Should a charge of copying & plagiarism ruin your life?
Not Guilty until proven otherwise
In the year 2016, month of November in ESSTIC was the launch of defense for students in all fields. These students ought to have made it in their final exams without a single failure from any course in their 3 year program. Among the different fields scheduled that day was Information and Documentation, where a student call Ndikum Ivoline was on the hot seat. She had to present a body of work comprised of an Internship Report, and a Professional Realization (the solution to a problem you observed during your internship). The jury was set and so was Ivoline. With trembling feet, and sweating cheeks she presented her report in 8 mins, indicating from start to finish that the material presented was hers; even though some facts may have been inspired by other sources indicated in her references. Her jury was made up of two members all PH.D holders, male and female of great repute on academic related issues. The male Dr. was the head of the jury and strangely enough, he had his face twisted from the moment she started the presentation till she ended. When she was done, his first remark came in the form of an unusual question which was; “are you the author of this work?” he asked. “Yes! I am” she replied. He paused, looked at her again this time straight in the eye and after 15 seconds, repeated the question “ Are you the author of this work?”, this time her voice seemed a little different, it was calm but her reply remained the same; “yes I am”, she replied. At this point, the Jury president got furious, and accused her of lying and plagiarizing someone else’s work. The work she just presented, the jury president claimed was a complete copy a similar work defended the previous year by a fellow female student. This female student as it stands, had this jury president as her supervisor, he worked with her on her defense material and knew it by heart. After giving that explanation, he then asked her for the last time; “do you still stand on your reply, that this work is yours?” and shockingly as it may sound, her reply was a resounding YES. She explained to the jury and guests that she was the author of this work, but her only crime is that she carried out her internship in the same institution with the girl from last year. Hence, the sources consulted may have been the same and a justification for their arrival at similar conclusions. This just pissed the jury president the more, he left his seat, left the hall, asking the female jury member to wait on him, and went to his office not far from the hall. Some few minutes later, he brought back to the hall the work presented the previous year and started pointed out sections after sections of material that was copied with this body evidence accused her of plagiarism.
Guilty until proven otherwise
“It was one of those days” when the psychiatrist named Dorothy Lewis received a call from her friend Betty. Betty had just seen a play called “Frozen,” written by the British playwright Bryony Lavery. In the phone call, Betty pointed out that the play somehow reminded her of Dorothy and that Dorothy definitely needed to see it. Dorothy asked Betty what the play was about, and her reply was that one of the characters was a psychiatrist who studied serial killers. Dorothy studied serial killers and had done so for the past twenty-five years alongside her collaborator, the neurologist Jonathan Pincus. She even published a memoir of her life and work entitled “Guilty by Reason of Insanity.” Few people in the world have spent as much time thinking about serial killers as Dorothy, so when her friend Betty told her that she needed to see Frozen she considered it a waste time. Betty as it seemed was just the first of such calls, calls kept coming from family and friends; whenever anyone who knew Dorothy saw the play they felt the need to make her to see it. Frozen was gaining traction and was nominated for an award. Months later, she received a call from the theatre where Frozen was to play, they were calling to ask if she could do a talkback of the show. Dorothy had once done that and was happy to do it again. She demanded to have the script to read and understand the play before the talkback. As soon as the script came, Dorothy sat down to read it. Early in the play, something caught her eye, the phrase: “it was one of those days.” Dorothy had used that same expression in her memoir many times. But again, it seemed like a coincidence. There were recurrent scenes where the plays psychiatrist called Agnetha entered her office very early in the morning and worked with a male colleague called David Nabkus. As she read on, she started noticing more and more similarities and realized that more was going, it was at that point that she understood why people were asking her to see the play. She began underlining line after line of similar material. She had worked in the New York medicine school and Agnetta in the play works in a medicine school. Dorothy kept on reading and at one point, she saw that the whole thing was right there. Plagiarism! She felt violated in a deep way. It was to her as if someone had stolen her soul. As she read on, she realized that there was a section where Agnetta kissed her colleague, this had never happened in real life and it got her very upset because of the implications it could have on her life. Dorothy stopped reading, never did the talkback and hired a lawyer to go see the show firsthand. At the end of the play, the cast came onstage and took questions; a member of the audience asked Bryony Lavery where she got the idea for the play and she replied that she read it from an English Medical magazine.
