Plagiarism in Creative Context

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Yes, I know, you think your book or blog post idea is original. It’s not. Over 3,000 years ago, King Solomon reminded us, “What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Our job as creatives is to transform existing ideas into new and interesting expressions of them.

What is plagiarism? It is, “The practice of taking someone else’s work and passing it off as one’s own.”  It is nothing more than that even though there are forces that seek to obscure that simple definition.  In my decades as a writer, editor, writing coach, and mentor {I’m not a lawyer), I have discovered that many writers are confused by that obscurification.

They fear copyright infringement on one hand and plagiarism on the other or are in ignorant bliss about it all. Unless you are cutting and pasting the content that belongs to others and claiming it as your own, then you should have no fear about either of these.

Plagiarism Bullies Will Stifle Your Creativity

Be aware that an entire “Plagiarism Industry” has come into being in the Internet Age. They make millions of dollars by charging fees to individuals, educational institutions, and businesses to compare a written document with billions of pages on the Internet in a witch hunt for duplicated content. These corporate bullies, with academics as their accomplices, are out to intimidate you with likely false accusations. These avaricious people have purportedly expanded the definition of plagiarism beyond reason (see below) to increase their profits, and that has a chilling effect on creativity.

I ran this post through one of the corporate “Plagiarism Checkers.” It red-flagged 11% of what I have written here as being plagiarized. When I traced the sources, however, I saw only a few common word clusters (3-5 words in a row) were the same, and they varied from site to site. Those familiar word patterns were used in completely different contexts.

What content did I allegedly rip-off the most for the post you are now reading? According to the plagiarism checker, it was an article about the 2013 Chevrolet Equinox on the CarMax site. That’s not plagiarism. That’s just the Plagiarism Industry Goon Squad trying to terrorize writers by identifying plagiarism that doesn’t exist.

Your role as a writer is to take existing information and reshape it into something unique. You use existing information and transform it to meet specific needs in a unique way. Humans are all dipping into the same river of ideas, and you are free to include them in your work.

Academics Are Often Abusive About Plagiarism

I don’t hate academics. Keep in mind that I have a couple of Master’s degrees and have taught at the university level. I even won a national educator award.  But when it comes to the issue of plagiarism, I believe most educators are misguided and abusive.

Students can get an “F” in a course, or even kicked out of school if the professor discovers a student has plagiarized someone. Is this just? I don’t think so.

The reality is, when plagiarism occurs, it generally means the professor has failed the student. Rather than humiliating a student plagiarist, students should be getting additional training that includes:

  • Learning the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism
  • The true nature of plagiarism (as I offer here)
  • How to properly document sources
  • How to manage time
  • How to think

In my teaching experience, I found that most plagiarists took the chance because they did not manage their time properly. They cut and pasted something together at the last minute to meet a deadline. Most academics would rather play the nasty game of “Gotcha” and eject a student rather than help the student learn to budget time so it doesn’t happen again.

Academics are the real villains of plagiarism because so many of them teach students WHAT to think rather than HOW to think. Ideologically-driven academics have no interest in inspiring students to develop independent thinking. And without independent thought, they create a whole new class of plagiarists. People who know HOW to think have no need to plagiarize the work of others.

Notable People Who Escaped Academic Punishment

While ordinary students are often humiliated by academics, well-connected people seem to get away with plagiarism. There are undoubtedly many thousands of cases, but let me mention two by way of illustration. My examples have nothing to do with race or politics. Both examples are people who happen to be in the public consciousness.

Martin Luther King Jr was a proven plagiaristDr, Martin Luther King, Jr. As he entered the Civil Rights arena, the Rev. King decided to get a Ph.D. at Boston University. Even though King had undergraduate and theological degrees and knew academic writing protocols, his doctoral dissertation was riddled with plagiarism.

A special Boston University committee reported (quoted from the New York Times):

There is no question but that Dr. King plagiarized in the dissertation by appropriating material from sources not explicitly credited in notes, or mistakenly credited, or credited generally and at some distance in the text from a close paraphrase or verbatim quotation.

