The Borrowers

In 1997, Malcolm Gladwell wrote ‘Damaged’, a profile of Dorothy Lewis, a psychiatrist who studied serial killers. This spring, he writes, Lewis went at the urging of her friends to see ‘Frozen’, a play by Bryony Lavery. She hired a lawyer, accusing Lavery of plagiarising her life and using sections verbatim from Gladwell’s profile. The case became a huge cause celebre–‘Frozen’ had been nominated for a Tony, Lavery was a well-known playwright, and anything to do with plagiarism is automatically headline news.

So what did Gladwell do? He went over to a friend’s house and listened to music. To Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love and Muddy Waters’ You Need Love.

“My friend had hundreds of these examples. We could have sat in his living room playing at musical genealogy for hours. Did the examples upset him? Of course not, because he knew enough about music to know that these patterns of influence—cribbing, tweaking, transforming—were at the very heart of the creative process. True, copying could go too far. There were times when one artist was simply replicating the work of another, and to let that pass inhibited true creativity. But it was equally dangerous to be overly vigilant in policing creative expression, because if Led Zeppelin hadn’t been free to mine the blues for inspiration we wouldn’t have got “Whole Lotta Love,” and if Kurt Cobain couldn’t listen to “More Than a Feeling” and pick out and transform the part he really liked we wouldn’t have “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—and, in the evolution of rock, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a real step forward from “More Than a Feeling.”

A successful music executive has to understand the distinction between borrowing that is transformative and borrowing that is merely derivative, and that distinction, I realized, was what was missing from the discussion of Bryony Lavery’s borrowings. Yes, she had copied my work. But no one was asking why she had copied it, or what she had copied, or whether her copying served some larger purpose.”

Later in the essay, as Gladwell struggles to come to a useful definition of plagiarism–and creativity, as he meets Lavery and acknowledges how brilliant he thought ‘Frozen’ was, he muses:

“The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.”

Collin Vs Blog, where Kitabkhana plagiarised this link from, has a thoughtful post on the subject.

“We all plagiarize, in the sense that we learn language by copying each other, from picking up on words that we like, all the way down to learning which grammatical structures are acceptable and which are less so. Reading is ripping.”

One comment

  1. One of the ways to make a distinction between frank plagiarism/friendly borrowing/worshipful copying etc is the manner in which the link between copy and original is acknowledged. I believe a plagiarist is someone who knowingly piggybacks on someone else’s effort while wanting to take the credit for being original. That’s a whole other state of mind to the person who believes she/he is paying homage to another creative person’s work.Some months ago, I saw a tiny fragment (a paragraph quoted almost verbatim) taken from a short story of mine in another author’s book. They say plagiarism is a form of praise, but I just felt sad. I am also the ONLY person who will have noticed this very minor snitch so it really doesn’t matter — but I felt that twinge nevertheless. I can only imagine what it must feel like when all the takings are greater in every sense, both for the plagiarist and plagiar-ee.

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