2003 MMLA
New Histories of Writing III:
Laws and Crimes

Lisa Maruca
Wayne State University

Plagiarism(s) and Histories

(Endnotes and bibliography will be brought to the conference.)


Plagiarism is a vexed and vexing issue, if we are to judge solely by the amount of rhetoric generated by this issue in the popular media, among educators, and in scholarly articles across a variety of fields. Plagiarism is considered a widespread and growing problem, made easier by information technologies such as the Internet, which allow for easy research and source retrieval—and an easy way to cut and paste without attribution. The problem is believed to add to faculty workload, disrupt the learning process and undermine the nature and value of education itself. Solutions range from the pedagogical—advocating "process" methods and teacher overview of draft preparation—to the technological—subscribing to software such as Turnitin.com, which uses custom algorithms to compare student papers to the Web and other text databases.

Despite the time, energy and resources dedicated to prevention, surveillance and adjudication, however, little work has been done that attempts to dissect the meanings conveyed by "plagiarism." Instead, much of the instructional literature on plagiarism assumes that notions of academic honesty and the citation conventions meant to reflect that ethical grounding are based on universal traditions. It implies that while procedures for recognizing attribution may differ stylistically across disciplines, they derive from a shared, even natural, understanding of authorship, ownership and the construction of knowledge in the academy. My paper claims, on the other hand, that there is very little that can be called "common" about our common sense understanding of these issues. A closer look at the history, rhetorical uses and cultural practices of plagiarism reveals that this concept is actually quite complex, riddled with contradictions and blindspots. I will also examine why plagiarism has become a site around which multiple anxious meanings proliferate, looking at the ways the discourse of plagiarism is ultimately a symptomatic response to perceived threats to textual circulation, regulation and the production of knowledge.

The Problem of/with Plagiarism

Certainly, there is a perception within universities that incidents of student plagiarism are increasing. Anecdotal evidence—hallway chatter—is one unreliable source fueling notions of this rise: as more attention is paid to the issue, educators become more suspicious, questioning papers they used to let pass. Then, thanks to their increased ability to verify cases, using the web or other databases, they find what they seek. This, of course, only increases their suspicions, as well as that of their colleagues to whom they voice their complaints, and the cycle continues.

It may seem that more objective evidence could shed light into the darkness of subjective analyses , yet recent statistics about the pervasiveness of student plagiarism actually tend to complicate rather than clarify the problem. These reports are undermined by that fact that there is a question of what exactly is being discussed—a definitional problem casts doubt on accuracy. As I will show, educators are divided on what exactly constitutes plagiarism, so we cannot expect students to bring a singular definition to their responses. Recent reports, for example, suggest that anywhere from 45% to 80% of high school students admit to cheating, while some 15% to 54% say that have plagiarized from a website. The wide variation itself in the number of cheating and plagiarizing students "discovered" by various surveys suggests that the wording of the question has shaped the response. Further, the discrepancy between cheating rates and plagiarism rates indicates that some students do not consider plagiarism to be cheating, or that they do not consider what they are doing to be plagiarism. Indeed, in a 2003 survey conducted by Rutgers University professor Donald L. McCabe, approximately half the students declared that they did not think it was cheating to copy up to an entire paragraph from the Web.

Granted, most of their teachers are pretty confident that this last does indeed constitute plagiarism. Even among educators, however, plagiarism is seldom as straightforward an issue as they may believe. In the simplest terms, plagiarism is the use, in any public work of writing, art, programming, data collection, etc, of another’s written language without acknowledgement of the original source. Any sort of blatant fraud—such as downloading or purchasing an entire term paper or article and presenting this as one’s own work—is generally reviled as an extreme form of dishonesty. It is also usually considered plagiarism to include in one’s paper any literal word-for-word copying of any length when the originary source is not acknowledged, even, in some cases, when the originary source is one’s own paper for another class. Plagiaristic practices can also, but don’t always, include the failure to provide attribution when presenting another’s conceptions or ideas, whether paraphrasing or summarizing. This is complicated by the fact that what is considered "common knowledge"—which usually does not need to be cited—varies from discipline to discipline, among student levels within a discipline, and among individual students at each level. Sometimes, using quotation marks but not citations, or listing sources only at the end of a paper, without providing appropriate attribution within the text, may be considered plagiarism, though this might also be more accurately called improper citation. This last reminds us that the issue of intentionality—difficult to prove or deny—complicates definitional approaches all the more.

