Flattery or Fraud?


writing (Photo credit: found_drama)

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” Charles Caleb Colton

Yesterday I began my post like this: “Yesterday. Worcester Art Museum.” I realized as I was typing it that I was borrowing the style of Mark at the Idiot Speaketh who often begins posts in a similar manner.

While I feel that I have my own style, I often change it up a bit, inspired by the fabulous writers I read here each day or by something I am reading. My style also often differs depending on what I’m writing. I can write an academic tome using appropriate terminology and ethos, utilizing current trends in jargon and theory. (Perhaps that sentence wasn’t the most titillating example of academic verbiage, but I’m running on about 4 hours of sleep). I can write professional sounding requests and letters. I can write in the voice of the young. I sometimes channel Dr. Seuss. I am still learning, however, and still trying to master the art of description and metaphorical wordplay. Sometimes I attempt to write in the style of someone else I admire, because those attempts help me strengthen my own voice.

To me that is imitation at its sincerest.

However, there is a fine line between imitation and plagiarism. Well, it’s not really that fine. But, something happened that made me wonder, is plagiarism simply another form of flattery?

My regular readers should know that I usually participate in the 100 Word Challenge for adults. I find myself playing with voice and style with those challenges, because to me the variety helps me learn and grow with the challenge. A couple of weeks ago, I posted a poem that was written in a child’s voice, because there was supposed to be crossover between the children’s 100 word challenge and the adult. I enjoyed writing that piece and was pretty proud of it.

Yesterday, I visited the children’s challenge page, to find a featured poem (each week a few of the kid’s entries are featured to help encourage more writing). As I started reading, I thought to myselfย This sounds strangely familiar.

Well, it should. It was my poem with a few words changed.

Now, I’m not writing this to embarrass the student who did it, or attack anyone. I am writing out of sadness, as I see plagiarism too often in a world with instant access to so much material. I’m also, oddly enough, feeling flattered. I mean, really, the idea that this boy thought the poem was strong enough to be his voice is kind of cool. ๐Ÿ˜‰

So has plagiarism become the sincerest form of flattery?

The question remains how to handle the problem. If it was a college student, I’d call him on it. However, the whole concept behind these challenges is encouraging students to write and read and express themselves. I don’t want to discourage this child from trying again. It is not really my decision what happens from here, but is something worth thinking about.

Too many students nowadays attempt to take short cuts. I’m not sure the reasons why. Perhaps the pressure we put on them is too great. Perhaps they are lazy. Perhaps the access to any information you want has made the need to think and challenge yourself passรฉ.

Yesterday I worried about posting a photograph from an artist, and made sure I attributed it to him. Today I find myself wondering, where are the lines between borrowing and stealing?





39 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Barbarann Ayars
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 13:51:15

    The subject is difficult. We can claim no ownership of words. They belong to everyone. Perhaps we can only claim ownership of the arrangement of those words. Even then, we’re entertaining the originality of thought. “I was thinking the exact same thing!” is something we say to each other. And it is true. So then, can one of us claim origin of the thought? It is true that theft abounds. When another copies your work verbatim and signs it as their own, that’s not flattery. That’s stealing. A famous historian lifted someone else’s work and inserted it as her own and got nailed for it. She’s got a fine record on her own. So why would she represent another’s work as her own? That is not flattery. Flattery would be if she listed it as a quote. She didn’t. Theft, plainly. And she paid with huge chunks of her reputation. Even heavily influenced by an author you read frequently, maintaining your own voice is holding on to your treasure. There is so much satisfaction in framing words out of ourselves to make a picture, that it is beyond me why anyone wants someone else’s success instead of our own. A boy lifting your poem missed his opportunity to find the poet in himself. Self-theft, in effect. At least forfeiture of the real thrill of writing.


  2. TheIdiotSpeaketh
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 13:55:50

    I am flattered ๐Ÿ™‚ I borrowed that style from movies that start out with the location being typed across the screen. ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. Tori Nelson
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 14:02:42

    I think to be inspired from someone’s style is natural and there is nothing wrong with that. We all- in some way, shape, or form- write as a result of the words we’ve read before that have struck a chord with us. On the other hand, to simply copy and paste someone else’s work clearly isn’t being inspired or molded as a writer, that’s just copying and pasting and slapping your name on it. I’d have a hard time feeling flattered by that.


