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Oh no! Plagiarism!

Lynne McTaggart, a writer who reached a settlement with Doris Kearns Goodwin after discovering "passage after passage" of her own book reprinted in Goodwin's (and without proper attribution), has an incredibly bland opinion piece in today's New York Times.

Aside from calling plagiarism a "dishonorable act," McTaggart's strongest words are the last of her piece: "Without demanding that writers, famous or struggling, live by a certain literary law and order, we may gradually lose the notion that an individual's unique expression matters." The horror!

It's almost poetic, how that statement practically negates itself without further thought. The possibility that we "may gradually lose" — we may lose it, mind you, and even then, only gradually — the "notion" that something matters isn't exactly a rousing call to arms to begin with. And what is it we may lose the notion of the importance of? Why, "an individual's unique expression"! The thing is, this doesn't really matter all that much to begin with, except perhaps to the individual him- or herself. And the base of such a concern inevitably reveals itself as, essentially, pride.

No, there are better reasons to be concerned about plagiarism than sentiment for the wounded egos of mediocre writers. The one thing McTaggart gets right in her statement is the idea that unique creative expression should be protected (though such expression is notably lacking from her own piece). But that protection is not an end in itself; its value is that it encourages further such expression by preserving an understanding between writer and reader about the authorship of a work, and allowing our society to recognize (and reward) good work.

McTaggart writes that "Writers don't own facts. All that we own is the way we express our thoughts." But this is a grand conceit indeed — no one owns language, either; and plagiarism isn't about ownership. It's about honesty, without which a writer is worthless. That is, it's about the plagiarist, not the plagiarized. The fact that someone has sinned against you makes you no more holy; and the fact that another person uses or steals words that you used first doesn't make them great.

March 16, 2002 3:44 PM

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