The academy is not alone in its confusion about how to define plagiarism. Accusations of plagiarism against prominent figures such as civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, fiction writer Yann Martel, and New York Times reporter Jayson Blair reveal how complex, how contested, and how micro-culturally biased representations of unattributed "recycled" writing may be. All these writers—working in diverse settings with disparate norms, values and expectations governing the texts they produced—had detractors and proponents, and in each case, a variety of issues were brought forward that were not, superficially at least, related to plagiarism itself. The King controversy, for example has been used as ammunition by conservative forces in arguments about academic political correctness and the so-called "cultural wars." Attempts to understand King’s unattributed source use as part of the African-American oral homiletic tradition were seen as a cover-up, or one more case of special privileges being offered to protected minorities. Goodwin’s year-long media brouhaha elicited comments about academic research techniques, the role of the popular historian, sexist double-standards among historians, and the nature of media scandals themselves. Martel’s case engendered debate over literary prizes, the post-colonial appropriation of discourse, the inspirational sources of fiction, and (again) the nature of media scandals themselves. Finally, Blair’s "outing" shook the foundations of an august news source, raised questions about newsroom management technique, and called into question affirmative action hiring practices. The very fact that each incident seems inseparable from topics not directly related to the unregulated repetition of written texts shows the difficulty in defining plagiarism in and of itself. It is a topic that can only ever be understood through its context, embedded as it is in a variety of other cultural discourses, and deployed for certain interests.

Despite this variety, Blair’s case itself reveals one of the most common patterns in the rhetoric of plagiarism. While the term plagiarism was bandied about freely in descriptions of his transgressions, few reports noted that in the actual accusation—released in a detailed listing by the Times itself—most of the offenses were variations of deception. The few examples actually labeled as "plagiarism" were a sentence or shorter, and were mostly lifted interview quotes. Since Blair did give credit to the "author" of these quotes—the person being interviewed—though not the person eliciting and transcribing these quotes into a story, "plagiarism" seems an odd indictment, not nearly as apropos as the factual errors and "whereabouts" fabrications of which he was also accused. Clearly, Blair did violate several journalistic codes of conduct, including the norms of treating other reporters’ work. However, it also seems that in his case "plagiarism—in its most ambiguous and slippery sense—" is being found, again, only because it is being sought. It is being deployed, moreover, precisely because of its juridical associations and the moral-ethical capital it conveys. This protects the Times, and journalism more broadly, by pointing to plagiarism as an individual rather than institutional issue: the paper paid lip service to "being responsible" for Blair, but only in the sense of an editorial "chain of command" made up of other individuals—not as a larger culture supporting a regime of writing that might lead logically to the very practices they purport to abhor. Thus, the Blair case illustrates that despite the colloquial use of "stealing" as a synonym for "plagiarizing," it is a crime not of property as much as propriety—in other words, plagiarism is a violation of that which is considered proper, in good taste, and conforming to a sense of decency in accordance with micro-cultural norms. Indeed, plagiarism is used to buttress whatever the local text customs may be, in the service of the textual ideology that supports those.

But how local is custom? Even among educators alone, the understanding of the issues surrounding plagiarism may vary according to one’s theoretical, methodological or ideological framework. In reviewing the plentiful literature on this topic, which varies from books and published articles to instructional handouts and "how-to-avoid" websites and videos, I have been able to divide the academic rhetoric of plagiarism into several categories that describe practitioners’ understanding of and approach to the issue. These "schools of thought" vary widely in their assumptions about the causes and effects of plagiarism, as well as their understanding of the technologies, cultural norms and sites of writing that generate and regulate textual circulation. However, each view has in common that it draws on a particular notion of history—specifically, the histories of authorship, the literary market, intellectual property law or plagiarism itself—to support its claims about the present.

Plagiarism and Tradition

One of the many approaches toward plagiarism might be called "traditionalist." This academic subculture utilizes a "common sense" or mainstream understanding of plagiarism that is believed to be based in deeply rooted and shared cultural traditions. It is apparent in so-called "classic" popular works such as Thomas Mallon’s Stolen Words as well as in works by such respected literary historians as Christopher Ricks; indeed, some surveys suggest that most university faculty support this view. Discussions of plagiarism utilizing this approach—which includes most university policies—call on perceptions of universal moral standards in casting all sorts of plagiarism as cheating or deception, in contrast to "honest source use." Many of these policies thus fail to distinguish between types of plagiarism or the differing conventions governing writing tasks. They also do not factor in intentionality—whether or not a student writer purposely sets out to deceive his or her teachers—or deficiencies in understanding the norms of source use. Indeed, policies governing plagiarism are often found under codes of academic integrity, honesty, dishonesty, misconduct, or other morally-laden terms, all of which serve to make this clearly and essentially an issue of individual ethics. Because this approach decries plagiarism as fundamentally and unequivocally transgressive, equivalent to theft or at best deceit, it often uses extreme language in describing it: Pappas, for example, calls plagiarism a "form of cheating and . . . an act of mendacity," and labels the plagiarist a "two-bit thug" (30); Timothy Noah’s Slate.com article on the Goodwin scandal is titled, pointedly, "Doris Kearns Goodwin, Liar" and is accompanied by this depiction of a physical theft:

