Plagiarism Whose Words

Commentary on plagiarism is difficult, especially in the absence of minutes taken at a global conference where thieves of the written word confess their crime.  All we have at this point is the definition of the act, courtesy of Wikipedia.

“Plagiarism is defined in dictionaries as the “wrongful appropriation,” “close imitation” or “purloining and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,” and the representation of them as one’s own original work.”

On second thought, the word thief is restrictive and even kind despite the fact that a thief and a plagiarist have something in common.  Both work on the assumption that they won’t get caught.  Both actions are of a permanent nature i.e. they have no intention of returning the stolen property, because that would be borrowing. 

However, the wrongful appropriation mentioned in the definition is where they part ways.  A thief steals a cellphone to use or sell it.  The intention is not to defraud manufacturers like Motorola, HTC, Samsung, Blackberry, Nokia, Alcatec, Apple, or Sony Ericsson of their copyright.  A plagiarist however, takes a written piece of work, blends it into some printed paella and attaches his or her own by-line or authorship.  That is intentional misrepresentation, whichever way you look at it.

Intention is the operative word because cross-pollination of ideas is quite common, especially in colleges.  Indeed, that is what higher education is all about, learning, imbibing and memorising books written by other people.  Students however, are trained to tell the reader that such a thought is not theirs.  It comes from a certain book or someone’s thesis or website.

Despite all that, universities have always been plagued by plagiarism either by teaching staff or students.  The internet just put it on a platter because everybody is a writer and a potential thief. Cyber space is also a contributing factor because plagiarists think that they won’t be caught since it is as deep and wide as Lake Ontario.

My work was once plagiarised by a magazine editor that works for one of the big media conglomerates in South Africa.  A friend invited me to a book party where all the publications of that media house were displayed. 

One culinary magazine had a special 2010 World Cup issue.  Four of the six recipes featured were from my Sweetness website.  The editor changed measurements, ingredients and recipe names. What I had cooked was then baked but I still recognised them as recipes from Sweetness Food.  I wrote to her, highlighting the similarities.  She didn’t respond.

It is easy to dismiss my experience because there are thousands macaroni and cheese, Pavlova or jerk chicken recipes.  Is that plagiarism?  How about Hollywood and Bollywood?  I once saw a Bollywood film starring Akshay Kumar, Bipasha Basu and Katrina Kaif which was a cut and paste of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, starring Julia Roberts.  Scripts are so like chewing gum Los Angeles and Mumbai group them into categories: action, horror, comedy etc.

Let’s leave the popcorn scene and venture into what is known as ‘panel of experts’.  At this very moment, bloggers with the same passion about Wall Street, a green planet, death penalty, bicycle lanes, Mayor Rob Ford, the Idle No More movement, Juno Awards etc. are posting their views online. 

Plagiarism comes into play when Expert A intentionally steals Expert B’s written material and masquerades them as her own.  
It is the intentional tweaking, pruning, weeding and spray painting of a piece of written work to make a complete transformation.

Plagiarism does not begin with the publication of the deformed piece.  It is the actual elaborate process designed to deceive, that precedes publication.  A lot of finesse is needed for plagiarism.  Plagiarists are extremely intelligent and also know the subject matter quite well.   They know how to mask the original syntax, the correct synonyms to use or how to paraphrase effectively.

“I had no intention to plagiarise. Writing styles can be similar.”  Writing styles are not a defence because there will always be a new way of expressing something in writing.  

The notorious writer’s block is usually a cul-de-sac, when writers struggle to come up with original content.  That is why Amitabh Bachchan, prolific Indian actor and host of the television show KaunBanegaCrorepati (KBC) is held in awe internationally, for his daily informative blog.

Short cuts to a writer’s block can result in the intention to steal someone’s work. That is when the plagiarism bait sneaks in flashing its colours like an irritating pop-up advertisement during an internet search. 

Nonqaba waka Msimang is the author of Sweetness the novel.


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