from Plagiarism the "Art" of Stealing Literary Material
Plagiarists Are Thieves
by Ellis Parker Butler
The thief is always with us. Since the beginning of time, some miserable creature, urged by need or greed, has been stealing the property other men honestly acquired. The other night some lowbrow broke into my stable and stole my brace and bits, my saw, my plane, and all my best tools. I don't have to wonder who he is -- I know he is a thief.
Not long ago a man came to me for suggestion and advice. A schoolboy had done an essay, and the essay was so excellent that it aroused suspicion. Investigation showed that the boy had copied the essay almost word for word. The man wanted to know whether the boy should be "shown up" as a thief, and so advertised. I told the man to forget it. I told him John Burroughs said he, too, "stole" the first boyish success in just about the same way.
The Sugar Bowl
Up to a certain period of mind-growth, the imitative faculty is immensely greater than the creative and reasoning faculties. Nine out of ten -- or ten out of ten, perhaps -- authors have begun by stealing something. Sometimes it is only the style of an author they admire; sometimes it is a theme or a plot that has seemed so splendid that it seems noble to "do one like it." Sometimes, after agonizing to create something "like it" -- and failing to do so -- the young fellow sees nothing to do but copy something and let it pass as original. That young fellow feels that he is "going to do something big" later, but is temporarily unfit, and he borrows something. Most of this sort of thing can be forgiven: it is the failing of immaturity. It is like a baby putting its hand into the sugar bowl.
The man who stole my saw was a thief: the schoolboy who takes one of my skits and changes it here and there and reads it as his "essay" is nothing but an immature kid. The one steals what he knows is not his, and steals it because it has a money value; the other needs nothing but a few words of advice on ethics.
Growth of a Seed
"Out of nothing nothing grows." No man can create anything. A man can grow something, or he can build something, but he must have a seed or some material to work with. If I write a story -- one that is "entirely original" -- I must have had some seed, or some material, or some idea that I picked up somewhere. No man and no author can make "something" out of "nothing." A man may say he can sit down without a thought in his head, and "think up" a plot or story. What that man actually does is to sit down and squeeze his mind until it gives up something previously stored in it. Knowingly or unknowingly the man planted the seed in his mind some time in the past. "Out of nothing nothing grows": conversely, if a man produces anything, it must have been placed in his brain, and whatever grew that seed grew from a seed. And that seed was produced by something that grew from an earlier seed. All our ideas and thoughts form a backward-reaching chain that extends into the dim past. I can't "create" anything: I can take a suggestion and develop it. That is all anyone can do.
If the thief had not stolen my saw and my hammer I might go out to my stable and build a chair. I may have seen a chair in the Luxemburg, in Paris, and I take that as my model. I do my best, and make as good a chair as I can. This is not plagiarism.
My neighbor comes over and looks at the chair I have made. He says: "By golly! That gives me an idea! If I build a frame like that chair and put a tin can in it and four wheels on it I'll have a Ford car!" So he goes home, and with my chair as a model, builds a Ford car. That is not plagiarism.
But if my neighbor comes over to my stable and steals my chair and takes it downtown and sells it, just as it is, or with some slight change to hide its identity somewhat, that is plagiarism.
A plagiarist is a thief and he knows he is a thief. This is so true that it is only necessary to ask a plagiarist to explain why he is not one, and he will involuntarily tell you he is one. He invariably gives himself away. His explanations are so full of holes and "becauses" that you can see right through them into the thieving heart of him. A thief talks like a thief.
Perkins of Portland
I wrote a short story once called Perkins of Portland. It was about an advertising man who had a great idea for an advertising catch-phrase. He did not have much money, so he spent what he had in making the phrase and the name of the article nationally famous. He meant, when he had thus built up a valuable "goodwill," to sell the name and catch-phrase for big money. When the time came, no one would buy it and he had to manufacture the article himself -- thus giving the tale its humorous twist. Years later a play appeared, and was a big success, called It Pays to Advertise. The idea as given above was practically identical in the story I wrote and in the play.
This I did not consider plagiarism, and I do not now. It would amaze me if any man set about writing a humor story about advertising and did not hit on this exceedingly obvious twist. To advertise something enormously and then not be able to supply it should occur to anyone wishing to write an advertising story with a laugh in it.
In the same way I have seen, literally, dozens of my ideas used in motion pictures. People are continually saying to me, "Did you see Such-and-Such? Its first reel is exactly like the first part of that story you had in What's This Magazine." I usually try to see that motion picture. My thought, on seeing it, is almost invariably "Well, of course! If the author had any brains and was going to make a scenario about codfish that is the first thing he would think about."
I think there is a certain honest use of material as a basis for something new or improved. When I had written Perkins of Portland -- my advertising man story -- it made a small-sized hit. A magazine of advertising in Chicago asked me to write a series of Perkins stories. I did it. If another man had been asked to do it and had written them, using the name "Perkins" and the same type of character, that would have been theft. If, however, I had refused to write the stories and some other author had taken the suggestion and had written a series of humor stories concerning an advertising man, that would not have been theft, although the whole idea would have been suggested by my story.