This group also worries that this sort of cheating is becoming an acceptable part of the student culture of high schools and colleges. Conservative cultural critics such as Theodore Pappas place the blame for this attitude on permissive parenting, fuzzy social values and the moral relativism engendered by the "liberal academy." Even the National Review has found it necessary to weigh in on this issue recently, to once more sound the drum beat that universities are filled with "French-bathed barbarians in pursuit of destroying Western Civilization" (Goldberg, n.p.). Pappas is representative of a larger group, then, when he links what is in his view a dangerous redefinition of plagiarism to postmodernism and deconstructionism, and,

their nefarious offspring—multiculturalism, cultural relativism, political correctness and their many manifestations, from sensitivity seminars and diversity training to the war of defamation on the cultural inheritance of old Europe, on the Anglo-American traditions of our country, and on white Western males and their achievements in general. (24)

Such recent interlopers are seen to be disrupting a long humanistic history of fighting tradition. Ricks asserts in a lecture to the British Academy that while their may be "grey areas" (22) in which adjudication is difficult, the definition—and the moral ramifications of that definition—is stark and simple. He dates this obvious view of plagiarism to at least the first century A.D. and Martial’s epigrams. Any critics who offer counter-examples are merely excusing with "exculpatory bonhomie" (36) the crimes of past writers, a move Ricks sees as fundamentally immoral in itself. He ignores the ways in which all the terms he uses—writing, authorship, copying—have fundamentally morphed along with the media and communication contexts supporting these.

Plagiarism and Technology

Another approach to plagiarism focuses on the media and technologies that support it. One branch of this school, the members of which we might call traditional technologists, shares much in common with the previous approach, as they also define plagiarism in simple moral terms based on a presumption of universally shared values. However, they see recent changes in media culture as fundamentally corrupting these values: as the World Wide Web increasingly becomes students’ primary research tool, new technology-based forms of plagiarism are believed to proliferate and are seen as a cause for alarm. Thus advice books such as Ann Lathrop and Kathleen Foss’ Student Cheating and Plagiarism in the Internet Era: A Wake-Up Call appear with cover decorated in a fiery motif of red, yellow and orange.

This book use the language of warfare in chapter titles such as "A Call to Action," "Things are Bad and Getting Worse," "Information as a First Line of Defense," "High Tech Defenses" and "Be Vigilant about Cheating and Plagiarism" to emphasize the inherent danger to academic integrity and to urge educators to mobilize. This general feeling of threat is extended in rhetoric of biological warfare: according to the senior editor of The American School Board Journal, plagiarism (which is never differentiated from cheating) is seen as an "epidemic" and "a plague" on the American school system (Bushweller xi).

Because students can easily download or cut and paste not only from a variety of legitimate sites, but also digital "paper mills"—online businesses that sell completed student papers—the most egregious forms of plagiarism are seen as becoming easier than ever. Whether this is an actual fact or not is difficult to ascertain, as I mentioned before; certainly the inflated language used to describe it creates an environment of hyper-vigilance. (Indeed, considering that paper files have long been maintained by fraternities and sororities, digital paper mills such as schoolsucks.com may only be a democratization of fraud.) Nonetheless, some believe that the only way to combat the increased opportunities for "cyber-plagiarism" provided by these is to turn to technology itself. Search engines such as Google can in seconds track down a Web source used by students when a teacher enters a problematic phrase, or an even entire sentence. Furthermore, services now exist—Turnitin.com is one of the most widely used—that provide online plagiarism-detection software. Many universities or individual departments do subscribe, since even when teachers do not actually use these services, there is evidence that warning students about this possibility works as a deterrent. This is in spite of the fact that ethical and legal questions have been raised about the violation of students’ privacy—every paper submitted becomes part of the business’ database—and about the pedagogical value of responding to all student work with suspicion.

Another approach to understanding Internet-specific plagiarism, however, suggests that these sorts of counter moves are at best futile, at worst, reactionary responses. Those in this branch of the technological approach, who we might label postmodern technologists, see the ease with which students can copy from the Internet not as a temptation, but a new way of thinking about the creation and circulation of texts. From the beginning, new media supporters have drawn on historical studies to highlight the different practices of writing supported by current communication technologies in contrast to those based in the market- and property-driven forms of print. This view of the ways in which digital media fundamentally reshape our assumptions can be traced back at least to Ted Nelson, who not only coined the term "hypertext" in the 1960s, but also claimed it would bring about a "rebirth of literacy" (Landow 170). Even in its earliest, pre-Web form, the flexible and interactive nature of the hypertext environment was thought to be incompatible with the stability necessary to support the regime of proprietary authorship and copyright law. As Jay David Bolter details:

As long as the printed book remains the primary medium of literature, traditional views of the author as authority . . . will remain convincing for most readers. The electronic medium, however, threatens to bring down the whole edifice at once. . . . [I]t denies the fixity of the text, and it questions the authority of the author. (153)

