"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 25 September 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Steal This Article



Not so long ago, in another life,

I was a freshman composition

instructor at a small liberal

arts college in Boston. I lasted

long enough to bore a few dozen

students about Tom Wolfe's deft

use of the run-on sentence, and

to acquire a passive cynicism

regarding the perfunctory

reading habits and fragile

literacy of the "younger

generation." (I was 24 at the

time.) Oh, and I also had the

opportunity to fully discover

the clumsy, venal charms of

undergraduate plagiarism.


[Term Paper]

Although I never had the pleasure

to receive a fraud of

urban-legend caliber - no

heirloom duplicates, nothing I

remembered from my own

undergraduate oeuvre - the

steady stream of pilferages I

did get were sufficiently devoid

of subtlety to convince me that

such legends have at least some

basis in truth. What were my

students thinking, I wondered.

In one paper, they had trouble

shepherding a single thought

through the short run of a

simple sentence. In the next,

they wove whole paragraphs

together in the capable, dead

gray prose of the debate-team

doctrinaire. Did they imagine I

wouldn't notice the change?


On such occasions, I'd simply

look at what I'd given the

plagiarist on his or her last

authentic effort, and then mark

the counterfeit a half-grade

lower. Along with this

deflation, I usually tried to

add a cryptic comment or two -

"Lacks the temperature of your

last one!" - in the hope that I

might at least reinforce the

skepticism with which these

nascent expropriators viewed the

judgement of their elders. To me

that was an acceptable

compromise, a tiny lesson I

could sneak through the hazy

atmosphere of indifference that

enveloped them.



Most teachers lack such idealism,

though; despite the urban

legends, plagiarism is a

zero-tolerance affair for them.

Blatant imitation may be a

routinely accepted practice when

it comes to fashion, fragrance,

hairstyles, food products, Las Vegas

architecture, and Elvis

imitators, the authority of the

written word - at least in the

minds of literary custodians

like Glatt Plagiarism Services -

remains inviolate.



But even despite the efforts of

such high-tech originality

fetishists, our desire to claim

the words of others as our own

seems at least as instinctive as

our desire to get high. And with

the advent of the web, which is

to plagiarism what crack is to

violent, glassy-eyed babbling,

this desire shows little sign of

abating. Indeed, at this very

moment, you're just a click and

a credit card away from enough

term papers to earn you a

thousand college degrees

without ever having to visit a

library or put pen to paper.



Of course, the proprietors of

such sites are generally a

little more circumspect about

stating the true utility of

their products. These papers are

"for research purposes only,"

they all carefully exclaim, in

the grand tradition of

methamphetamine chefs and

bomb-making aficionados.



But, really, what great crime is

it in the grander scheme of

things if a budding infopreneur

hires the local coffeehouse

Heidegger to pen a few ponderous

pages for him? The fact that

there are so many desperate

pencil-nibblers willing to take

the lower-than-burger-flipping

wages that term paper mills

shell out for such work shows

you how much that particular

skill is worth. The real money

goes to the people who broker

content, not the sad dupes who

create it. The students who

recognize this fact early on

gravitate quickly toward

plagiarism; it's the best way to

bone up on one's

content-acquisition skills. At

the same time, it frees up

valuable hours for more

career-enhancing pursuits like

golf and schmoozing.


The idea that words could be

property played a crucial role

in the development of our

beloved consumer culture; if

something as physically abstract

as a story or a piece of news

could be bought and sold, then

anything could. Not long after

the printing press changed

information distribution from a

collective, oral process to a

personal, property-based one,

England was creating the first

copyright statute and we were

well on our way to our current

climate of ludicrous

first-strike trademarking.


[Steal This]

Which is simply to say, maybe

we've taken this

ownership-of-words thing a bit

too far. Certainly, it served

its purpose, but now in the age of

hyper-capitalism, isn't it

limiting to insist that a

collection of paragraphs have

only one owner? After all, it's

not just college students who

plagiarize. Literary wannabes,

and even seemingly accomplished

writers and journalists do it

all the time. Clearly, people

have shown that they see a value

in attaching their name to

someone else's work, so why not

exploit this?



Indeed, except for pornographers,

the only publishers on the web

who are actually getting people

to pay for content are the ones

who implicitly offer this right:

the term paper mills. As

fish-or-cut-bait time approaches

for Michael Kinsley and his

long-promised threat of Slate

subscription fees, perhaps he

should consider this fact. Most

of the articles on Slate are

boring enough to pass as term

papers, and already, parodists -

those half-siblings of the

plagiarist - have begun to

appropriate the site's singular

aesthetic and editorial

drone... We all know what's

good for Microsoft is good for

the web, so [as part of our continuing

series devoted to acquisition

and expansion -ed.] may I suggest

that selling authorship both

drains the parodist pool and

strengthens readership ties?


That Microsoft might make its

next fortune by allowing others

to present its ideas as their

own is a notion so suffused with

irony, even the most indifferent

undergraduate could appreciate

it. And I'll even let Gates take

credit for the scheme. For a

small fee, of course.

courtesy of St. Huck