Dunne's "Mr. Dooley"
The Irish express agent in Pigs Is Pigs was a catchy character, and I wrote five or six other stories in which he appeared; one story was used by Munsey. The use of the so-called Irish dialect was legitimate; I had used it many times earlier. So, presently, when a newspaper syndicate desired a weekly 2000-word skit I used Mike Flannery. I wrote, I think, fifty-four of these Mike Flannery syndicate things, but when the contract ended I quit. I have written no more since. The reason is this -- involuntarily they become more and more like Dunne's "Mr. Dooley" skits. In the beginning. I had a clear, clean picture of Flannery, who was a different type of Irishman from Mr. Dooley, and I was entitled to use him because I had created him, but as I am a great admirer of Mr. Dooley I found myself letting Mike Flannery become more and more like him. I was "stealing Dunne's stuff." No one -- absolutely no one -- ever said a word about this; but I felt it. So I quit. When a man begins to feel like a thief it is time to quit.
Spanking My Mind
There is such a thing as unconscious cerebration, and my own belief is that it is the only kind of cerebration. I put a suggestion into my brain, and later it comes out with sprouts and branches and leaves. It gathers applicable material as a magnet gathers filings. It is possible that I put a horse-race suggestion into my mind, forget it, and presently it has gathered many sprouts. One may be that the jockey is a crook and has a girl whose mother sells roasted chestnuts. When this comes out of my mind the roasted-chestnuts mother may have become the important feature, without my knowing why. The story becomes one of a mother who has a daughter whose "crush" is a crook jockey. I start to write this, can't handle the crook jockey, drop him, and write my story of the roasted-chestnut mother and daughter. And when it appears the plot turns out to be one of Fanny Hurst's, with only minor changes! That can happen, and I won't know I'm a thief or be one intentionally. None the less, if I have harmed Fanny Hurst's chance of making money out of her story, I ought to pay damages to her. If my son breaks my neighbor's window, even if by accident, I ought to pay for the window. If my mind steals another's stuff I ought to pay for what I stole. What my mind needs is a good spanking; it needs to be taught a thing or two or it is liable to get papa into serious trouble. A man may excuse a careless mind of that sort once or twice, but if it begins to make a habit of unconsciously cerebrating other authors' stuff it needs a good whaling, or its owner should get out of the author business and go to digging ditches, where his mind will not be able to pilfer.
Recurrence of Similarity
When an industry, as the motion picture industry might, begins showing too much "unconsciously cerebrated" stuff, too much "conscious" stuff, too much "remarkable similarity" stuff of any sort, it is safe to look for a snake in the woodpile. When much of any author's stuff begins to resemble the stuff of other authors too closely it is safe to decline to associate with that author. Once or twice in a lifetime a real author may accidentally produce something that is remarkably like a product of another author, and be spotlessly innocent, but if the thing continues systematically, only one thing can be thought of it.
Pen Versus a Jimmy
If anyone seeks to explain that certain uses of basic plots, certain "unconscious cerebrations" and "coincidences," are innocently possible, he should at the same time frankly admit that there always have been thieves ready to steal hammers and brace-and-bit sets, and saws, and cash, and that nothing in human nature leads one to believe that a thief becomes less a thief because he happens to take to using a pen instead of a jimmy. If it is pointed out that two entirely reputable authors can hit upon identical incidents, it should also be suggested that one thieving author can, if he chooses, steal an incident from another author.
Because there is absolute proof that these things have been done. There is absolute proof that authors have quite innocently written things remarkably similar to what other authors have written; there is also absolute proof quite a few poor, misguided wretches have stolen, and sold as their own, the work of big authors, little authors and middle-sized authors.
Experience Required by Courts
While the average court jury may by chance hit on justice in a plagiarism case, my feeling is that the average jury is nowise fitted to decide such cases. It is not lack of intelligence but lack of experience. Experts may be called in to testify, but one can always get experts on either side of any case. Plagiarism cases should be handed to a committee of authors for consideration and decision. An author knows the methods of composition and the temptations of authorship; he knows what can be honestly borrowed and what can be innocently used. He needs but three witnesses -- the work alleged to be dishonest, the work alleged to have been robbed, and the explanation made by the author accused of plagiarism. For my experience has been that the thief, in explaining that he is not a thief, invariably gives evidence that he is a thief.
It must be remembered that the real plagiarist is, unlike the ordinary thief, always "caught with the goods on him." The thing alleged to be a plagiarism is always in evidence; until it does appear there can, of course, be no claim of plagiarism. The question then is, "Did this man steal this, or did he come by it rightfully?" He cannot claim, as an ordinary thief may, that he "bought" it. Either he "created" it or he "stole" it, and the workings of the creative mind are so well known to experienced authors that the explanation of the real thief in telling how he "did it" is almost invariably no more nor less than a map of his crime area.
The courts have decided certain rights are basic. Every author is entitled to use certain basic themes, and certain situations. Every author is entitled to use plot suggestions that come through certain general sources of information.
To be a plagiarism a thing must show quite evidently that it was stolen.
It is desirable that the honest author should be protected against ill-founded and hasty claims of plagiarism; it is equally desirable that the honest author be protected against thieves.