The Detection of Plagiarism: History and Legal Implications

Posted on:August 26, 2010

The existence of plagiarism detection implies that the detection of plagiarism is a negative. This was simply not true before the 1600s. Subsequently, laws, constitutional amendments, and international statutes made plagiarism detection in commercial circumstances legally actionable. Burgeoning creativity co-existent with sensible copyright legislation vindicates such legislative efforts.
 
Did they accomplish plagiarism detection with a quill?
 
Samuel Johnson included it in his 1755 dictionary. Derived from the Latin, plagiaries, for kidnapping (as of a child or slave), it retains unpleasant overtones. The first recorded detection of plagiarism was by the Roman poet Martial of his contemporary Fidentinus!
 
The OED situates the origin of the word plagiarism in the early 17th century; a significant timing. This period includes seminal developments in Western literature and scholarship, and in national languages other than Latin. Some notables of the period include:

  • Shakespeare
  • Bacon
  • Cervantes
  • Tycho Brahe
  • Keppler
  • Lippershey
  • Galileo
  • Harvey

Does plagiarism detection arise from royal uncertainty?
 
In Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, Thomas Mallon notes that large-scale printing changed the act of writing. He also, intriguingly, connects royal insecurity (consider kingly beheadings) to the increasing concern over creative ownership which plagiarism detection bespeaks.
 
How did 17th century plagiarism detection operate?
 
Previous to the 1600s, plagiarism detection was simply irrelevant. Liberal quoting and copying of authorities, from the Bible to Plato, was admired! Shakespeare himself has been accused of copying earlier stories. detection of plagiarism in Shakespeare’s case requires more than a computer program. Shakespeare modified ancient tales of love and heroism in idiosyncratically dramatic and novel ways.
 
Ben Johnson may be the first to whom the term plagiary was applied, in 1668. His critic, Dryden, accused Johnson of copying Horace, et alia, excessively. Presumably, Dryden’s detection of plagiarism was accomplished via his own thorough classical grounding.
 
What about detection of plagiarism in the 1700s?
 
Enlightenment science and arts freed themselves from exclusive churchly service. Novelty, innovation, and originality all acquired value. (http://www. jstor. org/pss/837018 ) Not surprisingly, perhaps, the first statute adding teeth to the detection of plagiarism, passed in 1710, in London. This did not, however, protect authors abroad. The detection of plagiarism of British books in the colonies was widely deplored.
 
In 1783, the Continental Congress passed a copyright law. Plagiarism detection thereby became a bi-continental sport. The Constitution next included copyright protection. Noah Webster, the author of the The American Speller was an early player in the detection of plagiarism and its prosecution under these new statutes.
 
How did plagiarism detection evolve subsequently?
 
The next 200 years saw plenty of plagiarism detection and accusations. Thomas Coleridge was one such accused (post-mortem). Oscar Wilde was another (to his face).
 
Over the 19th and 20th centuries at least 25 American laws passed to protect authors, and encourage creativity and scholarship. The detection of plagiarism without legal recourse was disapproved of by the Constitutional framers and early lawmakers. It was viewed as a deterrent to continued productivity by writers, scientists, inventors, and artists. An entire agency of the US government was created to allow the registering of works. Then, in the case of subsequent detection of plagiarism, there would exist an indisputable proof of precedence.
 
When did the detection of plagiarism acquire international sanctions?
 
1988 was the year when laws were put in place to allow plagiarism detection internationally to result in effective legal copyright action. It is still a complex matter!
 
Did making plagiarism detection a legally actionable offense work?
 
This is beyond the scope of this article to answer fully. Consider, however, song lists, television shows, movies, book stores, and museums, not to speak of blogs! The flourishing of these suggests that protecting the rights of authors and artists, is, on the whole, a positive accomplishment. We are the beneficiaries of the continued literary, scholarly, and artistic output of folks who know that any modest emoluments accruable to them can be theirs alone, by copyright.

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