In Defense of Poetic Plagiarism

Sam Riviere on the Foundational Practices of Collaboration and Copying

It’s hardly original to point out that forms of copying are foundational to creativity. Even pointing out that this is not original is not original. And making the same point using exclusively the language of others, edited slightly for consistency, also wouldn’t be original. Still, it bears repeating. The recirculation of this notion should surprise no one—it should be accepted as the truly unoriginal, inescapable idea that it is—but because it isn’t a naturalized idea, it often feels counterintuitive, contrary, knowing, tricksy. Why is it so awkward to integrate this notion, of repetition and derivation as the basis for new literary works, into our actual habits of thinking, reading and writing?

It seems as though we nod thoughtfully at this idea as it passes, then return to whatever it is we were doing, continuing to behave as if we believe that copying, especially when it comes to writing, especially literature, is essentially an infringement, a deception, an appropriate source of guilt: as current law dictates, often a crime.

Poets are supposed to understand this dissonance better than most—there’s T.S. Eliot with his “tissue of citations” and “mature poets steal”—but he always sounds like the last word and forbidding only example, rather an enabling influence. Then there are the over-reaches of various 21st century avant-gardes, generally off-putting with their boring egoism and failure to illustrate their favorite Warhol quote, “art is what you can get away with” (they didn’t!).

In the wake of a flurry of poetry plagiarism scandals that emerged in the mid-2010s (poets will remember!), I had anxious conversations with several poet friends who feared they may have unintentionally plagiarized a poet or poem, and would be next on the list of the discredited and shunned. These social media trials were an uncomfortable spectacle—ending with the expulsion of the accused poet from poetry circles, but not before they were thoroughly humiliated. Any apology, in the now familiar reflex, treated as more offensive than the offense itself. There even emerged the truly ludicrous figure of a self-nominated “plagiarism detective,” something out of a bad dream, who tracked down these infringements and reported them back to the public. (Exactly what poetry needs—a fucking cop!)

How many lines that emerged while writing, any poet might ask, could be traced back to some half-remembered source?

In private messages, in offline conversations, a lot of poets confessed to being disturbed by these developments, not because they were avid plagiarists whose number was up, but because they recognized that poets are always copying from each other, all of the time. Where were the limits exactly, in what was deemed to be a case of poetry plagiarism? How many lines that emerged while writing, any poet might ask, could be traced back to some half-remembered source? A friend of mine messaged a poet and internet acquaintance to apologize for “stealing” a two-word phrase and using it in her own poem. Another scoured two or three favorite books alongside her own just-published collection for telling similarities and overlaps. Low-key paranoia reigned.

In cases involving high-capital art forms, pop music or the visual arts, the issue might be decided in court, by a judge (usually not in favor of the infringer). But there was no recourse to the law in these cases—the economic stakes being so low that the “security of obscurity” is assured. So, as if in compensation, the poetry public acted decisively on behalf of the poets, who wrote lengthy Facebook posts in which they described feeling “violated” by having their lines copied.

If poems were valued like pop songs there would have been some interesting legal disputes, because copyright law isn’t as clear-cut on these matters as it sometimes appears. Standardized later than we might assume—the very first legal construction was the Statute of Anne in 1710, and the law only started to resemble its current formulation (protection for life, plus 70 years) with the Berne Convention in 1886, large amounts of which were only implemented in Britain and the USA in 1988 (check the colophon of your nearest book)—it’s also fair to say that the legislation around copyright isn’t up to speed with contemporary literature, or even early Modernist conclusions about authorship. (The Berne Convention itself was intended to be regularly revised, but has seen no substantive changes since the advent of the internet and digital technology.)

Most infringement cases hinge on the copied work being evidently “the individual expression of a personality.” But this working standard doesn’t attempt to define “expression,” a word that becomes foggier the longer you stare at it. A recipe can’t be copyrighted, for example, even though surely most would agree it to be an “individual expression” of the person who invented it. For a time photography, similarly, was not regarded as an expression, but rather documentation—and if what constitutes an “expression” can’t be easily settled upon, all poets should feel an abyss of uncertainty opening when they think about the solidity of a “personality.” Isn’t poetry supposed to be an “escape from the personality” (Eliot again), anyway? It has often been observed that the most explicitly personal material in poetry is also the most generic, and so, in a typical artistic paradox, the most individual expression becomes the least individual work of art?

The disarming vagueness of the language underpinning the law has allowed, increasingly in recent times, for similarities to be emphasized over differences between contested works in landmark trials—perhaps most memorably when Gaye v. Thicke concluded the “feel” of 2013 problematic fave “Blurred Lines” was derivative enough of “Got to Give it Up” to constitute infringement. Not a melody or a lyric, but a “feel”—the ripples from this case are ominous.

Poetry might seem like an inconsequential side-casualty in a larger, noisier war, but in fact it is central to the story of ownership of ideas and expressions. Since the 1990s, the academic Martha Woodmansee has been unearthing the involvement of the Romantic poets in the development of copyright law, and questioning the enduring significance of the myth of Romantic genius in the situation we face today, which she argues is unduly inhibiting to creativity.

Briefly—prior to the Romantic era, more collaborative norms of writing were prevalent, typified by things like the “commonplace book,” where textual passages were viewed as “common places” to be freely appropriated. In the 19th century, William Wordsworth promoted a version of authorship that was instrumental in creating a huge cultural shift. Enshrining the genius of the individual, granting the solitary vantage point a sovereign place in his art, he was also aggressive in pursuit of legal change: his interventions included arguing the case for “perpetual copyright,” whereby his descendants would still be receiving royalties for his poetry today, as well as lobbying for more achievable copyright extensions.

