- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

Who’s a plagiarist? Not I, babe.

Bob Dylan is, though — at least by a common sense standard of plagiarism, that is, the appropriation of someone else’s language or ideas as one’s own.

When he plays the Patriot Center tonight and sings new tunes such as “When the Deal Goes Down” and “Workingman Blues No. 2,” Dylanologists will hear ringing metaphors of life as “frailer than the flowers” and sleep as “temporary death” and know they were borrowed from the obscure Confederate poet Henry Timrod.

The same Dylanologists will no doubt remember the Wall Street Journal’s discovery that rock’s greatest lyricist pulled a similar word heist on 2001’s “Love and Theft,” some of whose lyrics bore a striking resemblance to passages written by Japanese novelist Junichi Saga.

The nerve.

The genius.

The concept of plagiarism is not as clear-cut as it may at first seem. Indeed, it’s inevitably as slippery as the notion of originality — and to say you “know originality when you see it” is to “make a very large claim,” cautioned Vanity Fair essayist Christopher Hitchens in 1996.

Rebecca Moore Howard, associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, has argued that we should scrap the term “plagiarism” altogether, claiming that plagiarism standards are freighted with sexualized metaphors “of disease and rape, especially homosexual rape.” She suggests we refer to the practice as “excessive repetition,” “insufficient citation” or, more simply, “fraud.”

Well, whatever it’s called, I’d quite justly lose my job were I caught doing it. Best-selling historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late Stephen Ambrose learned the hard way that they have no special license to lift wholesale another author’s phraseology. Nor should students who download their term papers instead of writing them get off lightly.

In other creative mediums, though, plagiarism can become a rather fuzzy notion. In the American folk tradition in which Mr. Dylan cut his teeth, for example, it’s kind of like the common cold — ubiquitous, unavoidable and basically harmless.

Plagiarism is unavoidable because there’s nothing new under the sun, to use a once-original phrase — probably from Ecclesiastes — that has been plagiarized over the centuries into a figure of speech. Literary critic Walter Jackson Bate called this sense of creativity futility the “burden of the past.”

Sounding rather like Pontius Pilate, washing his hands, in this case, of the stain of conspicuous inspiration, Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson told Rolling Stone magazine in 1991: “What is original? I’m not going to bang two badger carcasses together and recite poetry and say, ‘Hey, here’s the new thing.’ ”

The evolution of art requires artists — novelists, painters, songwriters — to imitate before they innovate. They study old forms, experiment with new ones and, if lucky, stumble onto a fresh voice.

Steven Pinker, the rock-star Harvard University psychologist with a background in linguistics, says via e-mail, “Plagiarism outrage has gone too far. There are vast amounts of soft plagiarism in every art form, since no one thinks up every motif they use out of the blue.”

Imagine, Mr. Pinker continues, if someone were to develop technology that could compare pieces of music as readily as today’s digital plagiarism detectors can spit out language analyses. “Every rock star will be hauled into court,” he says.

Indeed, turning out examples of borrowed riffs and melodies in pop music could be the ultimate college drinking game. The same goes for movies. Yet, when “The Untouchables” director Brian De Palma lifted that scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” in which a baby in a pram clack-clacks down a flight of stairs, we’re more likely to call it homage than plagiarism.

Pat Aufderheide, director of American University’s Center for Social Media, points out that such appropriation became a medium unto itself with pop artists such as Andy Warhol. At the time, Warholian quotation of images such as the Campbell’s Soup logo was seen as ironic. More recently, John Updike, in last year’s “Still Looking: Essays on American Art,” argued that Mr. Warhol didn’t mean to be taken ironically; rather, he believed such commercial icons were like flowers, there to be studied or plucked.

Ms. Aufderheide says today’s students view written content on the Internet in much the same way. They “naturalize humanly created work,” she says. “Sometimes it even comes as a shock to students that a regular person actually wrote their textbook.”

In stark contrast, she adds, copyright holders, especially the big media conglomerates, have drilled into young consumers’ heads that sharing MP3 files and downloading movies is piracy.

People are confused about their rights, Ms. Aufderheide says. They are at once brazenly nonchalant and overly fearful about making use of another artist’s music, video or text.

“Any creator of new works has the right to quote other people’s copyrighted work for the purposes of making something else — that is, not just duplicating it … as long as the quotation doesn’t hurt the market for the original,” she says. “Many people don’t even know they have that right, and those who do think it’s a far riskier proposition than it actually is.”

All Bob Dylan needed was to footnote the Timrod references in his liner notes. Problem solved. No controversy.

Then again, says Mr. Pinker, think of the legalistic pain it would cause writers if “we had to footnote Shakespeare every time we used an idiom he contributed to the language, or track down his heirs to pay them royalties.”

And who, after all, lifted more plots than the Bard himself?

One more time: It ain’t me you’re looking for, babe.

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