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Plagiarism, the passing off as one's own the words of another, has been cropping up in the news of late, giving rise to the idea that plagiarism is a modern occurrence. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The practice of benefiting from the writing of another has long been held to be a violation of both ethics and law. Today, we'd call it theft of intellectual property. The United States Constitution sets protection for authors in Article 1, Section 8: "The Congress shall have the power ...To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Avoidance of plagiarism is simple; either secure permission from the original author to use the material, or attribute it.

There is another reason for attributing the words of another: The authority for the information is the original author; the plagiarist cannot be the authority. This is particularly true in the classroom.

Ethically, plagiarism is indefensible, in spite of the aphorism that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." In law, plagiarism is "copyright infringement," a charge that the author must bring against the plagiarist writer. The law is much less cut-and-dried than the ethical judgment, since there are numerous restrictions on using the law for this purpose: time limits, "fair usage," abandonment of copyright, ignorance (in the mitigation of penalties-particularly in the classroom), and the like.

In hard fact, the practice of plagiarism has been in existence for centuries, and has been performed even by people of national stature. Not only have those plagiarists suffered no ill effects for overstepping the bounds of propriety and decorum (or law), but instead some actually have reaped honors for the effort and the effect.

It doesn't happen all the time, but every now and then, an orator or a writer makes a statement in a speech or in a poem or other piece of writing that is so appropriate that it becomes part of the common language, but only when someone else uses it. Some of these noteworthy statements have origins so deep in the past that the average person remembers neither the original author nor the original writing.

Nobody in the audience seems to mind, though, possibly because the timing of the original statement was not yet ripe-people were not yet ready for such a noteworthy statement on a topic; it may have been too original. So, as years passed, people forgot both the original statement and original situation to which it applied. In addition, the author probably had died, so no one was left to challenge the plagiarist once legal copyright had expired.

Noteworthy statements become noteworthy when three conditions come together: the wording, the speaker, and the situation. And when the speaker is of national note and the situation is at its worst, people are not inclined to question the origin of powerful noteworthy statements.

* An excellent example of that is President Abraham Lincoln's memorable 1863 Gettysburg Address dedicating a military cemetery in the aftermath of the bloody Civil War battle of Gettysburg. His oft-quoted phrase, "of the people, by the people, and for the people," was not original. It came almost directly from the Rev. Theodore Parker, an avid anti-slavery clergyman who preached against slavery. In 1858, Parker published an anti-slavery pamphlet, On the Effect of Slavery on the American People, in which he wrote, "Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people." (Lincoln later said that he had asked Parker for permission to use the phrase, but Lincoln didn't attribute it in his speech.) But Lincoln's keen rhetorical skill put this phrase to excellent use during one of the worst times in United States history, and it is quoted even today as if Lincoln's own words. After all, Lincoln did say that! * In his inaugural address in 1961, President John Kennedy charged the American people, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," a powerful statement at that time. Although the thought was old, people had not heard of it, but they were ready for it. Kennedy's "ask not" statement-whether he or his speechwriters were aware of it-could have come from an 1884 Memorial Address by Oliver Wendell Holmes: "It is now the moment when by common consent we pause...to recall what our country had done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return." Holmes himself, a widely-read scholar, author and jurist, may have taken the thought from Robert Browning, who wrote in "Home Thoughts from the Sea": "Here and here did England help; how can I help England?" * Kennedy picked up some of Lincoln's phrasing in his own inaugural address, saying, "In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course." A century earlier, in his own first inaugural address, Lincoln admonished the restive South on the eve of the Civil War, "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war." * In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the nation's most persuasive speakers, sought to calm depression-frightened Americans with these timeless words: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." That ringing phrase was inserted into Roosevelt's speech by a ghostwriter who later said that he had seen the phrase in a department store advertisement a few weeks earlier. Possibly, the advertising writer had read Frederic Lawrence Knowles' "Fear," in which he wrote, "I have no other foe to fear save fear." * Winston Churchill, one of the greatest orators of all time, was a great borrower when the occasion demanded, lending immortality to the ideas and phrases of others, and, of course, to himself. In 1946, Churchill popularized the term "Iron Curtain," a reference to the borders of the Soviet Union, in a speech ("Sinews of Peace"), but he only borrowed an old term. Nevertheless, the time was ripe, and that one phrase in one speech at a small Missouri college rang around the world for the next four decades. The term "Iron Curtain" had been used in 1945 by German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and, again, in the last days of World War II by Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk, both times in reference to the internal activities of the Soviet Union. Even then, the idea was old. In 1904, sociologist Max Weber, in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, took issue with Richard Baxter's suggestion that "the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the saint like a light cloak." "But," Weber said, "fate decreed that cloak become an iron cage." During those days, Germany required that all theaters install an iron safety-curtain between the stage and the audience to prevent the spread of fire from the stage to the rest of the theater. Because of the flammable stage settings, theater fires in those days were common. After World War I, Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians, while describing the 1914 political situation between Belgium and Germany, suggested that an iron safety-curtain should have been erected as a buffer between the two countries. In 1939, Douglas Reed, writing in his Disgrace Abounding, said that the strife between the Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia "had only been hidden by the iron safety- curtain of the King's dictatorship." * Churchill continued to borrow phrases. In 1940, he accepted his appointment as England's Prime Minister, saying, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

The phrase was not original. Churchill borrowed it not only from history, but also from himself, from his 1931 book, The Unknown War, in which he wrote in reference to the Russian armies of the Czar during World War I, "Their sweat, their tears, their blood bedewed the endless plain."

In 1883, Robert Browning wrote in "Ixion," "Tears, sweat, blood,-each spasm, ghastly once, glorified now." But the phrase was old even then. In 1823, Lord Byron wrote in his poem "The Age of Bronze," "Year after year, they voted cent per cent. Blood, sweat, and tear-rung millions-why? for rent!"

In fact, it was even older than that. In 1611, John Donne wrote in "An Anatomy of the World," "Mollifie it with thy teares, or sweat, or blood."

As may be expected, the King James Bible speaks to all this borrowing of words and phrases. In Ecclesiastes 1:9-10, written before 900 B.C., King Solomon speaks of things that were and things that are: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us."

Seven hundred years later, in 161 B.C., the comic poet Terence, possibly borrowing that thought, complained in Enunchus: Prologue, "Nothing is said nowadays that has not been said before." And he added that his teacher, Donatus, found that thought upsetting, saying, "Confound those who have said our good things before us."

It all may well be as J.R. Lowell wrote in For an Autograph in 1868, "Though old the thought and oft expresst, 'tis his at last who says it best."

I am not arguing here with these examples that past practice always justifies present plagiarisms. Were that the case, the human race would never show any moral growth. But, just as some trademarks (such as Cellophane or BandAid or, in the U.K., Hoover) have, in the public mind, become generic labels for a class of goods or services, so have some original longer phrases become common usage and-while the rules for avoiding plagiarism (permission or attribution) still apply, such usage can become the common heritage of humanity-to the credit (even if nobody remembers) of the originator.

Douglas Perret Starr is Professor of Agricultural Journalism in Texas A&M University. His e-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2005 (17:1),pp.9,20-21.