    • Lisa Wields Words
      Feb 24, 2012 @ 14:06:52

      Aw, shucks Tori. I’ve been waiting for the day I could just slap my name on your post and call it mine. Nobody would notice my writing suddenly becoming hilarious and brilliant. Would they? ๐Ÿ˜‰


  4. orples
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 14:37:10

    I ran into a similar situation regarding a piece that I wrote in reference to matching fascias on the job site. I dropped a line to the person that copied my piece (like you, changing a few words) and asked that he either remove his post altogether or give me credit for my work, and direct some traffic to my own website. He chose to delete the post since his website dealt with totally different subject matter. I guess he did not want to divert his audience’s attention. Either way, you should speak up.


    • Lisa Wields Words
      Feb 24, 2012 @ 14:58:28

      Don’t get me wrong, I spoke up immediately by e-mailing the person who runs the challenge. It’s out of my hands in that it is her choice how to deal with the situation. If it was a different situation, that didn’t have an educational goal, I would follow your path.


      • orples
        Feb 24, 2012 @ 15:04:13

        I would think, the better lesson would be to let the child know, you knew he’d copied your work and resubmitted it. In the future, he might think twice knowing that he can get caught doing such things. But I might be wrong, who knows?


  5. Dana
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 16:02:03

    We face similar issues with my husband and his artwork. Personally, I feel like the saying “Imitation is the highest form of flattery” was written by an imitator, not the person being imitated. To me, it’s just a cutesy way of saying “I copied you and got caught doing it– how can I frame this situation so it looks like a good thing?”, but maybe I’m just cranky. ๐Ÿ™‚

    We are all influenced by our surroundings and inspired by our muses. It’s nearly impossible to have a truly, 100% original idea or thought. But outright lifting somebody else’s words, images, or creative concepts and attaching your own name to them isn’t complimentary. It’s stealing.

    There are whole movements in art today to “recreate the Masterpieces” as a way to learn new techniques. Yes, I know we all have to learn from some place and start from somewhere, but to me, it just feels wrong. I wish I could try to see a brighter side to imitation this afternoon, but today the whole concept makes me feel irritated and defensive. (Maybe I need to have a cup of tea and examine why I’m feeling so hostile!)


    • Lisa Wields Words
      Feb 24, 2012 @ 16:30:17

      I’m sorry if I made you feel grumpy. I in know way condone what was done, I was just trying to understand why someone would do it rather than find their own voice. I guess I never will understand.


      • Dana
        Feb 24, 2012 @ 16:57:29

        You didn’t make me grumpy personally, Lisa. I admire your efforts to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and try to understand why they would take something of yours. I’m not at that “open” point when it comes to imitation/plagiarism yet. ๐Ÿ™‚


        • Lisa Wields Words
          Feb 24, 2012 @ 17:10:19

          You give me much more credit than I deserve. I have come down hard on college students plagiarizing in my classes. When I discovered this incident, I was angry. But then it got me thinking, where does a kid in primary school learn that this is okay? How does he know to do this? Where has society gone wrong in allowing everything to belong to everyone? Complex questions that I have no answer for.


  6. benzeknees
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 16:34:35

    I’m thinking it would be good to bring this to the attention of the child in question, just so he understands how close to a line he came. He may have meant it to be flattering because it spoke to him & so he only changed a few words. I would hate to think he was just being lazy & thinks he’s gotten away with something though.


    • Lisa Wields Words
      Feb 25, 2012 @ 13:19:24

      Supposedly the teacher has been approached to talk to the child. What happens next . . . I agree, it could have been a flattering choice, but he still needs to learn from his mistakes.


  7. Barbarann Ayars
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 17:52:27

    Re where do they learn it….the subject is all encompassing. There exists this idea that we can have everything we want, including your stuff. There are some who see no problem just taking because they can. It’s really a terrible thing, when we’ve somehow permitted what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine too. There seems to be some unspoken agreement to this… Anything not to make a fuss. Worse, make a fuss and now you are the problem for complaining. We need to grow a spine.


  8. Life in the Boomer Lane
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 18:07:02

    I’m not sure there is ever anything in art that is completely new. All of us build, either consciously or unconsciously, on what we have seen or heard. But, of course, a conscious replay, with little or nothing of oneself added to the mix, isn’t art. If somebody wants to do that, then credit should be given to whomever inspired the work.