Because it was interactive and non-linear, allowing readers to decide which of the many links they would pursue, hypertext was thought to be able to strip this primary author of his vestments of solitary genius and originality, concepts funding notions of plagiarism. More recent claims also contend that new media forms generate a new ethos, the "Napsterization of knowledge" or a GenX "cultural commons" as it has been termed, and that popular notions of the morality of plagiarism are thus outdated. Much on the Web, after all, is collective and/or anonymous, and most web authoring is not compensated financially. Web pages often contain chunks of other pages and graphics freely circulate—all without attribution. The Web’s ephemeral nature is thought to be fundamentally incompatible with the fixity of print text that is required for "real" plagiarism.

Interestingly, traditional technologists rely on the same historical contrast of print and digital forms to decry this trend and urge a continuation of print-based ways of understanding and regulating the copying of texts. Mallon, for example, laments the easy and more casual approach to writing and research spawned by the Web and argues for "retention of the printed, bound book" (248). In this common plea we see the ease in which the familiar—print—becomes the neutral ground against which new media are constructed and compared. Print/digital becomes a fixed binary reinscribing moral nature vs. pernicious technology. This traditional approach, however, merely reverses the terms used by postmodern technologists: both groups create a media-essential notion of plagiarism, ignoring the social and discursive construction of communication machines and the mores that order their use.

Plagiarism and Pedagogy

Many of those concerned about student plagiarism—whether they draw on traditionalist or technology-based approaches to understand it—assert that a large part of the ethical responsibility for this problem lies with educators themselves. The former focus on ways instructors can structure classrooms to actively prevent plagiarism, which they see as a lurking threat. Some insist that the core value of academic integrity, while unassailable in itself, should not be taken for granted as understood by the uninitiated, but instead should be routinely explained to and discussed with students. Others suggest that teachers develop assignments that are difficult to plagiarize because of their specificity, their reliance on course materials, or their relevance to student lives and individual opinions.

On the other hand, many composition instructors assert that while academic dishonesty should be condemned, research methodology, source use and citation practices need to be more rigorously taught to students as conventions, not innate textual principles. Indeed, some believe that "patchwriting," as Rebecca Howard terms the linking together of several paraphrases from unacknowledged sources, is an important stage in the evolution of student knowledge and rhetorical skill. They may also view plagiarism as a problem in the development of "voice," a reflection of a student’s lack of confidence in his or her own opinions and authority, or a misunderstanding of the very purposes of academic writing. Because they see plagiarism as a complex learning issue, these educators question the morality of "prosecuting" students for their ignorance or lack of ability, and resent the negative effects that the "policing" of plagiarism has on teacher-student relations. The few policy statements written by this camp thus classify plagiarism into two-tiers, distinguishing purposeful fraud from accidental source misuse. The slippery nature of "intent to deceive," however, is seldom interrogated.

Unfortunately, in constructing this student-centered approach to plagiarism, most compositionists have relied rather simplistically on histories of authorship and intellectual property emerging in the last two decades. They see plagiarism as fundamentally connected to copyright and so emerging directly—and artificially—from the consolidation of the literary market. With a vested interested in seeing their writing as property, it is believed, a new class of professional writers begin representing plagiarism as a pressing moral and artistic concern. Pivotal moments such as the passing of the 1709 Act of Anne and the publication of Edward Young’s "Conjectures on Original Genius" are claimed for the "birth" of modern attitudes toward plagiarism. Indeed, these two disparate events are often conflated, ignoring the complex cultural negotiations that took place before, between and after these events. Because this group sees plagiarism as ultimately an artificial and old-fashioned construct, though, its historical subtleties are often seen as irrelevant to today’s writing pedagogy.

Plagiarism and the Uses of History

What all these approaches have in common is that they are creating an unbroken, homogenous lineage for the concept of and reaction towards plagiarism, whether that lineage starts with ancient man looking over the shoulder of another to amplify his own scratchings, with a Latin poet so inflamed as to use "kidnapping" to describe the transgression, with a Renaissance courtier taking umbrage (or not) when his verses flow from the pen of another, or when a published novelist deploys emerging concepts of singular genius to buttress his calls for increased protection from literary pirates. The only question to be debated is which history is correct: did plagiarism always exist as a serious moral transgression or is it a more recent invention? That is, is outrage at appropriated text a natural and universal response or merely an outdated habit of false consciousness? This bifurcated view has implications for current practices: we either take plagiarism as seriously as our wise elders did, continuing to fight their good fight against it, or we dismiss it as an eighteenth- (or seventeenth- or sixteenth-) century contrivance whose time has now passed. As Bertrand Goldgar similarly noted in his Afterword to a collection of essays, Plagiarism in Early Modern England, "either one believes that what the world calls "plagiarism" has some mode of existence and is a moral issue related to thefts or acts of appropriation, or one thinks it is an illusion, a term rendered meaningless because there is no possibility of originality" (215). Such a view makes the plagiarism issue simple, indeed: it is merely a matter of choosing teams.

