Wednesday, May 10, 2006


I've been thinking a lot lately about plagiarism, and the line between the legal definition and ethical definition. I have to admit that I'm finding myself torn. I understand the most blatant form of plagiarism, copying word for word, or very nearly, is obviously, and inarguably wrong. However, what if I read a poem, and want to use a particular image from it? What if a single word of it inspires me to write a poem? No one would accuse me of plagiarism if I use one word of another poem, or we'd all be plagiarists.

How about two words? Three? Five? When has the line been crossed? How far into the grey area is still ethical, and how far is too far?

I read a poem by someone today, someone I've "known" for years through Moontown Cafe. The lines are good, but the thought behind them are even better. I read it, and my mind rewrote the particular line in question, and I immediately began to consider the ethical ramifications of doing so. Of a nine word phrase, my (re)write would have used only two words, and her idea.

Now, I'll never write the poem my head is presently wrapped around, because I don't feel comfortable with the foundation of it, but I'm honestly unsure what the etiquette here would be. I, personally, would feel as though I'd stolen something she'd written, regardless of the fact that we'd only be sharing those two words. And I'm positive that there wouldn't be any issue of actual plagiarism involved, but in my guts, it would feel wrong.

What's your opinion?


  1. I totally agree with you. All things created started with an idea and to steal that idea is wrong if it in any way deprives the originator of that idea of the use and benefit of it.

    On the other hand, if an idea is not fully developed or you can adapt that idea and make it your own, that is okay as you are using her idea as inspiration and not stealing from her.

    I;m sure that is as clear as the rain water in the unvegitated hole in my dirt driveway.

  2. does this help?

    re-write me any time...

  3. Well, this depends. If you are saying that you have condensed nine words to two and still convey the same meaning, then you have developed and honed the idea to a sharp point, which is completely acceptable. If you have borrowed two exact words and elaborate upon an idea, you should cite the person and piece it was borrowed from, no doubt about, even if they could care less.

    You guys should see what I've cookin' on my creative nonfiction blog. I'll be posting an essay on ethics and plagiarism.

  4. a couple of days, but for now, there's a paper there, the one I quoted you in, Erin, and a comparision and contrast essay I wrote about two poems. You'd like that one for sure.

    love you

    ~ James

  5. OK, basically I'm saying that I would have used 2 words (out of her 9) and the creative thought process behind her word choice, and applied them to a poem on a different subject.

    But, even with a different subject matter, the image and sentence structure created would be recognizably hers.

    I can't exactly explain it, or describe the likenesses and differences (without quoting her, and writing out the poem in my head) but I feel uncomfortable with doing it because the piece would have been a direct derivative of hers.

  6. Why don't you write your poem, E? Go ahead and post it here, with a link to her poem. If nothing else we can use it as a case-study of plagiarism and sort of get a consensus of what it is and isn't. From the way you describe it, I'd say that it's not, but perhaps an example would help.

    I've read many a poem in publication that are "inspired by" and simply seem like rearranged versions of that which inspired it without an original thought in it. If that can pass, and be published, I can't see how borrowing two words and an idea would be considered wrong.

  7. I have been writing poetry for years, and reading poetry. Now I am beginning to wonder what is really MINE? Would I even know it if I were to use an idea (or a couple of words) of someone's that stuck somewhere in my mind? Now, with all this storm over kind of scares me to think of publishing stuff.

    Years ago when I wrote my book CHRYSALIS, I told of finding a line written in crayon on the back of a gas bill: A darkness in the weather of the eye. A great line, thought I! Is it mine? Or somebody else's? Well, the book was published with me still wondering. I hope it is mine, I wrote. Then, after the book came out, I was reading some Dylan Thomas, and there it was! Plagerism? I never gave credit to him in the book. Or took credit for it myself (other than "Hoping"). But the brain hangs on to a lot of stuff....

  8. Plagiarism is a problem which is becoming worse and worse, as I've noticed. In my case it is the complete copying of one or more of my poems without mentioning me as the author, which already is wrong, but recently I've even found my poem "A heart breaks easier alone" on the blog of a 14 year old boy who, even after I've shown proof to the contrary, claims to have written it. Now this is clear plagiarism, if ever there was one...

    Now in your case, it looks like you're inspired by a poem. In that case I'd say: write your poem, but state underneath "Inspired by" with the title of the poem and the name of the writer. Then it's not plagiarism.

  9. Walter~
    That's exactly the sort of story that makes me realize the value of a site like Poets Against Plagiarism!