Is Plagiarism A Sin?

In the last year or so there have been several occasions where it has been discovered that some words in books written by Christian authors were not their own words, but yet were not footnoted as being written by someone else. This occurrence is usually referred to as “plagiarism”. The publishers of the books in question have reacted by halting sales of the affected books, sometimes forever, or sometimes until this can be corrected. This both harms the public, who are deprived of the wisdom such books contain, and harms the reputation of the author, who is labelled a plagiarist. Therefore, it is important to be certain that the act the author has committed is, in fact, sinful. If it is, fair enough. But if it is not, both the removal from sale of the book and the loss of reputation are unwarranted and harmful.

Contemporary academic standards certainly see plagiarism as a serious misdemeanour. In a context where work has to be marked for credit, it’s clearly important that the marker knows which of the work is the student’s own, and which is taken from others. In this case, the act is clearly wrong – but one could argue either that it is wrong per se, or that it’s wrong because the student is breaking a promise they made to attribute all their quotations correctly – when the sin would be “not keeping one’s word”, rather than plagiarism.

Don Carson also writes that giving another’s sermon is also a sin. I would not agree with all his reasons but certainly would agree with reason number 3 – “you are not devoting yourself to the study of the Bible to the end that God’s truth captures you, molds you, makes you a man of God and equips you to speak for him”. Preachers should not use the words of others as a way of avoiding engaging in their God-given and weighty task.

However, I think plagiarism is not a sin in itself, and I base my argument on the construction of Scripture. Scripture contains many examples of what today would be called plagiarism – unattributed use of the words of another. Many of these are where words are taken from other places in Scripture, but there are also some where words are taken from outside Scripture. Not all such quotations are unattributed, but many are. Large examples include:

* The dependence of Kings on other books (e.g. (e.g. 2 Kings 18-20 is basically the same as Isaiah 36-39; 2 Kings 25 is nearly identical to Jeremiah 52)
* The dependence of Chronicles on Kings
* The dependence of Matthew on Mark (e.g. Mark 2:1-12 has strong similarities with Matthew 9:1-8)
* The dependence of Luke on Mark
* The dependence of 2 Peter on Jude (or the other way around, if you prefer)

And that’s before you consider Q (a proposed document also used by Luke and Matthew, so unattributed that scholars argue about its very existence), and all the times the New Testament quotes or alludes to the Old (most of which are unattributed). Paul quotes 3 Greek philosophers in various places; none of the quotes are attributed by name, even though Paul must have known the names. They are in quotation marks in our modern Bibles, but Greek does not have quotation marks. One could go on. Any one of these examples would prove my point.

If it is a sin in all circumstances to take the words of others and pass them off as your own, then the very construction of Scripture as we have it involved its authors doing this sinful act many times. While Scripture describes sins, and was written down by sinners, I don’t believe that God would have used sinful methods in the process of assembling his good and perfect word – because if the existence of something necessarily depends on sin, how can it be described as good and perfect? If God thinks that unattributed quotation is a sin, why would he not have caused the authors to attribute all their quotations, thereby setting us all a good example? If plagiarism is a sin, lack of attribution of quotations is a flaw in Scripture itself.

The idea that copying the work of others, either at all or without attribution, is unreasonable is a relatively recent one in history. Copyright has only been around since the Statute of Anne in 1707, and that was a measure designed at controlling publishers rather than restricting people’s ability to quote. More recently in history, such things have been thought about under the banner of “intellectual property”, a name which rather begs the question, as it’s not clear at all that such things should be treated in the same manner as physical property. This concept of a particular person “owning” a set of words or ideas was unknown until relatively recently. The fact that these ideas are innovative should certainly give us caution in suggesting that they are reflections of the moral will of God which humans had been unaware of until 300 years ago. Christians have always built on the wisdom God has given those before them, and we should be wary of any man-made laws which restrict that free flow of ideas forward in time.

Nevertheless, the law is the law – is plagiarism wrong because it’s a breach of copyright law as it stands today, and Christians are called to obey the law (Romans 13)? The answer is that it depends on the context and the level of copying. Copyright law has exceptions to try and balance its view that the author should have control of their work with what it sees as the legitimate rights and desires of the public. But the way copyright law works in the UK is that the law doesn’t provide actual affirmation that certain exempt acts are OK, it instead provides for defences in court. This means that the only way to know for certain whether a particular use is an infringement or not is to ask a judge. This is relevant because of the legal doctrine of de minimis – below a certain level, a court would undoubtedly refuse to waste its time with a copyright infringement.

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask if this behaviour seems to be covered by an exception. Exceptions unfortunately vary from country to country; in the UK, there is an exception for “criticism, review, quotation and news reporting“, which is certainly designed to permit quotation of one book in another. It does require “sufficient acknowledgement (unless this would be impossible for reasons of practicality or otherwise)” (section 30). It could certainly be argued that if you took notes 20 years ago and neglected to record the source, it is now practically impossible to acknowledge it. One might consider prosecution if attribution were intentionally left off; would a prosecutor really do so if it were done unintentionally?

Earlier, I noted that in some contexts, plagiarism can be sinful because it involves breaking a promise. Can that be the case in commercial publishing? There are two possible promises to consider – that of the author to his publisher, and that of the author (and publisher) to the readership.

Let us consider the author/publisher relationship first. Having not yet authored my first best-seller I am not familiar with the contracts that authors draw up with publishers. These may well contain a clause saying the author will attribute all quotations, or perhaps make a good faith effort to do so. However, someone’s culpability for breaking a promise depends significantly on intent and circumstances. If I promise my wife to be home by a certain time and my train is late (and I write this while waiting for a train after missing a connection due to a late incoming train), I would suggest only an unreasonable wife would take me to task for this. If an author deliberately plagiarises others when having promised not to do so, that is a clear case of a broken promise. If they do so accidentally, is pulping all copies of their book a proportionate response?

The second situation to consider is the possibility that an author makes an implicit promise to his readership. I think this argument is stronger in an academic work where the footnotes average a third of each page, than in a non-academic work which has 20 endnotes in total. There are different reader expectations in each case. But how normative are reader expectations? I expect books I buy to be written in good English, theologically sound, thought-provoking and enlightening. These expectations are, sadly, often not met, but I don’t expect the publisher to pulp the book in response to my complaint! To add to that, one is on shaky ground construing promises where no explicit promise has been made. Lastly, the point about what one does if a promise is broken accidentally (as opposed to wilfully) still stands.

Plagiarism may be problematic and unwise in certain circumstances. For example, it makes it harder to trace the history of an idea back to its source, which is often important in avoiding groupthink and validating “what everyone knows”. But we must avoid the genetic fallacy – the worthiness of an idea or thought is not connected to whose idea or thought it was. If a book explains the Trinity well, it does not suddenly do so less well if it’s discovered that some of the words were not written by the author named on the cover.

So I would suggest that the idea that plagiarism is always and everywhere wrong is a recent innovation and not a reflection of the moral will of God. Intentionally breaking one’s explicit promises is sinful; plagiarism itself alone is not.

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