Once upon a time, the phrase “once upon a time” didn’t exist. Then Mother Goose came up with it and it went viral, to the point where every five-year-old can practically recite it in their sleep. But does Daughter Goose or Great Grandson Goose ever see a nickel in royalties from any of the “once upon a time” stories, spinoffs, and product placements? They’re lucky if any of the thieves even throw them a handful of stale breadcrumbs.
In the age of the Internet, plagiarism is only a click and a cut-and-paste away. Kids write term papers that include verbatim text that was originally penned (or perhaps quilled) by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, or Ziggy Marley. Jokes and humorous sayings are wrongly attributed to everyone from George Carlin to Mother Theresa.
When the Internet was originally being designed, one of its pioneers, whose name naturally escapes me at the moment, wanted to include a feature that would allow users to track anything that had been hyperlinked back to its original source, to make certain that authors would always receive their royalties and credit. But this feature was dropped in the final version, because it was feared that it would slow down the spread of cat videos.
As my father once said, “Who cares who originally said it? I’m saying it right now. Go clean your room!”
But, being an author myself, I’ve always felt a great need to try to give proper citations to any quotes that I use. Or as Harry Truman once said, “Don’t blame me, I only work here.”
It hardly seems fair that nowadays you can come up with some brilliant quote and not only never receive any payback, but that for generations to come, everyone will think your classic saying was created by Arianna Huffington or Rupert Murdoch. But as Steven Colbert said late last night, “Can we stop talking about your mother now? I’m trying to get some sleep.”
Today, not only is it hard to figure out who to properly attribute a quote to, it’s often equally hard to know if anything that anyone says is true. Or as Donald Trump recently yelled to his campaign manager, “Hey, I need some toilet paper in here!”
None of this should deter today’s students from searching the Internet for profound quotes, paragraphs, or even entire papers to expropriate for their homework assignments. At least they’re going to more of an effort to be accurate than we did when we were their age. Before the Internet, we were forced to make up quotes ourselves. Or, as George Washington famously said, “I’m tired. Mind if I sleep here tonight?”
The idea of stealing other people’s quotes or ideas should not be confused with something that frequently happens with our cartoonists. Often two cartoonists who live thousands of miles apart and wouldn’t be caught dead speaking to each other (cartoonists are a lot like mimes in this way) will come up with the exact same joke. When we publish one of the cartoons, the other cartoonist will inevitably call up to complain that their joke was stolen. But this is just an example of how often great minds think alike. Or as Albert Einstein once explained to Niels Bohr, “The universe is not big enough for both of us to eat the last cheese sandwich.”
And let’s not forget what Beethoven said when he was asked if he was angry that another composer had plagiarized the opening to his famous ninth symphony: “I can’t hear you, I’m deaf.”
Finally, before I get a call from Dave Maleckar, the creator of the 100 Word Rant, as well as a banana plantation in his backyard in New Orleans, I want the world to know that the idea for this story was his, and that he is welcome to take the blame for its success or failure. Because, as Dave once said, “Famous people say a lot of stupid things that no one ever remembers.”