All of these uses of history, however, ignore the fact that, even as the concept of singular authorial genius did slowly became culturally dominant, alternative understandings of the sanctity of originary text and ways of judging the acceptability of derivative practices flourished. In the search for the origins of plagiarism, what has been neglected is the subtle, shaded and fundamentally contested nature of the issue. Plagiarism has never had one meaning, but is a dialogic and elastic concept. I do not refer here to historical changes in meaning, but distinctions within a given period, among different groups with sometimes opposing stakes in plagiaristic practices. Locating these multiple understandings of plagiarism demands, however, that we set aside our own moral or theoretical certainties on the issue. It is only when, as Paula McDowell has put it, we venture "into the realm of what seems strange to us" that we begin to understand "not only our own literary values and agendas, but also . . . those values’ original sociocultural functions and consequences" (McDowell 16). "Strangeness" can be useful, though, only if we take care not to make it so exotic that we homogenize its Otherness. When we look, for example, as I will, at turn-of-the-eighteenth-century notions of plagiarism, we do not discover the monolithic early-Enlightenment mode of thinking, but see linguistic registers through and against which notions about writing are produced. Understood this way, "plagiarism" becomes an unstable notion, continually making and re-making itself.

In our search for new plagiarisms, one certainty we must resist is the idea that plagiarism is fundamentally a writer’s issue. Usually, histories of plagiarism draw on as evidence the reports of always already canonical authors, often the "victims" themselves of textual appropriation. These writers are taken as the cultural voice, the last word in the definition of a given period. I would like to suggest, however, that just as we see these conflicting views on plagiarism circulating in our own time, we look at historical definitions as similarly competing for discursive space in the cultural arena. Authors, after all, were not the only ones with an interest in these issues, and the focus on plagiarized authors’ voices itself perpetuates the "crime" model of plagiarism by upholding certain parties in the dynamic as victims, which implies that plagiarizers are victimizers. This may be an historically accurate perception in some cases. However, it also useful to interrogate alternate understandings from other positions. I would like to turn, then, to the realm of booksellers, to explore new perspectives of plagiarism—not to present their definition as the correct one, but to illustrate the multiplicity and heterogeneity of the term we take so much for granted.

What is a Bookseller?

Booksellers are an interesting group to me precisely because their very name yokes together terms often viewed as incompatible within literary studies, reminding us that books have a material history as items manufactured to be sold. Indeed, booksellers often worked throughout a book’s individual history to bring it into being. In this respect, they functioned much more in the role of a modern day publisher than a mere retailer. In fact, with the assistance of family members, and often working in partnership with wives, they juggled a multitude of tasks: they thought up saleable ideas, negotiated with writers, managed employees and/or apprentices, hired printers, collaborated with other booksellers on large projects, and encouraged puffery or bought advertising to promote their works. At times they gathered subscribers to underwrite projects, or forged connections with aristocratic patrons, whose sponsorship minimized booksellers’ financial risk. They also supervised distribution and retailing to local shops, stall and mercuries as well as to provincial networks, while at the same time selling print texts and sometimes other wares in their own shops. Even in this last function, they held remarkable power, creating literary taste by guiding their customers’ choices.

Despite the variety of activities in which booksellers engaged, keeping the engine of print culture humming, however, historic attention has been paid mostly to their purchasing of texts (and concomitant right to copy) from writers. This was often the least of their duties. Instead, many conceptualized projects themselves, merely hiring or commissioning writers to work as directed, if not writing their own texts. Several constructed editions of collected works whose right to copy they owned (or not), or served as editors of newspapers or periodicals, the content of which they often controlled. It is thus crucial to realize how involved booksellers were in every aspect of print making, including those tasks deemed "creative" or "intellectual." As Adrian Johns explains,

In managing publications, Stationers, and often booksellers in particular, controlled events. The practices and representations of their domains affected every character and every leaf of their products. Isolating a consistent, identifiable, and immutable element attributable to the individual author would be virtually impossible in these circumstances. Attributing authorship was thus intensely problematic for both contemporary and future readers. A priori, virtually any element in a work might or might not be the Stationers’ responsibility, in virtually any field of writing. (137)

Such a realization helps undermine the priority given to authors in literary histories, suggesting that textual production was often the result of collaborative partnerships, in which "intellectual" and "imaginative" tasks could segue seamlessly into production schedules and business decisions.

