Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Plagiarism - an Ancient History

A man named Aristophanes lived in the beautiful city of Alexandria, around 250 BC. He was the biggest bookworm you could think of, and Alexandria was the ultimate place to be if you had such hobbies, given that the great library was up and running, eating up funds that would give nightmares to any of today’s finance ministers.
So, this Aristophanes spent most of his life trying to read everything in the library, including the new entries.

One day, King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt decided to hold a poetry contest. Poets poured in from all over the world, and the King admitted he was lost among so many great works, so he decided to call in Aristophanes to judge on the winner.
Aristophanes listened carefully to all the works recited, then, to everybody’s surprise, he picked the least acclaimed poem as the winner, declaring that all the rest were just copies of previous works. He went to the library and started producing parchments to justify his statements.
The King ostracized the poets (a punishment much nastier than you might imagine today) and Aristophanes landed his dream job, as curator of the great library in Alexandria.

The concept of plagiarism is not as new as we might think. The word itself comes from the Latin plagiarius, meaning kidnapper. Famous poet Martial, from Ancient Rome, is credited with the first usage in the modern sense, when he accused another poet of having “kidnapped his verses”.

Copyright infringement issues, as we know them today, only entered in use in the 18th century, when book distribution and trade became an issue. King Ptolemy's poets were unfortunate to have stumbled upon a pre-search engine plagiarism checker, and even more so to be punished for something everybody was doing in those days.

To copy or compile another's work was considered homage to a great master, and improvisation was frowned upon, as a sign of meaningless pride.

Originality was useless, the ancients decreed, all words have already been spoken, everything worth saying has already been said. Tough to argue, but I'm still going to check these paragraphs with a plagiarism tool before making my post, to make sure I haven’t accidentally recited a phrase I didn’t know I memorized. Just my five minutes of meaningless pride.