Plagiarizing: The Concept

 

In a much more material (and materialistic) understanding of intertextuality than has been proffered by critics such as Julia Kristeva, Ted Nelson is often considered to be the visionary who foresaw development of the World Wide Web in imagining his Xanadu project. Xanadu as he imagines it is an online literary system that would allow writers of all sorts to quote each other, linking immediately to the source of the quotation, charging the quoter a fee, and electronically sending funds to the person who has been quoted. In Xanadu, one could be in a text and discover all its sources, but one could also see all the links coming into that document, so that one could find all texts that quote one's home text. From this picture of Nelson's version of the World Wide Web -- a WWW of literature -- one can see why he defines literature as he does, as "an ongoing system of interconnecting documents" ("What is Literature?").

Xanadu has never been created: could it be? Is it feasible? If one posted the last two sentences on the Internet, would the system suddenly charge for quoting from anyone else who had previously posted on line the words “Could it be?”? from anyone who writes “it be?” From anyone who writes “could”?

The difficulties in distinguishing between quoting and simply speaking, plagiarizing and simply writing, are legion, and they appeared on the legal scene at the very moment that plagiarism came into existence as a modern concept. Early eighteenth century poets practiced the art of “imitation,” but Thomas Gray, a mid-century poet, was perhaps the first to be accused of plagiarism, and the accusation may have staunched his productivity (Lonsdale 44, 54).** While Alexander Pope in the early eighteenth century regularly incorporates translated bits from Virgil and others into his poetry, Gray’s fault, it seems, was that he imitated the moderns rather than the ancients. But Gray doesn’t simply quote them: he uses the same three words used by a previous poet, and in the same context, about the same topic, but he reorders the words significantly, as is visible from the notes to Lonsdale’s edition of “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” for instance. Gray was a prolific reader: do these words simply come into his mind as he writes, or does he actually look at a poem by another poet and deliberately “steal” the words he wants? But perhaps Gray wants to know how to best use the word “gem,” and so he looks it up in the dictionary. The 1755 Dictionary of the English Language that he would consult would be, of course, Samuel Johnson’s, and Johnson “teaches” correct usage by providing sentences – in fact, often, lines from poems. Is Gray plagiarizing the dictionary? When “originality” first appeared on the scene as a concept related to authors, it was not only connected to selecting striking words but also to reordering words in a striking way -- to "style." Postmodern literary theory offers ways of understanding why the concept of authorial originality has been so compelling to us, and so difficult to sustain.

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**Did Gray plagarize?