The United States Constitution states that “The Congress shall have Power To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (The Constitution of the United States) What a great and noble plan, to protect the unique and original works of a person; thus allowing that person to profit and prosper from those works while preventing others from taking them in an attempt to profit and prosper.

How unique are you? How unique are the individual experiences you have? Can you honestly and positively claim that you have an experience that no one else has had?

I am going to be the first graduate in my family; that is not a first in the world. I will be a firstborn, who first dropped out of college before becoming the first in my family to graduate from college; yet even that is surely not a first either.

Maybe you have lived a unique combination of experiences in your life, but with over 300 million people in the United States, chances are there is at least one person very similar to you; maybe more than one. And what if you encompass all 6.9 billion people in the world? And what of the billions of people from previous generations? How truly unique is your life?

In my opinion there are two primary reasons to cite sources: replication of results, and credit where credit is due. And there are two primary ways that a person should be called out for failing to cite: shaming, and financial penalty.

If a work produced contains information pulled from an outside source, that source should always be cited so that anyone reading the current work can go to the source material. Whether it is simply curiosity, a check of data so the same tests can be run, or to provide the reader the opportunity to come to the same conclusions – the source must be cited. If that outside source was created by another person, that person should be given credit for their work, no question.

There are a myriad of reasons a person might not cite their source. The obvious conclusion that gets often drawn is that there were dishonest intention, but that is not always the case. Sometimes an author mistakenly thinks the information is common knowledge; sometimes it is simply lazy and negligent writing. I believe the determining factor, on whether a person should be shamed or financially penalized, is simply money: did the person profit financially from claiming the work as their own?

Think of how many experiences you have had in your life. Now think of how many interactions you have had with other people in your life. Now think of all the textbooks you have read in your life, from earliest grade school through the books you are reading now. Now all the fiction books, from literary reading assignments in school to the books you read as entertainment. Now think of all the movies and television shows you watched, and all the music you have listened to in your life time. Think of the all news you have absorbed, from print, to internet, to radio, to television. How many truly unique thoughts do you have in your head? With all those ideas, all that information, all those influences, how can you be sure that anything you create is not a copy of – or at least influenced by – something you have seen before?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, What the Dog Saw, he describes an experience he had with being plagiarized. Gladwell wrote an article titled Damaged about the life of psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis who has studied serial killers for over 25 years, and it was published in The New Yorker in February of 1997. In 1998 Lewis published a memoir of her life and work titled Guilty by Reason of Insanity. In early 2004 a play titled Frozen premiered off-Broadway to rave reviews; written by playwright Bryony Lavery, it was first performed in 1998. Lewis had multiple friends tell her that she needed to see the play because of the similarities it had to her career. When Lewis finally got her hands on a copy of the script, she was shocked to find uncanny similarities to her life and career played out on stage. (Gladwell, 2009)

Lewis planned to file a lawsuit against Lavery because she “wanted her life back.” After hiring a lawyer, it was discovered that about 675 words from the script were plagiarized, some from accounts in Guilty by Reason of Insanity, but mostly from Gladwell’s article Damaged. Oddly though, to file this lawsuit Lewis first needed Gladwell to sign over the copyright of his New Yorker article to her. (Gladwell, 2009)

I think that the students of Lakewood Ranch High School received a just penalty. They did not profit financially from their plagiarism, and were shamed both publicly with the news story breaking as well as with a failing grade for the assignment. I think the author of this article is wrong when implying that a zero on the assignment was a “light penalty.” (Unknown, 2006) What could be gained by giving a high school student a failing grade for the entire class? What could be gained by expelling a high school student from school? And honestly, 20 students growing-up in the same community, going to the same high school, reading the same book, and answering the same set of questions – how unique are their answers going to be?

