“Somewhere between plagiarism and homage,” writes Michael Kinsely, “there is a line.” (The Imitation Game,” by Michael Kinsley, Vanity Fair, March 2015, pg. 197) He raises an important point, and as a blogger who works from source material, I regularly question whether what I write is a sharing of facts or the stealing an idea.
My blogs are terse, 400-500 words at most. In order to give credit to an author’s thought or turn of phrase, I salt my page with ibids — a device that can be a distraction in pieces as short as mine, particularly as I’m not offering scholarship but a little entertainment. Nonetheless, citing a source is simply good manners.
But are there limits to these credits? A few years ago, a reader objected to a quote I’d used which described a woman’s role in the Catholic Church. He was so offended, he demanded I footnote the author’s sources as well as her comments. I could have done so as the woman’s material was heavily annotated. Still, I decided one footnote was enough and doubted any more would placate the offended reader. Since that experience, my decision has been to quote a single source and leave additional scholarship to the curious.
Stealing content isn’t where I’m likely to error, in any case. I’m tempted by a clever phrasing or an image that delights me. Not long ago, I referred to an article in which an established actress was described as being “old as dirt.” (Blog 6/2/14) The analogy tickled me and I confess I’ve used variations of that analogy where it suits me: dull as dirt, ubiquitous as dirt, enduring as dirt, silent as dirt… Am I guilty of plagiarism? Perhaps so in the eyes of the meticulous. But if I am guilty, I take pleasure in knowing that the special place in hell reserved for plagiarists will be populated by some of the world’s greatest writers, including Shakespeare.
The line between plagiarism and homage is, indeed, a fine one and easy to shift like dirt. Let the writer beware.
In a few days, I begin my 6th year as a daily blogger, and so it’s a good time to renew my pledge that I will continue to write with integrity — to record what I believe is true and to give credit where it is due. But because the difference between plagiarism and homage may reside in opinion, I’m obliged to borrow Kinsely’s defense: I will leave it to my… readers to make their own decisions. I’m fully focused on putting out the best work I can. (Ibid pg. 197)