Self-Plagiarism Cannot Be Defined, because it does not exist

by john harrison

The idea of “self-plagiarism” is an utter impossibility. Plagiarism, properly defined is nothing more, and nothing less, than the presenting the work of another as your own. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plagiarize) Presenting your own work, as your own work, can never be plagiarism. Most people who speak of “self plagiarism” are really complaining of is an author has reused their own work without noting that it had been used before. While it may be against an academic rule or contract, and therefore wrong to represent as new something that has been used before, it is still intellectually dishonest to call the re-use of a person’s own work “self plagiarism.”

Mischaracterizing a work as “new” may be a breach of an academic standard or of a contract, and at its worst; it may also be a lie. However, calling this “self- plagiarism” is at best simply another, and bigger lie. It is entirely disingenuous to engage in willful deceit merely to boot strap an accusation of potentially questionable conduct against another into something that sounds far worse than it is. Then, to pretend that it something that it cannot possibly be only adds to the insult. Not only does such a fabrication not discourage academic dishonesty assuming that the reuse of prior work is prohibited, it joins the dishonesty and it joins it at an even more intellectually degenerate level.

The term “bootstrap” comes from the idiom “to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps,” which connotes getting out of a hole without anything to stand on. The idea of a “bootstrap” is to assume an unknown to be true for the purpose of allowing a discussion to proceed, it is not to assume a false proposition in order to prevail in an argument.

How you can discourage something by doing yourself precisely what you supposedly want to decry is beyond my ken. Because it is always a lie, even making a charge of “self plagiarism” lacks academic rigor, i. e., knowledge of the meaning of a technical term before use, and proper use thereafter. It also exhibits an appalling lack of intellectual integrity, knowingly using both a misrepresentation and a logical fallacy to advance an argument.

In 1988 John Fogerty, of Credence Clearwater Revival (aka CCR), was sued by his former label Fantasy Records for what amounted to a claim self-plagiarism, and actual copyright infringement. Fantasy owned the rights to the CCR song library and sound. Saul Zaentz, the owner of Fantasy, claimed that John Fogerty’s newly recorded song Old Man Down the Road was a musical copy of the CCR song Run Through the Jungle that Fantasy Records owned. However, the trial court made a landmark decision when it ruled that an artist cannot plagiarize himself. Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc. (92-1750), 510 U.S. 517 (1994).

In this case neither Fogerty nor Fantasy was trying to prevent another artist from appropriating Fogerty’s or the CCR style, rather Fogerty wanted to protect his own right to use it. The court’s brief pretrial ruling addressed this by categorizing Fogerty’s, albeit distinctive, style as a legally unprotectable idea unless also embodied in an expression that had already been copyrighted and was thus entitled to copyright protection. Therefore, Fogerty could not be liable merely for employing his own style even after selling all of his previous works using that style to Fantasy Records. However, the court ruled that if an individual song or songs were substantially similar to a previous copyrighted song, then there could be actionable copyright infringement liability. Therefore, as a matter of law the court in effect ruled that while there could be copyright infringement even by an author of the work, there is no such thing as “self plagiarism.”

Even a charge of “self plagiarism”, since it is also always a lie it, always evidences a serious lack of academic integrity. That is, a charge of “self-plagerism” always includes a deliberate misstatement of a material fact with the clear intent that others rely on it.

Simply stated, real plagiarism always contains an element of moral turpitude on the part of the plagiarizer, but repeating or reusing prior work does not necessarily contain any imputation of moral turpitude on the part of the author. This is the lie. It is very important to note that, while it is possible that an author who has improperly reused their own work in violation of a rule against such use has simply made a mistake, the only explanation for a charge of “self-plagiarism” is that the maker of the charge intended to lie and then did so.

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