Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Imitation and Plagiarism: The Lauder Affair and Its Critical Aftermath

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Imitation and Plagiarism: The Lauder Affair and Its Critical Aftermath

Article excerpt

Christopher Ricks, in a recent British Academy Lecture, very forcefully reminds us that plagiarism has been morally condemned for many centuries, warning also against contemporary "exculpators" who claim it to be only a recent invention arising from the politics of property (150-55). Ricks might be slightly cheered to know that, in the mid-eighteenth century, a strongly moral view of literary theft was alive and well despite all the tangled complexities of copyright laws and shifting attitudes toward literary property that we associate with that period.

As early as 1737, in fact, one writer made an impassioned plea against confusing the legal rights of authorship with the higher moral law of nature. Richard Russel, the non-juring divine who was editor and chief writer of the Grub-street Journal for its entire seven years of life, made a complaint about the encroachment of the magazines on the territory of weekly journalists and expressed himself in terms that deserve to be reported at length: When any new work is proposed to a bookseller, he argues, the only question raised is whether it is likely to "take." Their maxim is that where there is no law, there is no transgression, meaning only the law of the land, not the "general Law of Nature," which forbids doing injury to others and which is antecedent to civil constitutions (1: xvii-xviii). Admittedly, property rights are so complex that it is impossible to secure them by verbal expressions, but even then they are as "clearly known by general consent and custom" as by any written laws. The same principle applies when the issues are those of literary property:

   [A] person who composes any thing in writeing, intended for the benefit of
   others, has a right to some advantage by way of grateful return from them,
   for that product of the labor of his mind, as well as for the product of
   any bodily labour. This original right he may transfer by gift, or for some
   valuable consideration, to any person; who from thenceforth becomes the
   sole proprietor of that production, and is thereby intitled to all that
   advantage, to which the author only had at first any just claim. The
   original right to some advantage from our labours is founded on the Law of
   Nature: Human Laws may confirm that right; appoint the methods of
   transferring it; and limit the advantages arising from it, in such a manner
   that the public receive no detriment thereby. All which was done, in some
   measure, by the Statute of [Queen Anne], the very words of which
   acknowledge an antecedent property, which was intended by that Act only to
   be secured. (xviii-xix)

But even when no such human law exists, Russel concludes, "an honest man will consider the justice and equity of the affair, and tho' sure of impunity, will scorn to invade whatever has been generally accounted the property of another, to which he himself has not the least pretence of any particular right" (xix).

Ironically, Russel's own enterprise, the Grub-street Journal, is quoted by Laura Rosenthal in her Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England, a work attacked by Ricks. Rosenthal, Ricks says, pretends to look at the differences between terms like plagiarism and imitation so as actually to dissolve the differences; in that way, all charges of plagiarism become simply a matter of those in power using the ugly term plagiarism to describe the work of those they wish to oppress or marginalize. And that tactic, he points out, necessarily excludes all moral considerations (152). Though on too small a scale for Ricks to mention, Rosenthal's use of the Grub-street Journal is similarly slippery. Following up a reference made by Pat Rogers, she cites No. 5 of the Journal as evidence that "intertextual freedoms of the educated poet constitute imitation, while similar kinds of repetition by Grub Street professionals go by the name of plagiarism" (Rosenthal 13; Rogers 359-60). …

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