Dorothy was ok letting people use her medical material, many people had done that before, but this case was different; Bryony did more than that, she took things about Dorothy’s life and that is what made her feel violated. At the request of her lawyer, Dorothy sat down and detailed out what she felt were questionable parts of the play. The material she considered plagiarized was 15 pages long and that was enough to indict Bryony for theft. Bryony on her part didn’t know what was coming after her, but as the news of the alleged plagiarism went out, her future stage events got immediately cancelled. Newspapers ran articles accusing her of plagiarism and that’s how her career was destroyed.
Plagiarism as most of us may have noticed from the above stories have gone from being bad literary manners to something much closer to a crime. Whether one is guilty or not guilty, a simple charge of plagiarism seems sufficient enough to destroy someone’s life. This piece, aims at examining the concept of plagiarism, why some get away with it and others don’t and finally, and why modern technology tools seem inapt to repost.
Do people own ideas?
Thomas Jefferson made a very profound explanation for ideas in 1813, he understood that ideas were not properties, or if they were, they differed from owners. The famous statement says;
He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.Thomas Jefferson
To make it more explicit, what Jefferson meant was that if you reading this decide to give me your house or a little financial token for this piece ( 1k), I’d have the house or money and you wouldn’t anymore. But if you give decide instead to give me an idea, I’d have the idea and you’ll still have the idea. Ideas don’t have just one owner but they can be possessed by a number of owners and still be potent. That strange analysis is the source of this post.
La force de l’expérience
The 7th of October 2018 saw the announcement of the presidential campaign slogan; “the force of experience” by President Paul Biya of Cameroon. Later during the campaign, the CPDM presented to the Cameroonian public a bus with the same slogan; la force de l’expérience attached to it and this bus toured the whole city.
Nonetheless, days after the launch of his slogan many sources were quick to expose it as being a copy and paste of the 2005 slogan used by the late Gabonese president Omar Bongo. The bus as it stands wasn’t Paul Biya’s idea, he borrowed it from a fellow campaign candidate Serge Espoir Matomba.
The more social media influencers spoke about it, the more it got ignored. Until date, the news of president Biya’s plagiarism hasn’t made any official news. Why?
Transformative borrowing vs derivative borrowing.
Social media and technology in general is changing the social fabric and perception of intellectual property. As of the moment of this writing, I went online and searched for one of my favorite songs “fireflies” by Owl City and discovered that they were many versions of this song. Some did cartoon versions with the song on playback, others cut the video into pieces and published sections of the song – explaining after each section the impact it has had on their lives; others converted the song into alarms; others now use it for memes; others posted the with images displaying its lyrics. Talk less of websites sharing the song and its lyrics.
Also, behind most successful (or unsuccessful) books are legions of fans who write their own sequels using their favorite author’s characters in slightly altered worlds. These extended imaginative narratives are called fan fiction, or fanfic. They are unofficial—without the original authors’ cooperation or approval and tend to mix elements from more than one book or author. Their chief audience is other avid fans. I traffic in this space a lot. Others on YouTube create music videos made by matching and mixing soundtracks with edited clips from hit movies. Or they clip scenes from a favorite movie or movie star, which are then edited to fit an unlikely song. That is called transformative borrowing.
Conversely, When I go to WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram stories, I am always very quick to notice people sharing in groups and posting on their status, quotes like; “never quit; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; love your neighbors as yourself” and a lot more. These are people posting material not belonging to them and not indicating who the real authors are. They sometimes even go as far as putting their names as authors. That is derivative borrowing. (May I presume that you reading are guilty of this charge sometimes?)
The challenge of our times unlike centuries before where mechanisms for theft detection or official denouncement of borrowed material for books were put in place like; quotation marks, page numbers, indexes and bibliographic references all invented in the 13th century enabling scholars and skeptics to consult and clarify sources that influenced the concept. The cry is that we don’t have such parallel tools in the video world – talk less of the social media world. Sharing and uploading through modern tech tools make derivative borrowing very easy. Transformative borrowing was the means by which the have-nots, the lazy and everyone could traffic in intellectual spaces remaining untouched, why? Because there was progress through transformation. All writers especially of the 21st Century are transformative borrowers; why? Because, after all what writers do is dip into a limited database of established words, called a dictionary, and reassemble these found words into articles, novels, and poems that no one has ever seen before. There are very few rare writers who are forced to invent new words. Even the greatest writers do their magic primarily by borrowing formerly used, commonly shared words and mixing them up to form great ideas. Same thing with movies, many experts claim that Hollywood has just six plot and these plots has being repeated in different forms and with different actors with just slight changes. I don’t believe it is six, I think it is three; comedy, tragedy and tragic-comedy.
