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Research and Documentation

Academic Honesty and Avoiding Plagiarism:
A Self-Guided Tutorial

by Michael Fleming

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What does it mean to “own” an idea?

Throughout most of literary history, authority has been much more important to most writers than authorship. That is, writers who wanted to ensure an attentive readership were often willing to ascribe their own work to Aristotle or St. Matthew or Shakespeare—that way, the writer's words and ideas would still get "out there" even if the writer's own name did not. Before the invention of movable-type printing there were very few books published, anyway. Before the slow, gradual growth of a literate middle class, there was no substantial market for books ("successful" authors were supported by patronage, not book sales); and before the advent of copyright law there was little economic incentive for writing, since books were "pirated"—to use a current term—as soon as they proved popular, and publishers, not writers, took all the profits. Moreover, throughout most of history "originality" has been met with suspicion or disdain, and writers have been scorned as mere "scribblers." To be sure, writers have always been as proud of their work as they are today but, except for private bragging rights, there was little reason to claim authorship.

Now, of course, everything is different for writers. Publishing is a well-regulated and often very lucrative sector of the modern economy. The pirating of popular works (not just books, but also movies and recordings of music) is illegal, even if widespread; and authors can and do sue when they are victims of plagiarism. Copyright law establishes the legal ownership of a writer's words, and in recent decades such rights have been extended to the ownership of original ideas as well. The most important change in modern times is cultural: originality is rewarded in a society that prizes innovation and celebrates the individual innovator. It's telling that the phrase "intellectual property" has come to encompass any creation of the human imagination—a book, a movie, a song, a video game, a cartoon character, computer software. In short, our society has established the principle that any new idea is a thing that can be owned and, therefore, a thing that must not be stolen.

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