OED, Vol. 11: 947
As OED's definitions go, this one is pretty straightforward: you create something, another person passes it as his own - that's wrong. It is also linguistically polite. Authors unrestricted by the structural conventions of dictionaries, can be more blunt about it. Late Alexander Lindey, a copyright attorney and author, in his 1951 Plagiarism and Originality wrote: "Plagiarism is literary - or artistic or musical - theft."
Note that OED's definition includes both ideas and their expressions. Legally, however, only actual products are protected. The United States Copyright Office clearly states:
"Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in you description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in written or artistic work."
To simplify: Copying Van Gogh's Sunflowers to a stroke and passing it as your own work is illegal, but producing endless still-lifes of vases with flowers in Van Gogh's style is absolutely OK. By the same token, reproducing somebody's words verbatim without giving a proper citation is plagiarism, but recasting somebody's original idea with your own words, details, and attributes cannot be legally challenged.
Generally speaking, the intention behind the exclusion of ideas from the copyright protection is founded in the possibility of several people coming up with the same thought at the same time. This indeed happens from time to time. However, more frequently than not, the law, as it stands right now, makes what I call an unpunishable plagiarism an okay thing.
Of course, it is infrequent that someone copies a painting, or steals a score from another musician's computer. Actions like that can lead to criminal and/or civil law suits. From time to time, we hear about people being expelled from schools or lose their jobs and professional creditability on account of plagiarism.
Sometimes, such allegations are unfounded and cleverly used to mar the innocent competition. The fabulous Alan Rickman, whose character in the Broadway production of Theresa Rebeck's Seminar became a victim of such a scam, moaned with all the heart-wrenching pain his ample talent was capable to deliver: "Oh, to be accused of such a thing..." For him it's the worst possible shame. A rare man!
However, when it comes to original ideas, only individual morals stand between one person's precious imaginative jewel and another person's grabby hand. Unfortunately, morality being what it is in the present time, theft of the original ideas is far more common than pickpocketing and purse snatching. As originality becomes more and more of a deficit, the stealing of it becomes more and more pervasive. I personally don't care whether it's legal or not. To me it's worse than a theft - it's an intellectual rape, a snatching of babies born in a torrent of a creative labor.
In business environments it happens every day. Those who watch NBC's popular series Grimm know that the show's core feature is to give a fairy-tale spin to contemporary life. In a second season's episode Nameless, a video game company celebrates the development of a groundbreaking code. Everyone involved in the programming of this extraordinary algorithm stands to make millions. As it turns out, however, none of the people taking credit for it had actually authored the breakthrough idea. It was appropriated by the team leader from a tech guy who came to reboot her system and offered the brilliant solution in exchange for a date. Not only that she had no qualms about accepting the praise and the rewards, she wasn't planning to keep the date promise either. She didn't even remember the guys name.
Whether in business or arts, the worst idea thieves are your peers, especially those who work with you. Trust me, I know it first-hand. One such incident occurred during my time as a high-tech CFO. We were preparing for a teleconference with our venture-capital investors. My fellow board member, the VP of Marketing, strolled into my office and asked for my opinion about the topics to be discussed. You know, at the time the Internet companies were marked by a sense of democracy and camaraderie. So, I let my guard down and laid out my thoughts. All these years later, I still remember the shock I felt, when this guy took the lead of the meeting and repeated everything I told him verbatim, without giving me any credit, of course.
It goes without saying that the world of arts and entertainment is a fucking snake pit that lives by the motto "Everybody steals." It's pretty much an every-day practice.
No matter how many musicians and fans scorned Vanilla Ice's shameless "re-phrasing" of the Queen/Bowie genius bass riff, "Ice Ice Baby" made millions, was nominated for a Grammy and won the American Music Award. It only got worse since. I happened to personally know a human equivalent of a music encyclopedia, and I constantly hear from her: "Wait a minute, I already heard this on..."
In Woody Allen's Vicky, Christina, Barcelona Penelope Cruz's character Maria Elena bluntly states that Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a commercially successful artist, stole his entire painting style from her. First, he reluctantly acknowledges that, yes, she was "influential," and later admits that "maybe he took from her more than he likes to admit." Really? With a hint of sarcasm Maria Elena says: "It's okay. We worked side by side for many years, and you adopted my vision of the world as your own."
Speaking of movies, it's impossible to get an unknown writer's script into a decision-maker's hands. 99% of studios and production companies do not accept unsolicited (i.e. not represented by an agent) material. And even if you do get someone to read your script or to hear your pitch, the first thing you will need to do is to sign a legal document promising that you will never-ever sue that entity for stealing your idea. Why? Because, if they don't like the script but like the idea, they will most definitely steal it.
