Word for Word

“With proper attribution, to quote another’s thoughts and words is appropriate; plagiarism, however, is cheating, and it may break copyright law as well.”

—Kenneth G. Wilson 

I wish the words had been better.  Actually, what I mean is I wish The Words had been better. My wife and I went to see the newly released movie The Words, starring Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons and Dennis Quaid. It is a multi-layered plot (one of those story within a story within a story kinds of things) but the core of the tale is about a struggling young writer who becomes highly discouraged by the multiple rejections of a novel he spent three years writing. One day he comes across a long-lost manuscript that was unknowingly tucked inside a battered old briefcase bought in an antique shop in Paris.

Once he discovers it, he reads the manuscript straight though and knows right away that it is something very special.  He can’t stop thinking about it.  One night he gets up and starts typing it into his computer word for word, not changing a thing.  He’s not sure why.  Maybe to find out what it is like to have such quality pass briefly through him. He has no intent of publishing it until his wife finds it on his laptop and, thinking it is her husband’s work, is so moved by it that she persuades him to show it around.

The pirated book, of course, becomes a critically acclaimed success and he is living high on the hog until an old man (enter Jeremy Irons) meets him on a park bench and reveals himself as the true author.  I’ll leave it there in case any of you have the desire to go see it.  It is a nice little movie.  It entertained us for 96 minutes.  I am a Jeremy Irons fan and the subject interested me enough that I ignored the mediocre review in The Washington Post and shelled out $21 for the two of us to see it on the big screen.  Jeremy Irons provides the best performance in the movie and Dennis Quaid turns in a decidedly flat one.  The rest of the cast is adequate but not memorable.

I can’t say it’s a bad movie as much as a disappointing one.  I wanted it to delve deeper into the mind and soul of the man who plagiarized an entire novel and profited from another man’s effort and superior talent–a story initially told from the old man’s soul and born out of his own pain and loss. I wanted to know what price the fraudulent author would have to pay. But sadly it only scratched the surface and we left the theater with little more than the taste of popcorn in our mouth. Go see it, but do so at matinee prices or better yet wait until its out on Netflicks and add it to your que.

This briefly brings me to the crime of plagiarism. It has been said and repeated that there is no such thing as an original idea but there is a huge difference between coming up with a tired well used idea (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy pursues girl over great obstacles, boy gets girl) and knowingly taking another person’s words or work and passing it off as your own.  It’s a lie, it’s stealing and it’s a dirty crime that ends up hurting the criminal more than the victim.  Don’t kid yourself into thinking that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” *

I cannot conceive of publishing a discovered manuscript under my own name.  The guilt of such deceit would be the harshest sentence that could be passed on me. The fear of discovery would gnaw at me from the inside out. The taste of any success would sit bitterly on the tongue. I think (or hope) that such a crime would turn me into a broken man.

There are over a quarter of a million words in the English language and an almost infinite number of ways that they can be combined.  Lack of originality is not a crime but at least we should be able to come up with unique ways to express ourselves.

Question: What are your views on plagiarism?

* “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” is originally attributed to Charles Caleb Colton

10 comments on “Word for Word

  1. It does sound like an interesting premise and it’s a shame the film did not quite do it justice. I have a terrible confession to make. When I was at primary school (and long before I had heard of plagiarism), I had no trouble making up stories. But at some point I was asked to contribute something to the school magazine and I felt that none of my efforts were good enough. So I took a little-known story that I found in a children’s book, translated it into English, edited it a bit and handed that in instead. To my shame and horror, the editor of the magazine recognized the (mutilated) story and said: ‘That was a nice translation of XXX, my dear.’ I have never tried to pass off someone’s work as my own since…

  2. Enjoyed your review, I have never intentionally plagiarized but I did once use the line to a song without giving credit (absent-mindedness) and I did get called on it. Felt really embarrassed. I have read blogs that are very similar to my own just better or reworded and even though I am copyrighted they tell me you can’t stop someone from using your idea. So for whatever it’s worth I keep a seperate blog to keep my childrens stories I am writing.

  3. Well written piece. just jokingly, I heard that to copy from one person is plagarism, but to copy from many is research. And that itself is a quote I read somewhere, but don’t remember who said it; so I hope I don’t get into trouble for repeating it.

    • I saw that quote the other day. It’s:

      “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research. ” —Wilson Mizner

      There now you don’t have to worry, the quote has been attributed!

  4. Here’s how I feel…Lack of originality is not a crime but at least we should be able to come up with unique ways to express ourselves.

  5. My friend just told me I should see this movie because it was good, but I wasn’t convinced it was a movie I would actually enjoy.

    Plagiarism. As a professor, I fail or severely penalize people for stealing someone else’s work. Because even if the thought isn’t original, they didn’t spend time doing the work to claim that info as theirs therefore they need to acknowledge the person who did the work for them. As a writer, it would eat me up to pass someone’s work off as my own and would be pissed if someone took my writing, my efforts, my time, and marginal talent and say they did it. Even thinking about it aggravates me.

    • If you are that passionately opposed to plagiarism (which I aplaude you for) then don’t go see “The Words” the protagonist (for lack of a better label) doesn’t suffer enough. As always thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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