This view of the wide-ranging function of booksellers serves to bring plagiarism down to a more earthly realm. First, it disturbs any certainties about which text "belongs" to whom, making plagiarism as an individual crime a difficult accusation to support. More importantly, though, once we begin to examine the material nature of book production, we ask different questions of the concept: how did plagiarism operate in practice as a deterrent, an explanation or a gatekeeping mechanism for some forms of textual activity? Or to approach the issue from an even more neutral approach, how was the reproduction of unattributed pre-written text (a clunky but impartial description of plagiarism) understood, utilized, and defended (or not) by those charged with circulating those reproductions? To answer these questions, it is sometimes necessary to analyze what is not said, the complaints not made. Silence may not seem, on the surface, to be useful for the historian in search of evidence, but it speaks volumes on social acceptability and normative practices.

Plagiarizing and Projecting: A Case Study

John Dunton (1659-1732) is a useful bookseller to study because he was and remains a marginal figure. He was never wealthy, prominent or well-respected, though he did have moments in the spotlight. Furthermore, during his life span, the book trade metamorphosed from a guild-regulated enterprise to an government-licensed medium to a major capitalist undertaking. As businesses consolidated, textual output of all sorts accelerated and gentrified. In Dunton’s own career, he witnessed and participated in major cultural changes in attitudes towards print, as the potentially threatening and politically destabilizing press transformed into to a technology of edification and entertainment. Indeed, his own practice and production record represents what was most esteemed and reviled about the work of print.

Most to our point here, Dunton has been labeled a plagiarist, though not, pertinently, in his own time. Almost 250 years after Dunton’s death, in 1977, literary scholar and detective Albert C. Cook III presented the evidence in an article for the Bibliographical Society of America: Dunton was a crook. Not only did Dunton publish a work explicitly derived from John Bunyon’s popular Pilgrim’s Progress (authored by a colleague of Bunyon’s), but he "crossed over the line dividing allusion from outright copying" (20) in publishing the more "insidious" (15) The Pilgrim’s Guide From the Cradle to his Deathbed (1684). Although the name of his late father, a rector, adorns the title page, this work is actually mostly unattributed pieces, or as Dunton put it, "Fifty Several Pleasant Treatises, rarely, if ever handled before"—a statement Cook calls an "outright lie" (20) before listing the many "true" sources, including Donne, Herbert and Bunyan. He enumerates many examples of "obvious plagiarizing" (25) of themes, motifs, character names, plots and language from John Bunyon’s Pilgrims Progress as well as its sequel, which was published the same year as Dunton’s book, indicating that Dunton may have seen early manuscript copy. Cook expresses puzzlement that Dunton would use so many writers so obviously familiar to his readers, finding it not only "a clear measure of Dunton’s boldness" but "an indictment of the age" that he could "get away with it" (25). He is especially disturbed that while Dunton’s "reputation as a bookseller was not good everywhere in the trade, no contemporary ever darkened it with a charge of literary thievery" (25). In short, Dunton’s blatant plagiarism was met with a strange silence.

It is easy from our perspective to see what Cook did not: Dunton’s "plagiarism" puts into print the conventions of earlier commonplace books; he wrote before the Act of Anne granted copy protection (though even that law’s strict confines did not protect writers from derivations, but only protected literal word-for-word copies); imitation, not originality, was a favored mode of writing. Easy, perhaps, but not so simple. Cook may have been even more confused—or outraged—if he had read Dunton’s own thoughts on the subject. In his 1705 autobiography, The Life and Errors of John Dunton Citizen of London (published only four years before the Act of Anne), he criticizes the dishonesty of writers, representing them as parasites feeding off of the work of others, and contrasting them with upright, virtuous booksellers:

A man should be well furnished with an honest policy, if he intends to set out in the world now-a-days. And this is no less necessary in a Bookseller than in any other Tradesman; for in that way there are plots and counterplots, and a whole army of Hackney Authors that keep their grinders moving by the travail of their pens. These Gormandizers will eat you the very life out of a Copy so soon as it ever appears; for as the times go, Original and Abridgement are almost reckoned as necessary as Man and Wife; so that I am really afraid that a Bookseller with a good conscience will shortly grow some strange thing in the earth. (52)

The language of conspiracy, warfare, and death is marked: plotting armies will kill and devour print texts. We may be reminded, in fact, of the heightened rhetoric of Student Cheating and Plagiarism in the Internet Era: A Wake-Up Call, described earlier. Playing with the common motif of the writer as father of his text, Dunton here figures an unnatural congress, perhaps with plagiary instead of the muse, and a husbandry that produces only the stunted or monstrous. As in may of today’s treatises, writers are figured by their very role as potentially immoral. To Dunton, it is he and his fellow shopkeepers who are the moral and learned agents ready to police the trade.