There is this tiny (in terms of viewership - $342K gross) Craig Lucas's movie called The Dying Gaul (2005). It is a feeble attempt to expose Hollywood's perversity and corruption. In spite of the presence of indy VIP's Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson, and Peter Sarsgaard, whose pull must be responsible for a $4 million budget, the movie is an unremarkable failure. (Let's be honest, ever since Robert Altman's The Player (1992), you really need something extraordinary up your sleeve to embark on this theme.) Yet, the film has one valuable tidbit of a real truth in it: When the main character refuses to change his script from a tragic gay love story into a heterosexual romance, the big-time producer with a $1 million check in his hand warns, "If you refuse, you will walk out of here with nothing, and I will give your story to someone else to rewrite."
But don't think that only the unknown writers fall victims to Tinseltown's shameless pilfering of ingenuity. The moment I saw a poster for Night in the Museum, I had a bizarre thought that Ben Stiller somehow managed to convince Gore Vidal to lend the movie a brilliant plot device from his novel The Smithsonian Institution (1998) . You see, it was Vidal who made the historical characters come to life, most notably Teddy Roosevelt (but not dinosaurs). Apparently, I was not the only one who noticed the uncanny similarity: the great writer himself openly spoke about it in various media. Of course, he wasn't going to attempt any legal action - he's been around the block way too many times (his first publication is dated 1946 and his oeuvre includes 14 screenplays).
Some occurrences of unpunishable plagiarism are simply ridiculous. In 2007, Joe Swanberg (another semi-known indy writer/director) made a practically unseen ($23K gross) movie called Hannah Takes the Stairs: Hannah (Greta Gerwig), a recent college graduate, is an intern and an aspiring writer, who is cruising from a relationship to relationship, trying to find her direction in life. Hmm... Wait a minute... Doesn't this Hannah live on HBO now? Wasn't she shoved into everyone's face by the hipster media for the past 18 months or so? Wasn't she supposed to be an alter ego of her "oh-so-original" creator, a "genius" on the list of "100 Most Influential People," the one whose name I promised not to mention in my posts anymore? A coincidence? Nope. If anyone did see the 2007 movie, it would be this HBO's you-know-who. After all, she is a friend and a collaborator (Nobody Walks) of Ry Russo-Young, who co-starred in Hannah Takes the Stairs.
Speaking of those Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, it is my firm opinion that the biggest scrounger in fictional writing ever is J.K. Rowling. Don't get me wrong, I love Harry Potter, but that woman sponged her material off everything she ever read (granted, she is a very well-read person). Let's not drown ourselves in the boundless sea of magical names representing wizardly attributes: Lupin = wolf (Latin); Sirius = dog (Latin via Greek); Severus = serious, strict (Latin); Dumbledore = stream of gold (a combination of "dumble" - a Nottinghamshire local for a forested stream, and French "d'Or"), etc., etc., etc., etc. Instead, I'd like to point out a few very specific items:
- Let me remind you that in 1961 Roald Dahl wrote a very popular book James and the Giant Peach about an orphan boy James Henry Trotter (Harry James Potter, anyone?!), whose loving parents were destroyed by a brutal rhino and who is forced to live with cruel aunts until a magician helps him to get out.
- In Gaudy Night Dorothy Sayers's lead character Harriet Vane describes her alma mater, Oxford's Shrewsbury College, as an incredibly confusing place with seemingly moving stairs.
- During Victorian times, British citizens started depositing their money in the banks in increasing numbers. Funny, they developed a slang term for the sovereigns the deposited - they called them "goblins."
Actually, my list is so long, I can write another book. How about "Harry Potter Genesis, Or Did J.K. Rowling Come Up With Any Original Ideas?"
Obviously, I am very apprehensive about the usurping tendencies all around us. I know talented young people bursting with artistic ideas. Extraordinary pearls of originality simply roll off their tongues. It's painful to admit it, but instead of enjoying their creativity, I behave like a robotic warning machine: "Keep it to yourself! Don't share it with anybody! Stop dropping your pearls publicly! Why did you post that brilliant thing on fucking facebook?!" I know it makes me sound like a paranoid maniac (and it makes me feel real shitty), but what else can I do to protect them? Their artistic expressions are incredibly unique. Their verbiage is so catchy, their "friends" not only repeat it, but have the gall to claim it for themselves.
How can we possibly control this? How can we safeguard the originality? We can't: There is no legal way and most humans lost any shreds of shame a long time ago. The only way to protect your ideas is to constantly convert them into products, so that you can stake your ownership via the copyright. And even then, as examples above show, you are not secured from various brands of scavengers.