Normally, a university would revoke the doctoral degree if the person took credit for the words of others as if they were his own. That is the definition of plagiarism. However, Boston University did not do that. They said, “No thought should be given to the revocation of Dr. King’s doctoral degree” because, they indicated, it would serve no purpose, not even, apparently, as a deterrent to other would-be plagiarists.

They ended up putting a note about the plagiarism in the university library copy of Dr. King’s dissertation. And in 2018, President Trump designated the Martin Luther King Jr. birthplace a National Historic Park. So. maybe academics are making too much of the plagiarism issue.

Joe Biden is a serial plagiaristJoseph Biden. Biden graduated from the University of Delaware and presumably learned how to write papers there. Most people learn that skill and its protocols on that level. However, when he reached Syracuse University College of Law, he was accused of plagiarism. Did he clip a sentence here and there and call it his own? No, his paper was 15 pages, and he ripped-off 5 pages of it from a law review article. However, Biden was personable, had potential, and only failed the course for his wrong-doing, and was not kicked out of law school.

How did Biden later characterize his blatant plagiarism? He called it a mistake of his youth,  even though he was 25 and married. He said his cheating was not “malevolent,” whatever that means. He told a reporter that he had simply misunderstood the need to cite sources carefully. As a former educator, I can say this sounds like a “the dog ate my homework” excuse if I ever heard one.

Many people don’t realize that Biden ran for President in 1987. But he was forced to withdraw because of his continued plagiarism. Reporters discovered that he was actively plagiarizing John F. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey, and British politician Neil Kinnock. His student plagiarism came to light at that point.  Biden was a proven serial plagiarist, yet that did not stop him from serving 36 years as a U.S. Senator, two terms as Vice President, and attempting two runs for the office of U.S. President.

These examples (and more like them) tend to confirm that plagiarism is an academic conceit.  If you have money, social or political power, and a nice personality, you can steal all you want and academics will look the other way.

My conclusion is that academia and the Plagiarism Industry are doing a disservice to students by citing a lack of ethics as the malaise behind plagiarism. If excuses can be made for King and Biden, then they can be made for anyone. Yes, there should still be stiff penalties for egregious affronts, like for students who buy entire papers from the Internet and claim them as their own work. Otherwise, plagiarism should be a cause to further educate students as I have noted above. They should only get bounced if they are proven to be serial plagiarists.

Creatives Differ From Academics

Should creatives like authors and bloggers be subject to draconian academic and Plagiarism Industry rules? No. Plagiarism is just “The practice of taking someone else’s work and passing them off as one’s own” and nothing more. Writers need to be called out when they break that rule, but it should never be used as a weapon against them.

The Questionable Assumption that You Can Plagiarize Ideas

The expansion of the meaning of plagiarism by academics and the Plagiarism Industry is especially problematic. For example, they say you cannot take someone else’s idea and claim it as your own. While that may be true when it comes to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or patented ideas, it does not apply to most other ideas. To me, documenting the sources of the ideas behind an idea is facetious. Civilization was built on borrowing and adapting the ideas of others. The more poetic types generally refer to this process as “Standing on the shoulders of giants.” There should be no stigma attached to gathering the best ideas and reinterpreting them for our times. Once you transform an idea, it becomes your idea.

Just because academics have rules they want to enforce upon students does not mean they apply to creatives. And the Plagiarism Industry? They are often nothing more than the travel agents who wish to send you on an expensive guilt trip.

You can’t copyright an idea, and any damages against stealing an idea by way of plagiarism are mostly bull-froggery. Say—I have an idea for a movie about people who launch into space and the heroes fight against aliens. Is my idea for “A Trip to the Moon” (1898), “Star Wars” (1977), or the newest Star Trek film yet to be released? It is absurd to suggest you can plagiarize an idea except in certain extremely rare cases. It is the specific expression of the idea that matters, not the idea itself.

Academics are notorious for sharing ideas they do not document when you play by their rules, and thus are the most flagrant plagiarists. Every few sentences of their lectures should be punctuated with the source of their comment if they held the same ethical standard to which they hold students. I am not suggesting they do that. I am just suggesting that any requirement to document all source ideas is academic arrogance.

