'Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."
Clever line, isn't it? But there are two things wrong with it. First, in a bit of rough poetic justice, I stole it -- from T.S. Eliot, who himself was accused of stealing a little too freely.
And second, it's not altogether true. While great writers ingest what's come before and remake it into something uniquely their own, that's different from merely swiping someone else's work and passing it off as yours.
Plagiarism, that age-old con, is back in the news. Jonah Lehrer, a science writer, left the New Yorker after making up Bob Dylan quotes in a recent book. He'd already been compromised by the celibate-seeming sin of plagiarizing himself -- not just a fact or a turn of phrase, unfortunately, but vast sections of prior articles fobbed off as new. The ubiquitous pundit Fareed Zakaria, meanwhile, took a dip in hot water for plagiarizing a New Yorker in his Time column.
In the ancient mountain range that is plagiarism, Lehrer and Zakaria are mere pebbles. Laurence Sterne, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Oscar Wilde are among the literary Alps who've been tagged with the charge. Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarized heavily for his doctoral dissertation. Joe Biden, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose and Ian McEwan, among others, have been caught up in more recent plagiarism scandals.
If you enjoyed "The Life of Pi," a bestselling novel by Yann Martel, you might be interested in an earlier novel called "Max and the Cats" by Moacyr Scliar, who is famous in Brazil. Martel's book is about an Indian boy adrift in a boat with a tiger. Scliar's is about a Jewish boy adrift in a boat with a panther. Martel has claimed that he'd read a New York Times review of Scliar's book by John Updike (a review that is nonexistent) and avoided reading the novel because he didn't want "a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer."
Given his view of his own talents, Martel would seem to subscribe to Eliot's comment. Yet all writers are fueled in some way by what others have written, and Martel got awfully far with the cat-in-a-liferaft concept. "Saul Bellow has defined a writer as 'a reader moved to emulation,' " Thomas Mallon observes in "Stolen Words," his book on plagiarism, adding: "To some extent every writer's desk top is like a Ouija board, his pen pushed across it by whatever literary ghost he's just entertained."
Literary theft wasn't always considered much of a crime -- at least not until writers started earning a living with their pens -- and readers outside the shabby and hermetic precincts of publishing care little about it. So it persists. Today's conditions, moreover, present an especially conducive climate for plagiarism to flower. Writing fees have plunged in the past five years, and book publishers, despite a series of scandals, make scant effort to police veracity, never mind originality.
While plagiarism has a long history, the Internet has helped it become more widespread -- in effect, democratizing it for the masses. Digital research and note-taking have also made accidental plagiarism much easier.
Yet I believe the fireworks we're seeing now are really just the last bright glow of plagiarism's final dying day. For just as the Internet has made copying (and pasting) much easier to do, it has also made it much easier to detect.
Already, educators use services such as Turnitin, which enables them to run a term paper through a vast database of earlier papers to detect copying. As more texts move online, it will only get easier to spot plagiarists, if perhaps harder to be original. Eventually, of course, people will just get computers to write their papers for them, and plagiarism will be the least of our problems.
Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.