Although plagiarism was an acceptable practice in literature up until the invention of Gutenberg's printing press, the advent of the printed codex transformed plagiarism into an ill-regarded pursuit because of the financial gains that stem from the ownership of an idea.
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A New View on Plagiarism
When authorship became a trade in the late 1600s, the idea of the plagiarizing of another person’s work also came into being. As Barbara Francis, author of Other People’s Words, explains, “the word ‘plagiarism’ ...comes from the Latin plagiarius, or plunderer. To plunder means to seize or rob someone else’s things by dishonesty or force.” The idea of being an author as a career started with the printing press, as many copies of previously costly texts could be mass-produced and society became more literate. Before this time, the idea of using someone else’s ideas to expand upon them in a story was considered a usual occurrence. This was in part because of the strong oral tradition that existed before the rise of the press. Although plagiarism was an acceptable practice in literature up until the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, the advent of the printed codex transformed plagiarism into an ill-regarded pursuit because of the financial gains that stem from the ownership of an idea.
The use of other’s writing in an author’s manuscript was a common occurrence in classical times. As Farrer, author of Literary Forgeries explains,
The practice of writing under the shelter of distinguished names flourished in Greece long even before the zeal of the Ptolemies for their libraries gave it a further stimulus ...and further confusion was imported into literature by the custom, in the schools of the sophists, of writing exercises on the imaginary speeches or letters of persons of celebrity. (1)
Because God was believed to be the “Author of things,” Dr. Petersen explained in her lecture, there was not yet a firm idea about the identity of the author of a text. The prevalence of an oral culture throughout antiquity meant that regularity in texts wasn’t expected, so changes to those oral scripts was not condemnable (Petersen). In fact, even when written manuscripts came into being, it was a common occurrence for one scribe to write notes in the margins--marginalia--and for the scribe who next copied it over to implement those notes into the main body of the book (History). This meant that instead of having a single author, the work of two or more people was combined. The idea was added upon; the text was improved or changed. “‘...If we believe Greek literary tradition, literary forgery was common as soon as the art of writing was used for literary purposes. Solon forged and put ‘faked’ verses into the Iliad for political ends’” (Farrer a). Additionally, if an author could use an already well-known story and turn it into something greater, they were praised for their work (Francis 21).
With the invention of the printing press in Germany in the middle of the 15th century, “[the] possibilities for mass-producing written matter soon became evident” (History). As the practice of printing spread throughout Europe, biblical texts, Martin Luther’s pamphlets--which fueled the Protestant Reformation--, and scientific manuals were now widely available. Instead of laboriously hand-writing an entire manuscript as monks and scribes once had, a printer need only set the type of a book once to be able to publish multiple copies (Francis). This meant that many different kinds of books could be produced. Even so, the idea of the author of the text holding rights to it was still largely unheard of. “Though the invention of printing had gradually given commercial value to manuscripts, and the rise in literacy within the sixteenth century ...had provided a market, no system had developed whereby the rewards of authorship came as certainly to the author as to others” (Hepburn 4-5). Chaucer, who wrote the famous Canterbury Tales, could not support himself on his writing alone and kept a job as a public servant (Hepburn 4). Although the mass producing of text was now an option, the people writing those popular texts were almost inevitably not sufficiently monetarily rewarded for their efforts.
The first English copyright act of 1710, the Statue of Anne, led to the now well-known idea of “plagiarism” because of an author’s ability to own their own works (Francis). The copyright act of 1710 allowed “authors, instead of printers, the right to duplicate their work” (Francis). This meant that authors, who had sometimes been paid a shilling apiece for a copy of their book, were now able to profit (Francis 24, Hepburn 5). When other authors used their ideas, they had legal power to sue them for it. For this reason, many authors began to accuse each other, sometimes mistakenly, of borrowing their texts (Francis 25). While Shakespeare is still praised for such works as Julius Caesar, which he based on Plutarch’s stories of the ancient Romans, men such as Sir Walter Scott were now accused for using other author’s works (Francis 22). This was because as more people began to purchase books at a cheaper price, they saw the opportunity for profit from what had once been a hobby or a side-job. It would be easy to lose a potential buyer’s attention if one’s idea was no longer deemed original or had been used in so many stories. This meant that actively preventing other authors from plagiarizing became absolutely necessary to each writer’s livelihood. Even if most accusations went unheeded, the act set a precedent for the negative view on an author’s borrowing someone else’s work.
With the invention of the printing press came the need for authors to be able to protect their own writing, and with this idea of ownership came the idea that borrowing from those ideas was a wrongful act. Without the potential for profit, “plundering” another writer’s work would have remained an abstract idea. It must have been unsettling for men and women to spend so much time on their own creation only to receive little money from its sales, even if it were popular. Even more unsettling, however, would be the idea that this art form, which was turning into an ungentlemanly way to profit, could be reused by others for their own profit. Little wonder that fewer than three centuries after the invention of the printing press, the word “plagiarism” more significantly meant, instead of to [abduct] the child or slave of another,” but to abduct the brain child or idea of another (Francis 22).