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Plagiarism, Property Rights, and Power

By Rhona Cohen, Writing Fellow,Queens College, CUNY

Much has been written on the subject of intellectual property rights, plagiarism, and fraud in the academy over the last twenty-five years. Each discipline has its own concerns, altering the terrain of the discussion and introducing different conceptual frameworks to the debate. I present below three articles addressing the issue of intellectual property rights from three different disciplinary perspectives, history, science, and English literature, in order to explore the multiple ways that power is contested or wielded in our encounters with plagiarism and plagiarists. I chose these three articles because, in all three instances, the power dynamics that are at play are made apparent. For all three authors, however, the contexts are very different. Carla Hesse looks at a global picture, while Brian Martin explores political issues and Peter Shaw analyses the psychological dimensions of this practice. Using different types of proof or evidence privileges different contexts and complicates, in interesting and thought-provoking ways, our perceptions of plagiarism here at Queens College today.

Carla Hesse, Professor of History at the University of California at Berkeley, argues in ¡§The Rise of Intellectual Property, 700 B.C. ¡V 2000 A.D.: An Idea in the Balance,¡¨ that globally, until the 18th century, there was no recognition of intellectual property rights. Authors, scientists, inventors -- all human thought and its outcomes ¡V were divine gifts, and the bearer of those gifts must, in return, give them ¡§freely¡¨ to the public. Then, in the 18th century, as authorship and human ownership of ideas became possible with Enlightenment philosophy and law, a complex system developed in which publishing monopolies were granted to individuals by church and state. Private patronage, state sponsorship and censorship developed with the emergence of a bourgeois class that had a growing sense of, and emphasis on, private property. In response to this, legal arguments arose in the 18th and 19th centuries about which individuals or institutions rightfully owned ideas. Then as literacy rates grew within a growing middle class, and the demand for secular reading materials increased, legal arguments were promoted on both sides of the debate. The authors and their legal publishers argued their ¡§natural rights,¡¨ while pirate publishers invoked ¡§utilitarian doctrines¡¨ for the public good. Hesse uses for examples cases that span the globe, but she focuses on American legal doctrine and its transformation from the 18th to the 20th centuries to present an apt example of the manner in which modern conceptions of copyright change over time. After emancipation from England, the American publishing system grew because of pirate publishing of English texts. She suggests that, as America became a hegemonic power, as we developed our own literature desired by countries abroad, legal doctrine changed to more securely protect the ¡§property rights¡¨ of the few over the greater public good. As ideas become a national product, for sale internationally, the rights of the individual as exporter are protected by a state that gains power through offering this protection and copyrighting and monopolizing those ideas and their products.

Brian Martin, Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia, looks at institutionalized plagiarism as opposed to competitive plagiarism and makes a case for the reevaluation of our accepted emphasis on the latter, in his article, ¡§Plagiarism: A Misplaced Emphasis.¡¨ He defines competitive plagiarism as the practice of claiming someone else¡¦s ideas or words to gain status and wealth from them. Institutional plagiarism takes many forms; from hiring a ghost writer, to administrative, corporate, or bureaucratic fiat of the words and work of underlings. Within a system that unquestioningly condones the many forms of institutional plagiarism, it becomes difficult as a teacher or college administrator to argue against the competitive variety. However, this is not the primary reason that Martin gives for a shift in our emphasis. Rather, he argues for the shift for two reasons. First, he posits that by questioning the practice of institutional plagiarism we are also calling into question the system of hierarchy and the power differentials that we have in place. Secondly, he asserts that institutional plagiarism reduces accountability on all levels. Martin claims it is impossible to demand an honest and passionate quest for the truth in policy making, the media, and in politics if the systems by which these institutions run are based, in part, on claiming credit for someone else¡¦s work. By imagining a space where hierarchies of power don¡¦t operate (¡§self-managed societies¡¨), Martin theorizes plagiarism would no longer function to maintain the system. ¡§Claims to exclusive credit for originality, as well as to ownership of intellectual property, are characteristic of the system of capitalist individualism. The myth of the autonomous creator would be much harder to sustain under self-management.¡¨ (Martin, 1994, fourth section, "Plagiarism in a self-managed society") Martin concludes that competitive plagiarism is too oft at the center of our conversations about intellectual property rights. If the discussion is left there ¡V plagiarism as a central moral problem -- in the worst case scenarios, scurrilous attacks on student and scholar are possible while leaving unaddressed the power inequities of contemporary societies.