At a foundational level, aren’t we all guilty of plagiarism? From sources like the Bible, and the dictionary? I know those are very distant cases but do you even own ideas? Or ideas own you? In a society like ours, it is very difficult to be original. Nigerian movies have used the same titles countless times like Missing Rib, The power of love even Game of thrones which was later adopted by Hollywood, was first used by Nigerians. Sometimes we think we are original meanwhile someone had already done/ used what we are thinking of. People may find themselves lifting material whether they like it or not. The surest way to make it out safely is through transformation. Presidents, senators and business men are not occasionally but recurrently guilty of plagiarism even though they go free of any charge. The goal of literary work is evolution, and this evolution can take place when we are inspired by others work. Occasionally, when I debate people and I find them using ideas I once wrote or shared with them, I don’t feel violated, I rather feel elevated.
The limits of plagiarism charges
Now back to Frozen, Dorothy claimed that one of the things that hurt her most about Frozen was that Agnetha turned out to have had an affair with her collaborator, David Nabkus. Dorothy feared that people would think she had had an affair with her collaborator, Jonathan Pincus. That to her was slander, “I’m recognizable in that. Enough people have called me and said, ‘Dorothy, it’s about you’, and if everything up to that point is true, then the affair becomes true in the mind” she said.
“It’s been absolutely bloody, really, because it attacks my own notion of my character,” Bryony said, sitting at Dorothy’s kitchen table. “It feels absolutely terrible. I’ve had to go through this pain for being careless. I’d like to repair what happened, and I don’t know how to do that. I just didn’t think I was doing the wrong thing … and then the article comes out in the New York Times and every continent in the world is after me... I wish I could make things better for each time I kept indicating where I took the idea and thought that was enough”
If you have been following all along, we can all agree that it must have been devastating for Dorothy to sit in the audience and see her “character” admit to that professional affair. The untold truth nonetheless, is that Bryony had every right to create an affair for Agnetha, because Agnetha is not Dorothy. She is a fictional character, drawn from Dorothy’s life but endowed with a completely imaginary set of circumstances and actions. Another truth is that Dorothy was upset not just about how Bryony copied her life story, but about how Bryony changed her life story. She was not upset about plagiarism, She was upset about art—about the use of old words in the service of a new idea. But Bryony has constantly admitted the source of her idea. Those that make her less artistic?
Ndikum Ivoline on her part faced a jury so aghast at her cheating, everyone knew she had failed and was definitely repeating. But the jury president and the other jury member decided to grant Ivoline a 10/20 on both work; which is an average but pass mark.
What caught my attention was the murmuring and fidgeting in an out of the hall on the subject. Many accused her of being lazy, others of being a terrible copier (plagiarist), others of being unlucky etc. but none of them felt the guilt of having ever plagiarized or copied, or rather, the gratitude of succeeding in other environments because of its permissibility. Ivoline had a terrible defense before the jury, she was ostracized by her peers, and felt like a disgrace before her parents. I’m not sure she ever stepped foot in ESSTIC again, but that is the outcome of shame – that in turn creates internal guilt.
In her case, one of derivative borrowing, she went out without blemish. In Cameroon, we aren’t very hostile to plagiarism, we put it in the category of shameful deeds not crimes of guilt. When everyone wrote about the president’s plagiarism, it wasn’t in a bid to destroy his administration but to shame them for not being original after 7 years of thought over a befitting slogan.
There is a famous line in “Guilty by reason of insanity” by Dorothy Lewis which is “The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom.”
Was Ivoline’s case a crime of evil or illness? I think it was the former hence, a sin.
Was Bryony’s case a crime of evil of illness? I think it was the later – symptom.
What of President Paul Biya? I will let you answer that.
Question to Ponder
What is the thin line between coincidence, inspiration and plagiarism?
The Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe was accused of lifting material from the historian Henry Abraham for his 1985 book, “God Save This Honorable Court.” What did the charge amount to? In an exposé that appeared in the conservative publication The Weekly Standard, Joseph Bottum produced a number of examples of close paraphrasing, but the crux was this one borrowed sentence: “Taft publicly pronounced Pitney to be a ‘weak member’ of the Court to whom he could not assign cases.” That’s it. Nineteen words.
Should professor’s career be destroyed? Why is it that the ethics that govern copying is very strict in the writing universe than it is in other content creation spaces?
Should plagiarism become a crime of guilt or a shameful deed? Please drop your comments below and please drop your good ideas and advice below that other readers can now possess even though, you’d still posses them.
Verberi Leslie Micheal