“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”. We all know literary (or any other artistic) influence is essential to the development of art. Conscious or more often unconscious copying happens all the time. A hundred years ago people no doubt didn’t altogether approve of straight copying, but only rarely had to confront the evidence. If you are reading along in War and Peace, are you really going to check that tinkling bell by rushing off to read Evgeny Onegin all the way through to check on your suspicion that Tolstoy’s really quoting Pushkin? (This is a notional example. I’m not saying Tolstoy did, or did not quote Pushkin or anyone else.) But a digital world allows for word searches which can quickly bring such things to light. A special subset of this sort of search tool is plagiarism software systems, designed primarily to prevent students just copying and pasting in order to get to the required word count in their essays, and appear to have a solid grasp of the subject. I recently learned that many school pupils in Britain have to submit their essays with a plagiarism score attached. (I have not heard of publishers making this sort of demand of their authors, but who knows what goes on in the dark?) Now that it’s so easy to check the vocabulary and structure of any piece of writing, it’s not too surprising that lots of people are running this sort of check, and all sorts of “plagiarism” scandals can rise up to appall us.

Now it’s reached the top. Dennis McCarthy says he wouldn’t accuse Shakespeare of plagiarism after detecting an apparent source for bits of Shakespeare’s writing. The New York Times tells the tale. Plagiarism is a heavy charge, and you’d be crazy to level it at Shakespeare and expect not to be slammed by most of the academic community. So you decide to call it not plagiarism but creative influence.

Page from George North’s A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels which is claimed to be the source for some of the “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” speech in Richard III. If they say so! Much seems to depend on the rarity of some of the words used and the order in which they occur.

 

Book Business links to a Guardian article on plagiarism. As the Helen Keller story illustrates having a good memory can be a burden. Of course having a poor memory can also be problematic as you fail to remember ever having read about this brilliant plot turn your muse is whispering into your ear.

See also Plagiarism, which contains a link to online plagiarism checkers.