“Plagiarism has gone from being bad literary manners to something much closer to a crime.” (Gladwell, 2009)

If adults struggle to understand the concept of stealing words and ideas, how can high school students be expected to understand? Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig points out in his book that people struggle to understand the ownership of ideas and words: “I understand what I am taking when I take a picnic table you put in your backyard. I am taking a thing, the picnic table, and after I take it, you don’t have it. But what am I taking when I take the good idea you had to put a picnic table in the backyard – by, for example, going to Sears, buying a table, and putting it in my backyard? What is the thing that I am taking then?” (Lessig, 2004)

There is a term called parallel importation that refers to developing countries ability to get inexpensive versions of Western drugs. This is done by purchasing from “another developing country that has been licensed to produce patented medicines.” Did you know that parallel importation has been opposed by the United States? Western pharmaceutical companies sell few, if any, patented drugs to developing country, so this would not affect their profits. Getting these medicines into these developing countries could save a phenomenal number of lives; yet parallel importation is opposed simply because “it violates the sanctity of intellectual property.” (Gladwell, 2009)

There is something extremist about plagiarism. All other forms of intellectual property have an expiration date; remember: “To promote […] by securing for limited Times […] exclusive Right.” (The Constitution of the United States) Yet written works never expire. “It is not merely extremist. It has also become disconnected from the broader question of what does and does not inhibit creativity.” And when a person begins to fear for their reputation and their livelihood which are based on their creativity, they stop being creative. “The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences;” striving and struggling to make sure your creativity is just slightly different than your colleague or classmate. (Gladwell, 2009)

Ultimately, after reviewing the facts, pouring over material, and discussions with both Lewis and Lavery, Gladwell decided not to sign over the copyrights to Lewis. And he decided not to file suit himself, thus preventing Lewis from proceeding with a plagiarism suit. Gladwell decided that Lavery’s use was “permissible borrowing.” (Gladwell, 2009) Even in a case where the copying of ideas led to financial gains by the copier, a financial penalty may not be the answer.

“The final dishonesty of the plagiarism fundamentalists is to encourage us to pretend that these chains of influence and evolution do not exist, and that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and an eternal life.” (Gladwell, 2009) Very little of what we create today is truly unique and free of influence by another person’s art, ideas, or words.  

Works Cited

Gladwell, M. (2009). What the Dog Saw. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Lessig, L. (2004). Free Culture. New York, NY: The Penguin Press.

The Constitution of the United States. Article 1, Section 8.

Unknown. (2006, September 15th). EDITORIAL: Character lesson: LWRH students learn plagiarizing doesn't pay. The Bradenton Herald.

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This isn't directly atheist related per se; but something I thought some of my fine friends here on TA might find interesting.
I just realized there might be a slight disconnect to those of you reading this here on TA. My weekly essay assignment this week was to read a provided article about students at Lakewood Ranch High School, and their plagiarism. Then we were suppose to comment on if we thought the students were treated fairly. It only had to be 200 words, but I couldn't sum up my thoughts on plagiarism in so little a space, so I went all out. I've attached that news article if you're interested.

Also, for anyone interested, the chapter I used as a source from Malcolm Gladwell's book is available on his website: Something Borrowed: Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?


He actually talked quite a bit about 'borrowed' music in there Neal; you might get a kick out of some of the things he mentions.

Makes me think of a quote that is attributed to Einstein: "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."


I was always told in school that the rule of thumb for plagiarism is to cite that which is not common knowledge. No instructor was ever able to give a good answer for how we were supposed to determine what exactly was common knowledge. What seemed to be common knowledge to me was often questioned by my teachers so I ended up spending a lot of time racking my brain to try to figure out if whatever teacher I was writing the assignment for would think a statement in my paper was common knowledge or not. While I certainly think it's important to cite sources and give credit where credit is due plagiarism is frustrating sometimes.

Excellent post as always!

Samuel Clements admitted to lifting the preface to 'Innocents Abroad' from Oliver Wendell Holmes. He had banished from his mind the memory of reading Holme's book cover to cover many times when he was ill and it was the only book in the house. Clements admits that many of the vivid memories he had in his youth were completely fictitious. He remembers sharing a glass of bourbon with his grandfather when he was 6 months old. Or so he relates in his autobiography.


I am quarks entangled by atoms entangled by cells entangled by culture. Each moment I arrange this orchestra to show up slightly later in time at a completely unique point in space-time. I have to show up in a new place that still contains my cellphone and my wallet. What I believe but I cannot prove is that for the most part this is deterministic - preordained by entropy. Only occasionally does indeterminacy capture me and I am programmed to chose one of at least two paths into the future (my next state is not determined by causes but is one of two fixed destinations by chaos). It is the sum over path histories of those branches to two different futures that is 'Kirk' the ongoing show featuring me in the title role.


I am unique just like everyone else.


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