“Plagiarism” is a big word for a kid in Grade 1. At the time, I didn’t know what it was called. I only knew that I did it, knew full well that I’d done it, got caught, lied about it and learned a very valuable lesson that I never EVER forgot.
Ah, confession really is good for the soul. If you’re reading this, Donna Bright, I’m so very sorry I lied to you back then.
For our spelling class, we were supposed to write a short poem of our own composition. I can still see the green hard cover and black type of the book’s title in a rather funky-looking (for the time) serif font: Spelling Skills Level 1. It smelled dank and musty with that sickly whiff of white binding glue, like all the books in our school library.
Our assignment was due on Monday morning. I’d been thinking about it constantly for weeks but now it was Sunday night. No matter how hard I tried, I just hadn’t been able to improve on a poem I had found in one of my favourite books of bedtime stories.
So I copied it out in my own hand verbatim and slept peacefully, my work now done.
Next morning, Miss Slee asked us to stand up in turn and read our masterpieces aloud to the class. I didn’t hesitate to recite my purloined poetry. When I finished, to rapturous applause (or so I thought), Donna Bright’s hand was waving insistently to get the teacher’s attention. Then I heard, “You didn’t write that!”
“Did too!” I retorted hotly.
“Did not! I read that in a book of stories my aunt gave me!”
Busted! And totally mortified. My book was a gift that had come from the States. Surely I was the only little girl in Canada, maybe the whole world, let alone Miss Slee’s class, lucky enough to have had a copy of it?
But did I fess up and admit that I’d done wrong? No way! It was bad enough that I’d been caught cheating. I wasn’t about to reveal myself as a liar, to boot.
That was almost 50 years ago. To my knowledge, the only cheating I’ve done since then has been while dieting. For sure, I have never, EVER again tried to pass off someone else’s work as mine. It was a lesson learned early. And well.
Plagiarism. Essay mills. Music downloads. Digitizing books without their authors’ permission. Intellectual property infractions abound these days. Where’s Donna Bright when we need her to point an accusatory finger now?
When I look at online job sites, I relive the unforgotten shame of that long-ago lesson. I marvel at how many adults and “professional” writers appear never to have learned it themselves. The job posts admonish would-be service providers that their text “be original” and “pass Copyscape”.
A few months ago, Google changed its algorithm and thousands of online merchants saw their URLs drop off the first page of rankings into relative oblivion. Why? They’d been picking up product descriptions verbatim from supplier literature. Copying and pasting text from other people’s websites.
In the race for “fresh” content, they were cheating – even if most of them were blissfully unaware that that’s what they were doing – and Google caught them.
It’s true that “content is king”. But ethics still reign.
Miss Slee and Donna would be proud.
What early lessons did you learn and never forget?
Do you think you should be able to cut and paste information from other sites into your own?