The False Notion of “Self-Plagiarism”

Another absurdity from academia and the Plagiarism Industry is the notion of “self-plagiarism.” Their idea is that reusing research or writing (or any part of it) that you have already published constitutes a vile breach of ethics and is “self-plagiarism.” That may make sense to people doing original research and submitting it to professional journals, but it is hard to see how that applies to students. They paid their tuition and did the work, so they should have the freedom to reuse or rewrite the material for a different class without documenting that fact.

It’s harder to understand how “self-plagiarism” applies to creatives. We are always recycling and repurposing our storehouse of knowledge. That’s what we do. It is completely illogical to suggest that creative people document all the places where they got their ideas, even though they must document exact quotes and close paraphrases. Or that they repurposed a series of blog posts into a book chapter, or a single blog post into a video script. It is entirely ethical to use your own material in a different context without fear of so-called “self-plagiarism.”

Are there any exceptions to this? Only two come to mind, even though there may be other exceptional cases. One is when you write a book and give it a new title. Purchasers should be notified of the old title, usually on the copyright page. The other exception is when you transfer (sell) your copyright to a third party, or when you write under a “work-for-hire” agreement. In these cases, the third-party owns the intellectual property rights, not you. So any so-called self-plagiarism would probably be copyright infringement even though you wrote the original content.

Nevertheless, book authors and bloggers are in the continual process of recycling ideas, both their own and others. It is a legitimate thing to do as long as you are following the three rules below.

Rules for Creatives

In my view, plagiarism is merely a social taboo. It demonstrates sloppy thinking, a lack of respect for other thinkers and writers, and a lack of skill in putting a document together. But plagiarism is not the unforgivable sin. Here are the rules for creatives:

  • Don’t ever cut and paste and call it your own
  • Always give credit where credit is due
  • If you sufficiently transform ideas or content, you own it

Similar ideas are common. Make sure your expression of the idea is presented in a unique way, not a mere paraphrase.

Raconteur Wilson Mizner is credited with saying, “When you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” That’s pretty much the truth. He’s not the first one to convey that idea, however. A researcher reports that idea goes back to at least 1820 in America. He says that Rev. Charles Colton put the same idea this way: “If we steal thoughts from the moderns, it will be cried down as plagiarism; if from the ancients, it will be cried up as erudition.” See what I mean? The idea remains the same, but the expression of it is unique.

Think—and Never Fear Plagiarism Again

This illustration identifies what you must do to make any idea your own. You absorb all the influences on a topic you can, then think about it. Your thought processes transform the idea. Once the transformation takes place, then you are ready to write your own unique expression of the idea. You do not have to credit your transformed idea and your unique expression of it to anyone.

The cure for plagiarism

Of course, most people fail when it comes to the “think” part. Our teachers have taught us what to think, not how to think, as I noted, so we are at a loss. Is it too late for you to learn about to think creatively, to transform ideas? No, not at all.

My students have asked me many times if I could recommend a book that would help them learn this kind of creative thinking process. I recommend Michael J. Gelb’s, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. It will inspire you to think and transform ideas.

Plagiarism in Creative Context

Kirby Ferguson is a kindred spirit of mine. I was developing my own thoughts about creativity and it’s expression decades before I ran across him. I was so pleased to see we were thinking along parallel lines. He documents how creative people reshape existing ideas.

Ferguson has done an excellent job explaining that “Everything is a Remix.” In this entertaining TED Talk video (via YouTube), he explains and illustrates the age-old principle of creativity, which is, as he states it:

  • Copy
  • Transform
  • Combine

If you are afraid to write because you were terrorized by plagiarism fears instilled by some inept high school or college teacher or the Plagiarism Industry, then this video will liberate you.

This version is short (9:42) and I urge you to watch it. Ferguson has done a series of videos on this topic.


Ferguson and I are not the first to talk about the transmutation of ideas. Many others have had an enlightened understanding of what constitutes plagiarism and what does not. One of these people was poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1965). He expressed the same principles I’m sharing here in his book, The Sacred Wood nearly 100 years ago. He said,

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

Needless to say, this idea was not new to Eliot either. The notion goes back into antiquity. Eliot merely reshaped his expression of it from the uncredited ideas of others, as creative people do. As creatives, our business is transforming the ideas of other people, and there is no shame in that.


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