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5 Historical Moments that Shaped Plagiarism

Plagiarism Since the Dawn of Language

Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey
Plagiarism Consultant -- Plagiarism Today






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Plagiarism has almost certainly been with us since the dawn of language and art. For as long as there have been words to repeat and art to copy, it stands to reason someone was doing so.

But, while the act of taking credit for the work of others is undoubtedly old as time, plagiarism, as a concept and a practice, has changed a great deal.

The two driving forces behind that change have been philosophy and technology. Over time, we’ve changed the way we look at issues of plagiarism, authorship and originality while, at the same time, creating new tools that not only allow new forms of expression but new forms of plagiarism.

It’s worth taking a look back on how plagiarism has changed over the years and what exactly it may mean moving forward. Here are five moments that shaped plagiarism throughout history:

1. The First “Plagiarism” Case

The etymology of the word plagiarism is from the word “plagiarius” meaning “kidnapper, seducer, plunderer..”

However, the first time it was used in the context of literature was sometime around 80 AD by the Roman poet Martial. At that time, poets were expected to be able to recite key works by other authors. However, when Martial learned that another poet, Fidentinus, was reciting his works and taking credit for them, Martial chose to respond.

But Martial didn’t have the option of going to the courts. Modern copyright law wouldn’t exist for another 1600 years and there was no legal remedy available. Instead, Martial wrote a series of verses about Fidentinus, essentially creating a diss track about him.

In one of those verses, Martial referred to Fidentinus as a “plagiarus,” essentially calling him a kidnapper.

Interestingly though, Martial wasn’t concerned about the use of his work without attribution. Instead, he was more concerned about the lack of payment, essentially saying in one verse,

“If you’re willing that they be called mine, I’ll send you the poems for free.
If you want them to be called yours, buy this one, so that they won’ t be mine.”

This isn’t a surprise considering that ghostwriting was a common way for Roman poets to earn a living. It would be quite some time before the focus on plagiarism turned to authorship and originality. Read my previous blog on the topic here for more detail.

2. The Era Without Plagiarism

For most of history, plagiarism wasn’t considered a serious infraction and, when it was, it was viewed in an economic rather than a creative light, just as it was with Martial.

From the Romans to the 17th century, skill was prized over originality and many great artists and authors copied. This includes Shakespeare, who copied many of his most famous plots and passages, and Leonardo Da Vinci, who copied some of his most famous works.

Part of this was there was no mass media. The printing press would not be invented until 1440. Literacy rates were low (at 40% in England in 1533) and neither art nor books could be trivially copied.

Whereas today we can pull up a copy of any painting or any book electronically, access to art and literature was limited for much of history. As such, copying was a way to further disseminate great art and a skilled copyist would be more valuable than a less-skilled original creator.

The other reason was philosophical. For most of history, words and ideas were simply not considered property that could be owned by their creator. The concept of “intellectual property” did not exist.

However, things began to change by around 1600. Not only was literacy on the rise and new technology making creative works more available than ever before, but a new philosophical movement was on the horizon.

3. From “Plagiarus” to “Plagiarism”

Though it’s unclear when the word “plagiarism” made it into the English language, it’s widely believed to have happened in 1601, when author and satirist Ben Jonson used the word “plagiary” to describe literary theft.

In 1755, the word “plagiarism” was included in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary and was defined as: “A thief in literature; one who steals the thoughts or writings of another.” The heightened interest in plagiarism can be tied to the Age of Enlightenment, which is considered to be between 1685 and 1815.

The Enlightenment represented a radical shift in many areas of thought, including government, philosophy, science, economics and more. However, one element that ran through the whole of the Enlightenment was the importance of the individual.

This, in turn, contributed to a greater focus on individual creativity and authorship. We see this not just in the new interest in plagiarism, but also in The Statute of Anne, the first modern copyright law. The Statute of Anne was the first copyright law to give the control to the original author, not to the publishers.

But where many other interests of the Enlightenment waned, plagiarism remained at the forefront. This is evident in the throngs of people, including Helen Keller, who copied in a way similar to Shakespeare or Da Vinci, but were taken to task for their actions.

Still, the biggest change was yet to come.

4. New Technologies, New Challenges

For the next 150 years, plagiarism remained a topic of contention, in particular in academic and professional environments, but would remain a laborious task. In an analog world, finding and copying work was still a challenge.

However, with the rise of computing, beginning in the 40s and growing through the 80s, the world was transitioning from analog to digital and taking plagiarism with it.

To that end, it was the invention of copy and paste in the mid 70s that may have had the largest impact. No longer did an individual have to copy work by hand. All they had to do was copy and paste the work into a new document.

As home internet service providers began to take off in the 90s, potential plagiarists suddenly had access to a virtually unlimited amount of content to pull from. As the internet exploded, growing from 23,500 websites in 1995 to an estimated 17 million in 2000, the amount of information available grew along with it.

This became an especially large problem in academia, where students quickly learned that they could avoid writing papers if they simply copied what they needed off the internet.

Though plagiarism had long been against most schools' ethics codes, detecting it was a challenge. In 2000, was launched. Though the technology was originally designed to detect “frat file” plagiarism, a pre-internet plagiarism technique that involves storing copies of physical essays for use in later years, it was adapted to deal with internet plagiarism, as well.

In this way, online use became something of a double-edged sword for plagiarism: While technology made plagiarism easier, it also made plagiarism detection easier. The same tools that help students plagiarize help their instructors spot it.

5. What The Future Holds

Currently, plagiarism is a rapidly-developing topic of discussion, both from a technological standpoint and from an ethical one. As new technologies create new forms of expression, we are going to see increasing tensions about what the rules around attribution should be.

However, in academia one of the major changes has been a shift away from internet and copy/paste plagiarism to essay mills and plagiarism for hire. It’s even been the subject of legislation in various countries, including the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

This is largely owed to the prevalence and power of plagiarism detection tools, which have made copy and paste plagiarism much riskier.

But, in a strange way, this brings the conversation back to 80 AD and Martial. After all, Martial’s concern wasn’t the plagiarism, but the lack of payment. In an era where one of the biggest issues is people willing to be plagiarized for money, it’s important to remember that such an arrangement is exactly how the plagiarism conversation got started, nearly 2000 years ago...