Plagiarism has existed as long as human creativity. Many of the earliest cave painters were disgraced when side-by-side comparisons revealed numerous similarities between their images of various animals—overlaps that couldn’t possibly be accounted for by coincidence alone. Sometimes plagiarism is just that easy to sniff out, but not always. What is plagiarism? Is it like pornography—something you just recognize when you see it? Or are there specific guidelines to ensure that your writing is in fact your own? It’s a little of both, predictably. Scientists classify plagiarists on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being the most shameful act of creative appropriation and 4 representing wholly original, untainted expression.
LEVEL 1: This plagiarist is essentially a literary purse-snatcher. There’s not an ounce of finesse or remorse in the way he steals someone’s work. He’s the guy who photocopies an entire novel, writes his name over the author’s with a marker, and resubmits it to the publisher because it’s just the kind of book they like to put out.
LEVEL 2: Like the Level 1 plagiarist, this idea thief greedily helps himself to the work of others. He’s not fully committed, though. While he can’t develop an idea of his own, he’s confident he can improve upon existing text. He may even see his plagiarism as a service. He might, for example, give The Metamorphosis some zip:
Suddenly, Gregor Samsa woke up quickly in a cold sweat. Except he couldn’t sweat because unbeknownst to himself or family and friends, he turned into an insect! Which excludes spiders because they’re arachnids!
LEVEL 3: Most of the scandals we hear about involve this group. The plagiarist may indeed be writing a story of his own, but he doesn’t hesitate to borrow an element from an existing work—a plot twist, a distinctive line of dialogue, a white whale named Moby, and so on.
LEVEL 4: Purity. The Level 4 “plagiarist” can’t accurately be labeled as such. The writer first memorizes every creative work published so he knows what to avoid. He then writes his novel in an entirely invented language and rents an orangutan to rearrange the pages. There are no characters and there’s no story. If you could read it aloud, which is impossible, it would sound like 372 pages of a ceiling fan operating. Finally, when the manuscript is incorruptibly ready, when it has no resemblance to anything written by anyone, anywhere, the author burns it just to be safe.