This might be dismissed as mere hypocrisy, since Dunton himself could be seen as a "gormandizer" of others’ texts. As we examine Dunton’s views, however, it is clear that the situation is more complex. In the process of casting writers as degenerates and booksellers as spiritual heroes, Dunton endows himself and his fellow tradesmen with another characteristic usually thought of today as pertaining only to authors: originality. According to Dunton, a published text belongs to the bookseller not just because he has it printed, imprints it with his name, sells it in his shop and registers it with the Stationers’ Company (though all these reasons may be criteria enough), but often because he thought up the idea for it in he first place. Thus Dunton can say of a fellow bookseller:

His talent lies at Projection. . . . He is usually fortunate in what he goes upon. He is a man of good sense; for I have known him lay the first rudiments and sinews of a design with great judgement, and always according to the Rules of Art or Interest. (209)

Throughout Life and Errors, Dunton calls his own texts and those sponsored by others "projects," often using the term as a gerund, "projecting," or in its infinitive form, "to project." These verbals connote an on-going state, the work of the past reaping the benefits of the future: the bookseller’s job was to supervise the work of his project through from its origins in rough idea to its final form as a commodity on store shelves, awaiting its readers. We might compare this term to our more familiar, static term, "literary work," which conveys a frozen, timeless object that erases from its history all evidence of the mental and physical work involved in its creation.

In this context, it makes sense that, when Dunton lists and describes the numerous booksellers among his acquaintance, he always includes the most important works they sponsored and sold, never bothering to mention who may have actually written these texts. He does the same with his own list of "projects." Any writer involved was merely a hireling not worthy of notice. (He does make exceptions in the rare cases in which the writer is well-known enough—whether for literary or other reasons—that his name itself is a selling point.) Further, it is the booksellers themselves who must assume ultimate authority for the language of their texts. For example, while regretting his selling of some books larded with "profane expressions" (201), he protests, "I am heartily sorry I had any concern in them: but the Author sent the Copy to the press as he wrote it off, and in regard I had no suspicion of him, I did not peruse the Letters till it was past time to alter them" (201). While Dunton blames the writer, the writer is not ultimately the responsible party; any public condemnation will be directed at Dunton, who has the final obligation of "perusing" and censoring. Dunton clearly believes the writer has no right to have printed what he may want, but as an employee, has only the duty to be above suspicion in fulfilling the desires of the bookseller.

This notion of the bookseller’s dominance in the creation of projects of interest helps us to understand Dunton’s comments on his own work, and his seemingly hypocritical attitude towards unattributed text recycling. Again and again through his text he goes out of his way to insist on its originality. In his introductory letter framing his text, Dunton claims that his Life and Errors is an "Original Project" (xv), "pure Novelty" (xvi), "wholly new" (xv) and "the natural issue of my brain pan, bred and born there, and only there (xvi). He elaborates, "the History of my Life and Errors is . . . wholly gathered from my own breast, neither is my Idea of a New Life stolen from anything else but my own thoughts of becoming a New Man" (xvi). Perhaps he protests too much? This would support the idea that his earlier appropriations had been dishonestly intended. However, if we put aside our own definitions, we may see that Dunton uses "novelty" strategically, rather than as an intrinsic description. His autobiography is published in 1705, when ideas about author’s rights were beginning to circulate more widely. This does not mean that all participants in the trade endorsed whole-heartedly the idea that an author owed no allegiance to predecessors and produced solely, spontaneously and originally. But as the market for books became more crowded, with abridgements, cheap piracies and new collections of old works beginning to baffle consumers, it may have meant that a claim of "novelty" could be used to gain a competitive edge for a given print project. This idea is supported by the fact that for Dunton, what is "new" is not linked to imagination, as it would be for writers a century later—after all, he is writing autobiography. In a passage in which he apologizes for repeating some of the same word patterns in descriptions of the many personages he explains: "My Thousand Characters are entirely new, except Nine that I formerly published; and having written those before with my own hand, I was loth to be at the pains of writing again the same characters, having done it as well as I could before" (xviii). Again, he is discussing his representation of real people, not referring to "characters" in the sense of imaginary, fictional devices. What he does apologize for, however, is the fact that their descriptions have been published before, that they are not new to print. To Dunton, this is when ideas count—there is no sense that they matter much before being printed, except inasmuch as they will be used for later print projects. His is a concrete, not an abstract or intangible, originality. His ideas may have emerged from his brain, but they are embodied through the work of his hand, the physical and mental "pains" of writing, which stands in for all the work a bookseller oversees that brings words to life: the inscribing of language in ink, the pressing of letters onto a page, the stitching of those pages into a book.

