When Copying Crosses The Line

2011-09-01 14.32.13When my Junior Halls get together–especially the male contingency–they talk. A LOT. It’s a barrage of words and laughter and shouting and more laughter. But one thing they do that makes me crazy is quote lines from clips that are out there in Webland. Honestly, I don’t even know where half of this stuff comes from except that it’s a video, somewhere, somehow.

It’s like a secret language. Except it’s a secret language they’ve lifted from the brains of other creators. And so invariably, at some point, I will say (and by say I mean shout because those guys are loud), “DO ANY OF YOU HAVE AN ORIGINAL THOUGHT IN YOUR HEAD?”

And then I remember my dad saying that to me and my brothers when we were kids. Except with us, it was TV commercials. We quoted them constantly. Even today, I can rattle off the gist of a commercial from way back in the day. And I’m pretty sure that my brothers would jump right in with me.

When we like something–whether it’s a commercial or a video clip or a recipe or a fashion–we embrace it. We learn all the words to a favorite song or we copy the look of a hairstyle we love. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that. But I wonder if we have somehow blurred the lines from understanding what’s copying for fun and personal pleasure and copying  and claiming work as our own. Because that’s plagiarism, and plagiarism is becoming a real problem in our society.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s always been a big problem. Remember the gossip back in those crazy Elizabethan days about Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare? Who wrote what first? And I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Caveman Oog speared Cavewoman Boog when he found her copying the delicate nuances of his woolly mammoth on the cave wall and signing her X to it.

But just because we’ve been doing something unethical forever doesn’t excuse the unethical behavior. And the longer we engage in a behavior, the more it becomes entrenched, however wrong it may be. Then one day, that wrong behavior seems okay. Next thing you know, it’s not wrong at all. Everybody’s doing it so it’s all good!

Except it’s not. It wasn’t okay for Oog and Boog and it’s not okay for us. It’s always wrong to steal someone else’s hard work and claim it as your own. So we have to be vigilant about plagiarism. And that’s why I addressed “The Finer Points of Plagiarism” over at The Muffin today. I mean, it’s not a legal lesson in plagiarism or anything highly technical; it’s more of a not-so-gentle reminder that plagiarism is out there. And awareness is the first step in doing something about a problem.

As for my Junior Halls and their obsession with quoting funny videos…well, maybe that’s not so much a problem as just super annoying. Sometimes you have to walk away. (And then when they follow you, run back inside and close the door. Probably better lock it, too, just to be on the safe side.)