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The Gods of Plagio and Their Furious Enforcers

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The Gods of Plagio and Their Furious Enforcers

by John Hawkins

"I came, I Sowed, I Cankered."

- stall wall in tourist Rome, home of the toilet

Late last year I shot English Breakfast tea skyward through my nose when I came a cross a piece in a Sydney paper that the world was in the throes of "a collage poetry plagiarism epidemic." Heck, being global and all, I guess you'd have to call it a pandemic.

Now, see, I knew there were all kinds of problems in the world, what with abstract nouns rooting like rabbits and needing beer-fuelled culling by joystick-riding heehaws, but I never saw poetry as a virus carrier before, and chances are, that had I thought so, I'd have welcomed it as a nifty development.

Of course, plagiarism's a serious topic, and I shouldn't stuff around, like some punk from the Old Geysers Gliberation Front. When I was a kid I plagiarized a Moody Blues number that I owned so deeply in my heart that even today I'm not sure it wasn't John Lodge who nicked it from me.

After all, hadn't Dylan purloined "Blowin' in the Wind" from my back pocket? Well, most kids plagiarize; they are often trained that way. Ideological plagiarism is universal, and compulsory. Now more than ever.

Then, suddenly, I became a man, and was not accused of plagiarizing again, until a couple of years ago, when a throw-away blog comment was savaged by Glenn Greenwald's white-blood-cell cult. Actually, I never saw more over-referencing in my life than amongst Glenn's commentariat, so important is the property of words to them, which I found curious given his predilection for liberalism.

But then there's a lot of funny stuff that goes on between ironic smirks in that lot. In keeping with our theme, Greenwald's early book on two-tiered justice was treated as though it were a fresh and original idea. Funny stuff, indeed.

Anyway, most of us know that the serious kind of plagiarism means intentionally presenting someone else's work as one's own. A more problematical secondary definition would be presenting someone else's ideas as your own. I emphasize intentionality because it can be tricky: For instance, it seems clear, when you give it a good listen, that George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," did, in fact, plagiarize the main melody of the Motown hit, "He's So Fine." He lost the suit brought against him by the Chiffons.

And yet, they are both gorgeous, unique songs, that don't depend simply on the (much-quoted) melodic line. It's even dicier when it comes to the origin of an idea and what happens to it when it is responded to dialectically by other minds. This is what postmodernism refers to as Intertextuality.

We mustn't confuse plagiarism with copyright infringement or lack of originality, because we'd all be in the jammer slammer if that were verboten. Nor is it okay to accuse by lazily saying, "It looks like I've something I've read somewhere." And let's give up the notion that much originality takes place in the MSM.

This is not a knock; it's just an acknowledgement that media bring together ideas rather than generating new ones. Likewise, calling anyone on "borrowing" in comments sections is pointless, as even if not anonymous already, no claim is being made to exclusive rights.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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