Finally, Peter Shaw (1936-1996; then Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York at Stonybrook and chairman of the National Association of Scholars) in ¡§Plagiary,¡¨ looks at some of those more famous literary figures, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Edgar Allan Poe, whose reputations have weathered accusations of plagiarism to some cases that have occurred in the very recent past. He notes that accusations only surface for works where multiple plagiarisms within a single work are found. He points out that this is a common aspect of plagiarism and that other literary or extraliterary mistakes, incorrect data collection or erroneous reports of the data, take place in many of these texts. Proper citation and then improper or no citation of the same source is the usual pattern in cases of established scholars. Shaw¡¦s examination takes a psychoanalytic turn. He argues that the act of plagiarism is not unconscious, though this is the most common explanation and excuse proffered by plagiarists and their apologists, but that the desire to be caught might be. Shaw describes the psychology of plagiarism and compares it to the ¡§social crime¡¨ of kleptomania. In both instances, the thief takes material that he or she doesn¡¦t need. Plagiarists like Poe and Coleridge are capable writers, but seem compelled to steal and to be caught. Furthermore, Shaw shows that plagiarists are traditionally unequivocating in their attitude toward the crime and feel certain they have been victims of plagiarism themselves. Interestingly, Shaw provides many examples of plagiarisms that come from texts that are plagiarisms themselves. Finally, Shaw asserts that the public¡¦s reaction to both kleptomania and to plagiarism is the reaction of a person encountering the ¡§uncanny,¡¨ seeing in oneself the possibility of the crime. He ends by exhorting professionals in the literary field to take up the responsibility of acknowledging that plagiarism exists and that it is detectable. His call is to end relativistic apologies for the act so that the literary world might regain its position on the moral high ground once again.

I have presented here three different conceptual frameworks from three authors working in different disciplines. In all three instances, power dynamics are invoked in their discussions. In the case of Hesse, we learn about the history not only of the terms and concepts of copyright but of the publishing institutions globally and the economics of those institutions that are intrinsic to issues of intellectual property and ownership. Martin¡¦s discussion turns to politics and the inequity of systems built on hierarchies. Shaw¡¦s article brings terms of individual morality into the discussion, but he seems less intent on exposing plagiarism as an immoral act and attempts instead to show how the plagiarist who steals and the audience that condones it act complicitly for complex psychological reasons. In all three instances, we see some of the broader implications of plagiarism in relation to social and textual power. My hope is that, armed with these implications, we might be better equipped to cope with those instances of plagiarism that we encounter in the classroom: claiming them as instances for teaching and discussion rather than for punishment.

Works Cited

Hesse, Carla. ¡§The Rise of Intellectual Property, 700 B.C. ¡V A.D. 2000: An Idea in the Balance.¡¨ Daedalus, Vol. 131, No. 2, Spring 2002 pp. 26-45.

Martin, Brian. ¡§Plagiarism: A Misplaced Emphasis.¡¨ Journal of Information Ethics, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 1994, pp. 36-47. Read 5/17/05,

Shaw, Peter. ¡§Plagiary.¡¨ American Scholar, Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer 1982, pp. 325-337.

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From the Editors
Citation & Plagiarism: Some Thoughts
Some Observations on Quotation and Plagiarism
Plagio: A View of Plagiarism from Abroad
Lessons from Leo
Policing Plagiarism Online
Plagiarism, Property Rights, and Power