When Did Plagiarism Become a Crime?


Ms. Brynn is a student at the University of Washington and an intern at HNN.

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

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Susan Rhoads - 1/31/2009

Dear Dr. Shenkman,

I was kind of surprised to find a serious error in one of your articles, "When Did Plagiarism Become a Crime," by Katie Brynn. The problem appears to be in the source material she used.


The time period of the 17th century is too late. There were serious squabbles that made for virulent, widely disseminated diatribes for at least a century before that.

Florence A. Gragg, one of the first female Classical Professors in the early 20th century proves this well in a charming book, a translation of Paolo Giovio, (1483-1552), called "An Italian Portrait Gallery," written in 1935. The book, online for 4 years, included brief biographies of past and present scholars, written to illustrate his famous portrait collection. Plagiarism was a hot issue and wrecked reputations and careers.

See one of several example in the life of Leonardo Aretino, p. 37;


"When he was dead and so was spared the knowledge of his disgrace, he was found guilty of plagiarism, because he had published his History of the Goths without mentioning Procopius. His accuser was Cristoforo Persona, who had found another copy of Procopius and translated the History of the Goths, Persians, and Vandals, honorably giving credit to the Greek author."

Plagiarism by scholars is a touchy enough subject even now. Only through accurate research and acknowledgement of the plague amongst teachers, past and present, will give any serious impetus to the ethical reform that needs to be occur desperately in all professions, mine included.

Believing that some of the most entertaining and useful work of many professors and dilettantes is ignored by many, I put online the fun stuff.

This book I found at an antique store for 7 dollars. It is not in many college libraries and that is disheartening enough. However, now that the information is available to anyone for free, and has been so for several years, that it is still ignored by current historians is really discouraging.

Please consider updating that article.

[You do not mention whether history buffs can contribute, although it is clear that a dilettante section could only aid and abet your purpose. Embrace both Town and Gown on your site, and spearhead the return of shattered trust/faith in "experts."]

Susan Rhoads, MD

liam gdot - 11/13/2005

I think plagiarism is a natural crime like murder.

Tensore - 4/28/2003

I just want to give a shout out to all ma homies and my homie Gs. Holler at Tensore@hotmail.com. Peace