“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Attributed to author and cleric Charles Caleb Colton, that quip, or at least close variations of it, are often used to give comfort and solace to those who are upset that they are being plagiarized and infringed upon.
But while certain forms of imitation may be sincerely flattering, plagiarism is not one of them. Those that believe plagiarism is flattering usually don’t understand plagiarists, why they plagiarize or how they choose their targets.
In short, once you know how plagiarists operate, it becomes clear that there isn’t any flattery to be found in the act of plagiarism and, while that may remove some comfort for the victims of plagiarism, it was cold, transparent comfort to start with.
If we are going to seriously and accurately address the issue of plagiarism, we have to get away from the idea that plagiarism is a form of flattery and move forward with a more honest approach.
Why There is No Flattery in Plagiarism
The basic idea behind the “plagiarism is flattery” argument is that plagiarists wouldn’t select to steal something they didn’t like. So, through the act of plagiarizing their work, even though most would agree it’s a dishonest and immoral act, it’s a bizarre compliment to the author, a way of saying they “like” the work and think it’s good.
However, there are three critical problems with this logic, each of which dull any compliment the original author might have taken from the misuse:
- Plagiarists Lack Skill: First, plagiarists generally plagiarize because they lack the skill to create the work themselves. As such, they also generally lack the skill to distinguish good from mediocre works. They only know for certain which works are better than theirs.
- Plagiarists Rarely Read: Plagiarists rarely thoroughly read and understand the materials they grab. Plagiarists usually try to avoid work and they often rely on other indicators, such as Google results and other links, to make their judgments on what to choose.
- Plagiarists Don’t Choose on Quality: Plagiarists rarely try to choose the “best” work they can find. They try instead to find a work that will fill the need and one that they think they won’t be likely caught with.
Of the three points, the last is the most important, that plagiarists aren’t looking for the highest quality work they can find, just passable work that is better and easier to produce than their own. It’s the difference of a plagiarist saying, “I really like your work and wanted to be as skilled as you in people’s eyes” and “Your work was convenient, good enough to get the job done and still fool others into thinking it was mine.”
While a plagiarist certainly doesn’t want to choose something terrible, they don’t feel the need to choose something great either. For example, in school environments, teachers report that Wikipedia is the source most often plagiarized from, not more scholarly sources.
The reason is simple, WIkipedia is convenient, most often the first result in Google, and is widely thought (incorrectly) to be untraceable.
In short, works aren’t plagiarized because they are good, they are plagiarized because they are easy and there isn’t much flattery in being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Changing the Tone of the Plagiarism Discussion
The reason I am against this notion of plagiarism as flattery is that it is used as a reason to discourage the aggrieved author from taking action or being less stern with the action they take. While it is one thing to try to provide comfort to someone who is upset, I routinely read on forums that the victim should just “drop it” as they should feel “flattered” by the use and “let it go”.
Strangely, this is one of only a few situations where we tell the victims of an act that they should feel flattered. We don’t tell people who had their car stolen to be grateful the thief thought they had a nice car or someone who was mugged that they looked like a wealthy person.
The logic falls apart there because we realize that criminals choose their victim based on risk vs. reward and the quality of goods is only part of the reward. Convenience, quick turn around and other elements are also factors. However, plagiarists choose their victims in much the same way and they often do so with much less skill than the common mugger chooses theirs.
Because of this, there’s a need to change the tone of the conversation around plagiarism. Plagiarists aren’t misguided critics or failed creators who are giving tacit approval of a work as they plagiarize. The victims of plagiarism are chosen the same way as any other victims are chosen.
In short, there’s no special honor in being victimized by a plagiarist, just as there is no special honor in the plagiarist him or herself.
My heart goes out to those who have been victimized by plagiarists, especially those who have had work of particularly strong business or personal importance. Having your work taken in such a way can be a very difficult thing, something I personally experienced, and it is tempting to seek solace in flattery.
However, the best thing for anyone to do is to, as much as possible, detach themselves personally from the plagiarism (though not their work) and deal with the situation at hand the best that they can.
While there may not be an ego boost for victims of plagiarism, there can be a sense of satisfaction from dealing with a situation swiftly and professionally, making sure to secure your work and, hopefully, help discourage the plagiarist from repeating the act in the future.
That, in turn, gives you the freedom to protect your work while not getting dragged down by plagiarism, letting you move forward with your creative endeavors.