But the projection of a creationist-style authorial identity, as Woodmansee writes in the introduction to The Construction of Authorship (1994), was at odds with Wordsworth’s own collaborative writing practices—his most famous lines, the ones about daffodils, were actually assimilated from a letter from his sister, Dorothy—originally a description of a group of friends on a walk, her content was converted into a vision of the solitary poet communing with nature. Wordsworth also worked hard to expunge his friend Samuel Coleridge’s credits from later editions of the Lyrical Ballads. It’s heavy irony, but shows that poetry really does have something to do with these questions—not least the emergence of a possessive individualism coeval with early capitalism, and from which a direct line can be traced to, I don’t know, Metallica v. Napster.

While we still regard poetry, or any kind of writing, as emerging from some mythical-primordial inner space, rather than from dialogue, exchange, imitation, adaptation and other collaborative or collectivized practices, we’re unlikely to move beyond an increasingly restrictive model of literature, and a tightening legal bind. The entities benefitting most from this set-up are not authors, but publishing dynasties and literary estates. (Poets might baulk at so much comprehensible pragmatism, but don’t worry: the impulse to write a poem remains completely inexplicable!)

If Romantic poetry played an active role in cementing the individual perspective and solitary experience as the most valid and authentic artistic expression, the novel’s ascent was timely, as a literary form equal to the contradictory and duplicitous demands of capitalism, and the source-obscuring effects of print technology: sanctifying an ideal of total originality (as any book publicist knows, it remains the gold standard) while disguising, in the manner of a typical commodity, its reliance on earlier forms and traditions (epic poem, folk tale, philosophy, life story). An identical logic has informed huge projects of cultural colonization and content “landgrabs,” from the Brothers Grimm to the kind of evil apotheosis reached by The Walt Disney Company.

It’s not a coincidence, I think, that the novel’s arrival as the dominant literary form coincided with the advent of the acquisitive, expansionist activities of an emergent capitalist class. In England, its origins are intertwined with deception, chicanery and entrepreneurial opportunism—a sort of narrative-confidence scam, performed by serial hustlers like Daniel Defoe, whose Robinson Crusoe was initially presented as a real-life account, and modeled closely on the story of actual castaway Alexander Selkirk.

Poetry has never completely blended in with a society in which for something to be valued, it has to be owned by someone.

Of course, many instances of poetry plagiarism this century have been carried out in bad faith, with the intention to deceive—but this in itself is a pretty strong element of literary tradition! And even in the most grasping, obvious cases, I have to admit to feeling some sympathy for the plagiarist, who, unable to summon from their personal history a sufficiently profound experience to immortalize in verse, felt that they had to co-opt someone else’s. Anyone who likes poetry has had the experience of recognizing themselves in a poem they connect with, knowing in some way that the poem is theirs, in a way that is unprovable, indisputable, and doesn’t deprive anyone else of an equivalent experience with the same poem.

This scenario—in which an expression of feeling, or account of experience is a commodity to be protected or seized—is more revealing of problems in contemporary poetry itself: a conviction that personal plight is the only chip valid for trade in the cultural capital marketplace. It’s a myth that disregards the real collaborative and collective history of poetry, which is not a landscape dominated by totemic geniuses like giant oaks, but a field of activity in which ideas and methods, like seeds on the wind, continually circulate, spawn and resurface.

All artists should recognize there is a politics about who you steal or borrow from, when you do it, and why—it’s a question of context, just as much of where the author stands in the power dynamic. Not every act of appropriation is cynical or unethical, and these judgements have little relation to the legality of the maneuver, either. Repurposing can and has been an indispensable weapon for writers with a range of motives: satire, homage, exposure, myth busting, revenge… In this sense, the re-use of language is always transformative—always being offered up to a different moment, surfacing in the changing current of a new now.

I was born in the early ’80s—I grew up with music and artworks collaged from other music and artworks. This is only going to become a more naturalized situation, especially to poets who compose using copy-paste key strokes, search engines, AI software, and are accustomed to unfettered access to the storeroom of culture.

Maybe one day there’ll be no authors as we know them, only books—no poets, only poems—and literature will return to the anonymous commons where all creators are equally advantaged and equally obscure. But before that happens (maybe c.2850), it makes sense to question the direction we’re heading in, whether we want to be participants in the kind of artistic culture that snatches at free-floating ideas in order to moor them on our own property.

Poetry has never completely blended in with a society in which for something to be valued, it has to be owned by someone. Furthermore, poets, familiar with the destabilizing and deranging powers of language, should recognize that the I in their poems is not coterminous with the legal entity who wields rights of ownership, but is fundamentally a fiction, a figment, a fold—a blinking cursor, as provisional and intermittent as their poem’s only true measure: a reader’s attention.

*

Sources and further reading:

Copy This Book: An artist’s guide to copyright (2019), Eric Schrijver, et al.
The Construction of Authorship: textual appropriation in law and literature (1994), ed. Martha Woodmansee & Peter Jaszi
• “Writing, Identity and Copyright in the Net Age” (1995), Kathy Acker
• “Defoe, Truthteller” (2012), Nicholson Baker
• “Remix Prohibited: how rigid EU copyright laws inhibit creativity” (2015), Julien Cabay & Maxime Lambrecht
• “The Ecstasy of Influence” (2007), Jonathan Lethem
• “The Cultural Work of Copyright: Legislating Authorship in Britain, 1837–1842” (2000), Martha Woodmansee

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Sam Riviere’s novel Dead Souls is available now via Soft Skull. 

Sam Riviere
Sam Riviere
is the author of a trilogy of poetry books, 81 Austerities (2012) Kim Kardashian's Marriage (2015), and After Fame (2020), all published by Faber, and a book of experimental prose, Safe Mode (Test Centre, 2017). He teaches at Durham University and lives in Edinburgh where he runs the micropublisher If a Leaf Falls Press.





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