Thus we might see that unattributed text repetition for Dunton would always be connected to, but not the same as, piracy, the stealing of entire works. Piracy to him was material form of dishonest trade, from which he goes out of his way to distance himself (his autobiography teems with references to his honest trade). Wholesale text repetition hurt fellow booksellers in that it denied them a sale, but it violated trade custom, not an intrinsic moral law. As Johns notes, piracy is a "contestable attribution," one that stood for "a wide range of perceived transgressions of civility emanating from print’s practitioners" (32; my emphasis). To Dunton, piracy is different than re-using bits of a writer’s text. First, writers were, in Dunton’s representation, fringe members of the trade, slippery figures of low status and morality (the "gormandizer" passage above is merely one of many that castigates writers). Perhaps in the power relations structuring the trade, he felt free to use what he might of the text they had written—in any case, it was not "their" text in the way we understand text to belong to a writer today. Their words usually belonged to the sponsoring bookseller, and as long as Dunton was producing something "new" out of the previous work of writers—even if that newness consisted of a shorter or modified version—he was not hurting the original publisher. He might be especially free with unpublished writings, seeing that more as "scooping" a competitor than stealing from him. But given Dunton’s material understanding of "new," "novel," and the wide range of the work of writing/printing, it would not even be transgressive to use previously published characters, plots, themes, etc. as long as these ideas were arranged differently in a novel context and in a new physical format.

A more dialogic approach to the discourse of the print trade thus helps us catch a glimpse of what is hidden in many standard histories of plagiarism. "New" and "novelty" are booksellers terms, not linked with intrinsic, individualized notions of authorial genius and ownership rights. Yet they are connected with Dunton’s use of the term "originality," a concept that later became the cornerstone of proprietary authorship. Dunton's Life and Errors is a new (or original) product, never seen before on other booksellers’ shelves. The idea for it, too, is new, but only matters because it is part of his investment in and work on the project. "Originality, " therefore, is used to mark the boundaries of a print commodity for which one expected the rewards of good sales. I should stress that I am not interested in "protecting" Dunton from critical aspersions; indeed, I cannot claim to have any understanding of his "true" moral character. Nor do I wish to create a history of origins, date the emergence of an ur-originality or claim, conversely, that it did not exist. Certainly many writers did complain about the continued use of material they had sold to one person for one purpose—though often complaints focused more on the corruption of their meaning than on "stealing" per se. However, what we can infer from Dunton’s rhetoric is that originality and copying were in a fact vexed terms, not in opposition, but with variable meanings in different situations.

Conclusion: Media Dis-ease and the Plagiarism Cure

Dunton’s autobiography was one of many texts to take up these terms in discussions of the trade, its politics and principles, and the role of the purveyors of print. Indeed, his work is representative of a proliferation of text about texts—or more accurately, print about print—written and produced from within the trade itself during his lifetime: tracts, treatises, manuals, autobiographies, even fiction. I see the generation of these sorts of work as symptomatic of the eighteenth-century discourse I have elsewhere called "print anxiety," represented in the many works of this period in which publishing practices are discussed, derided or decried. These books about books attempt to describe, analyze, standardize and regulate their craft and trade, especially after periods of unruly growth, disruptive restructuring, or political events in which the press appeared to play a key part. Operating as prescriptive as well as descriptive projects, they not only reflect these changes in their trade, but react to them in ways that produce specific ideological regimes. We can see Dunton’s descriptions of textual originality and the problems with "gormandizing" writers as one such instance, an attempt to fix terms like "new" and "copy" in the interest of the trade, and to benefit personally—through the sale of Life and Errors—from his (re)definitions.

Today, we find ourselves again musing anxiously on similar issues. It is easy to blame new technologies such as the Internet and new forms such as the Web, but these are only the most obvious and latest target of our information dis-ease. Multi-media forms of entertainment proliferate and compete; derivation—whether "licensed" spin-offs, formulaic repeats, or high-art postmodern pastiche—is the standard mode of expression, not the exception. One does not need French theory to understand the "death of the author" in an age when advertising shapes the editorial content of magazines, press releases dictate what’s news, spin governs the transmission of fact, promotional tours define who and what is literary, and even academic knowledge has become an enumerated commodity or "work product." These are not necessarily new phenomena—even John Dunton would recognize the dynamic if not the specifics—but the sheer rate at which media forms proliferate make its un-anchored and dehumanizing qualities more glaringly obvious. "Plagiarism" can thus be seen as the discourse produced in defense of humanistic values such as authenticity and meaning.

At the same time, because of the context of strengthened copyright law and the juridical zeal that accompanies that consolidation (e.g., suing kids for using Napster), deployments of plagiarism have the unintended consequences of buttressing precisely those corporate interests manufacturing our concerns. Disney and Time Warner want you to worry about plagiarism, inasmuch it parallel and provides a moral framework for their fight to increase protection for their copyrighted properties. Thus, like in Dunton’s time, the rhetoric of unethical copying today does not mirror long-standing attitudes about textual ownership, authorship, the legal concepts that supports those, but produces them anew. Plagiarism is not a concrete essence, but a rhetorical tool. We might do well to remember that even academic theorizing has larger social effects. When we vigilantly guard our textual borders against attacks by marauding plagiarizers—be they constructed as morally degenerate, technologically tempted or academically unaware—who really benefits?