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When Did Plagiarism Become a Crime?

The Biblical writings of the New Testament repeat many themes of the Old Testament. Roman writers copied what the Greeks had written. Shakespeare borrowed heavily from other writers. And nobody called it plagiarism. In the past imitation was considered a compliment.


Until the seventeenth century writers did not think twice about borrowing passages or themes from one another. As Thomas Mallon points out, the classical view prevailed. As iterated by Aristotle:"Imitation is natural to man from childhood [and] the first things that he learns come to him through imitation." No one, in other words, bothered with footnotes.


Mallon asserts that plagiarism came to be regarded as a problem in the seventeenth century, when writing became an occupation. It was during this time that"word was getting around that words could be owned by their first writers." Before this time,"what we call plagiarism was more a matter for laughter than for litigation."

The action of printing the written word changed the role of the writer in society. Suddenly, the author -- instead of the verbal storyteller -- was held in high esteem. At the same time society began to place a high value on originality. Mallon is unsure why the change from imitation to originality occurred. He ultimately hypothesizes that it was the result of the preoccupation of elites during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I with questions about the legitimacy of the monarchy. If the monarchy faced such questions, shouldn't writers, too?


Ben Johnson was the first person to use the word"plagiary" in English to denote literary theft. (In classical times, writes Mallon,"a 'plagiary' had been one who kidnapped a child or slave.") Plagiarism finally came to be regarded as a crime, in effect, in the 18th century, at a time when originality --"not just innocence of plagiarism but the making of something really and truly new" -- was prized.


  • Thomas Mallon, Stolen Words

  • Marilyn Randall, Pragmatic Plagiarism