  9. Piglet in Portugal
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 18:52:10

    If I was in your position I do not know whether I would feel flattered or furious!

    It is fairly easy to check if an article has been reproduced elsewhere but photographs not so easy I believed. However, I’ve just read a very interesting article about a company which was demanding thousands of dollars from bloggers who had used their photos. Now the bloggers took the photos from a site claiming the photos were free to use. It certainly made me stop and think!


    • Lisa Wields Words
      Feb 24, 2012 @ 20:44:05

      I’m always a little nervous about using photos from other sites, even the ones that claim free use. I think now I will be even more cautious. I feel frustrated. It’s like, if my work is good enough to steel, why do I feel I get nowhere with my writing?


  10. thesinglecell
    Feb 24, 2012 @ 19:07:34

    Part of the evolving problem in this generation is that younger people are less familiar with the need to make work their own. They’re more likely to have been finding information on the voluminous supply of words on the internet, and less likely to understand the value of their own thinking. If your plagiarizer is a student, then he hopefully is still young enough to learn from the mistake before incorporating it into a regular routine. I do think imitation is flattery to a degree (particularly in creative writing), but integrity is more important. If I found something I wrote under someone else’s byline, I’d be both glad they liked it enough to claim it and angry they’d been so selfish. (And, of course, I’d call them on it. Possibly publicly, if there were an option.)


    • Lisa Wields Words
      Feb 24, 2012 @ 20:41:12

      I think part of my struggle is the public part. I mean, I agree that this child needs to learn from his mistake. But is it appropriate to publicly humiliate a child who I have no contact with beyond this challenge? I had a couple of students last year (college students) who blatantly plagiarized, and I had no problems calling them on it, and making it known. But, as angry as I am, I don’t know why this kid did what he did. So I don’t want to flagellate him publicly. I don’t know.


  11. jfb57
    Feb 25, 2012 @ 05:24:49

    I’m so sorry this has happened Lisa. I had someone ‘reblog’ one of my posts & I was horrified. Unfortunately WP has now put a facility in to do it. For me it is about permission. I’m flattered if folks want to use my work but with the right acknowledgements.
    I’m amazed that this happened in a way. I wonder if he read all the 100WCGU before choosing? If he did then I suppose you could feel flattered. I’m a bit sadden by the teacher as his reaction has been minimal. I will go back to him to see what action he took.
    As for 100WC, I will write a post to make it a learning point.

    I suppose we could feel flattered that it meant SO much to enter that he needed to cheat. Take care my dear


    • Lisa Wields Words
      Feb 25, 2012 @ 08:57:03

      It really is all about acknowledgment and permission. As for this time, I know that I included my link in one of my comments because I thought the writer might get a kick out of my post. Maybe he saw that. Or maybe he really did take the time to read them all. Which would be an astonishing feat. He could have used the time to write.

      Oh well. It disturbs me too if the teacher does nothing. I usually try to show where someone went wrong. Isn’t that a teacher’s job? Sigh


  12. bornstoryteller
    Feb 26, 2012 @ 23:20:04

    Lisa, you may not like my answer: this kid, and others, need to know there are consequences from doing things like this. Copying the style of: that’s finding a voice. Taking your work, making a few changes? That is lazy, and the kid is cheating him/herself out of doing the work, good or bad.

    Head handed to him? No. But called on it? Yes, big time. Made to do it himself and still get an F. Oh yes. We are too soft and are creating a wave of excuse makers.


    • Lisa Wields Words
      Feb 27, 2012 @ 06:55:54

      I actually agree with you Stuart, in the sense that it shouldn’t be ignored. I just didn’t feel it was appropriate to post, as my initial urge was, “Hey, thanks for stealing my words and claiming them as your own.” I wanted the teacher to deal with him appropriately, although so far I am less than enthused by that teacher’s response. I believe an upcoming challenge is going to deal with plagiarism so that all the participants learn a little bit of a lesson.


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  15. Madeline Scribes
    Oct 28, 2013 @ 10:20:48

    I worry about being plagiarized all the time when I’m writing. I can’t imagine what I’ll do or how I’ll react of I ever find my words repeated by someone else that is taking credit for them.


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