Copy, Paste and Save: Is This the Golden Age of Plagiarism?

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By Allen Callaci

I could stuff half a file cabinet drawer full with the plagiarized papers that students tried to push by me. And I’m fairly certain that I could probably easily fill the other half of that file drawer with the plagiarized papers that somehow managed to crawl beneath the barbed wire and make it safely into the grade book.

I must admit to a begrudging admiration for some of the “masterpieces” that I unearthed over the semesters. The effort that went into them cannot be denied. I find myself with the kind of secondhand appreciation, but ultimate rejection one might hold for a fake Van Gogh. While meticulously crafted and painstakingly sewn together, it is as purposeless and meaningless as a parrot quoting Shakespeare.

The vast majority of cribbed papers I receive do not reach this level, most of them are just lazy, warmed-over, and obvious. Sometimes the students don’t even bother to change the font of the plagiarized passage. One of my students plagiarized a response to a free-writing exercise that did not count for a single point in determining the final grade. Sometimes I wonder, “Are they really that stupid?” or “Do they really think I’m that stupid and won’t catch it?”

One can write off plagiarism as a victimless crime committed primarily by 19-year-olds forced to spend a weekend writing an essay on the metaphorical significance of the “green light” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. There is no reason to ask them why they chose to copy, paste and embellish and turn in the Wikipedia entry on Gatsby as if it were their own. We know the answer, which is usually resembles this: they chose to go to a beach bonfire to flirt with girls, drink Coronas and drunkenly sing along to the chorus of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” with their buddies while pondering an allegorical green light’s connection to the American dream.

Forget about community college students and ask why an artist as lauded as Bob Dylan cribbed from the SparkNotes analysis of Moby Dick for his Nobel acceptance speech or why Melania Trump—or, more accurately, her prep team—decided to pass off Michelle Obama’s speech as her own at the RNC Convention this past summer? Or why did the late Canadian poet Pierre DesRuisseaux Bogart the works of Tupac Shakur and Maya Angelou and try passing them off as his own.

Not a single one of their agents, publicists, managers and handlers knew how to do a simple Google search to verify a work’s authenticity (for future reference: copy suspicious work, paste into Google search engine, hit enter).

We live in the most morally vacuous—what’s yours-is-mine-and-what’s-mine-is-mine—age of pilfering since Vanilla Ice pickpocketed Freddie Mercury and David Bowie to triple platinum fortune and fame. Plagiarism is the new Black. Robin Thicke sells seven million copies and gets nominated for a Grammy for appropriating Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Steve Jobs is deemed to be a great American innovator for taking ownership of every device created by a group of faceless, nameless, thankless and royalty-and- residual-less Apple engineers. Shia Lebouf plagiarizes from the work of Ghost World comic creator Daniel Clowes for a short film and then pirates his apology to Clowes from a Yahoo!Answers post on plagiarism.

Are we bearing witness to something deeper and more far-reaching than a 19-year-old’s poor time-management skills? Is this the byproduct of 24 hours news cycles where the same unchecked and unchallenged talking points get chewed up and fed back to us as if we were a bunch of hungry, squawking baby birds ad nauseam? Maybe we believe that there is nothing new under the sun and decided to make ourselves comfortable in the shadows. Does the rise of plagiarism correlate to the decline of independent thought?

As someone, who may or may not have been me, once said: The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind. The uncited answer is blowin’ in the wind.