) Ms. Keller apologized and continued to defend herself throughout the years.


Alex Haley

This is one of the most well-known plagiarist that has more than gotten away with it. In fact, he has been awarded for it. Haley wrote the popular books, Roots. It was later discovered that not only was the historical aspect of the story fabricated, but he also stole close to a hundred passages from another book called The African. While he continually defended himself, in the end the courts said he stole the work and was ordered to pay up for it.

Haley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and still holds that title. His book has been on many academic reading lists and was made in a movie.


Dan Brown

Did you know that Dan Brown was sued over his bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code? In the lawsuit, the offended author claimed that over 50 events happened in both books and the majority of them were placed in the same chronological order. There were too many similiarities to just say they had the same idea and creative spirit. (http://www.newmediaministries.org/DaVinciCode/Plagiarism_S.html) That was just one lawsuit.

Another more known one was brought by two men who claimed that Brown took their idea of Jesus marrying and having children. Brown claims “his novel was based on topics that have been debated for centuries.” (http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aiBYrF36Kqjg) Yet the authors, Baigent and Leigh, brought to the case over a dozen plot points that they say originated with their work.

In the end, Brown settled out of court.



Quentin Rowen

This one I have to applaud for creativity, but it’s still plagiarism. Mr. Rowen decided to pull not from one author but from multiple authors to create his own unique spy novel. It was praised as wonderful until a reviewer who was an avid James Bond fan found way too many similarities. Once it was pointed out, everyone was shocked to find that very little was Rowen’s own words. He had pulled from multiple authors to create his own book. Now his book is off the shelves and many hang their heads in shame that it got by them.


Andy Warhol

Remember that plagiarism is more than stealing words. It can be stealing images and ideas and calling them your own. That is what happened with the famous artist, Andy Warhol. He used over people’s photographs to create silk-screen images without the original artist’s permission nor did he reference where he got the images. Viewers thought it was all him. The result was an out of court settlement. (http://famous101.com/famous-cases-of-plagiarism)


Joe Biden

Believe it or not, even politicians can get caught stealing from others and claiming the credit. Back in the late 80s, Vice President Joe Biden was looking to be President of the United States. That didn’t pan out when it was revealed that he had not completed a class in law school because...he was caught plagiarizing. (http://famous101.com/famous-cases-of-plagiarism)


Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is another one that might shock people, but even the great Martin Luther King, Jr. has been found a plagiarizer. It was in his dissertation where he plagiarized a number of passages. If he was still alive and the offense more recent, he could have faced losing his doctorate degree. A review showed that it could have been simple mistakes of not crediting correctly, but plagiarism is plagiarism even if it is an accident.


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