Plagiarism & Ethical Standards in the Digital Age

Emily Rothkopf

In assessing the state of authorship and creative remix in the digital age, what has become apparent is the lack of a centuries old ethical standard around plagiarism.  Set aside the copyright issues and debate around fair use for a moment – laws will evolve over time and I have no doubt that stakeholders will find new ways to monetize their works.  What I would like to explore is the notion that society has lost a sense of what plagiarism is in this digital age where everything is not only extremely accessible, but extremely transferable.  Perhaps there needs to be a resurgence in education around plagiarism – but with a new spin for the digital age.  Can academia, and thereby society, develop new strategies and processes around citing digital content in remixed works?  And can we educate future generations with an ethical standard around remix, equivalent to that of traditional plagiarism, to ensure these new terms are indoctrinated into society?

Fairey v. The Associated Press

Take Shepard Fairey, an American contemporary artist, who took a published AP photo and appropriated it into the famous Obama “Hope” campaign poster.  After enduring several years of legal turmoil, Fairey ultimately was sentenced to 300 hours of community service and ordered to pay a $25,000 fine – not for infringing on copyright laws, but rather for contempt of court which occurred along the way in a long drawn out legal battle (Wikipedia 2014).  While I agree Fairey’s technique in this instance qualifies as fair use, I wonder if he had, at the least, considered crediting the original photographer.  This case exemplifies today’s cut-and-paste, remix culture and makes me question society’s current value and understanding of plagiarism across all art forms, not just written text.  How simple would it have been for Fairey to somehow cite his source?

Left: Manny Garcia’s 2006 photo for AP. Right: “Hope” by Shepard Fairey; Source:

Plagiarism: A Look Back

If you look at the history of plagiarism you will see that it developed over many centuries into being viewed as one of the worst “non-criminal” acts.  The word plagiarism can be traced back to the 1st century when Roman poet Martial complained that another poet had “kidnapped his verses” (plagiarius translated to kidnapper in Latin).  In the early 1600s the word was introduced into the English language and was applied to anyone guilty of “literary theft” (Wikipedia 2014).  But the idea of original works and recognition was being introduced into all art forms during this time, as exemplified by artists beginning to sign their paintings (McKay 2009).  By the 18th century, the concept of plagiarism had become indoctrinated into society as being immoral; originality was the ideal (Wikipedia 2014).  And from this point forward, being accused of stealing someone else’s words, ideas, works, etc. and passing them off as your own was one of the worst insults imaginable (McKay 2009).

By the late 1800s, we saw the development of a formalized way to cite published sources.  According to Harvard Medical School archives, the origin of the author-date parenthetical reference style is attributed to an 1881 paper by anatomy professor Edward Laurens Mark, which included an author-date citation in parentheses.  This is the first known instance of this style of reference and it is believed that Mark modeled the style on the cataloguing system used by one of Harvard’s libraries (Wikipedia 2014).  What is interesting here is the timeframe from when plagiarism became a notable offense to when the parenthetical citation method started – which is still the popular method of crediting ones sources today.  Hopefully it isn’t another century before we develop an effective citation system for remixed, digital content.

Teaching Ethical Standards

In academia, we are taught that plagiarism is a serious ethical offense – this ethos is ingrained in us from as far back as we can remember being tasked with writing our first paper.  As one advances through the education system, punishments get more severe – ranging from a failing grade to expulsion.  In industries that depend on original writing and public distribution – e.g. journalism – offenses can see even harsher scrutiny and can be career ending.  Regardless of ones field, most individuals would be ashamed to be accused of plagiarism and will take every step necessary to cite or rework an idea.

So what society has agreed on without question is that taking written text from another author and inserting it into your own without a citation, is wrong and shouldn’t be taken lightly.  Why does this harsh ethical standard stop at text?  Why doesn’t this indoctrination wholly transfer over to other art forms?  As the digital age expands and more and more works of all art forms are published online – via the Google Art Project for example, perhaps academia needs to establish a new precedent for citing sources in remixed work, that will then transcend into society as a whole.  And this new precedent needs to match the severity of society’s traditional standards around plagiarism.


Most stakeholders in the fair use debate agree that copyright laws are essential in some form and cultural goods cannot all be available for free (Healy 2002).  What is lacking in the debate is a question of how to uphold basic ethical standards in the digital age.  The offense of plagiarism, a “non-criminal” act, didn’t get so ingrained into our culture overnight.  Nor did the invention and practice of citing published text sources.  Part of the solution lies in our education system’s ability to establish and enforce new norms and procedures for remix the digital age.  And then, in conjunction with effective and efficient laws, perhaps individuals can avoid suffering the legal turmoil Shepard Fairey endured.

Today, Fairey is much more careful about attribution and appropriation: “He has begun a project on American pioneers in art, music, and culture, starting with Rauschenberg associate Jasper Johns — thus saluting some of the figures others have accused him of stealing from.  On his website, he carefully notes the Johns image is by photographer Michael Tighe,” (McDonnell 2010).

Works Cited

Healy, Kieran. “Digital Technology and Cultural Goods.” The Journal of Political Philosophy 10.4 (2002): 478-500. Web. 09 Feb. 2014.

McDonnell, Evelyn, and Henry Jenkins. “Never Mind the Bollocks: Shepard Fairey’s Fight for Appropriation, Fair Use, and Free Cultre (Part Two).” Confessions of an AcaFan. N.p., 15 Jan. 2010. Web. 09 Feb. 2014.

McKay, John J. “Archy: A Very Brief History of Plagiarism.” Archy: A Very Brief History of Plagiarism. N.p., 2 Mar. 2009. Web. 09 Feb. 2014.

“Parenthetical Citation.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Feb. 2014. Web. 09 Feb. 2014.

“Plagiarism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 06 Feb. 2014.

“Shepard Fairey.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Jan. 2014. Web. 07 Feb. 2014.