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Some observations by Jose Arcilla on plagiarism

Stolen ideasTo the ancient Romans the word "plagiarism" referred to the practice of purchasing a free man, knowing him to be such, and keeping him in servitude. A variant was to use someone's slave as one's own. Of course, both invited trouble. Now, legal experts tell us that plagiarism is the crime of stealing or using as one's own someone else's ideas and thoughts. The word comes from the Latin "plagium" (kidnapping) and this in turn from "plaga" (net). This is different from "plague," which in Latin is "pestis."

Plagiarists are actually thieves guilty, even without any court sentence, of the morally unaccepted deed of stealing. Its malice we can gauge if we consider that ideas are more precious than material possessions. For without ideas there can never be any human society. They are the link that brings people together. They energize people to rise above themselves. Break this link, and you destroy society.

Social leadership is especially vulnerable to this abuse. The true leader wins over his followers, not through physical coercion, but through identity of ideals and ideas. Both leader and follower subscribe to the same programs and plans. Forcing others to one's will is tyranny, despotism, or, worse, terrorism. A group artificially cemented together by fear cannot be a human society. It breeds its own destructive worms.

Stolen material objects, like a car, are replaceable. But once spoken, words can never be "unspoken," or replaced, for ideas are unique and we cannot duplicate their meaning. And once plagiarized, they are no longer as meaningful as when their original author first expressed them. One must create other ideas equally expressive of the original insight.

But quoting from a famous author's work, citing choice phrases from accepted writings, and acknowledging this literary debt, is something else. It is actually honoring the writer, an admission of the value of his thoughts. That is what makes a writer famous, for he elevates our minds and, in Rizal's famous line, shows us "a new path we can follow." They inspire and challenge us to reach for the stars.

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Modern society has put up the legal defense we know as the "copyright law." It gives to an author of a written work, a musical composition, a painting, etc. the exclusive right for a period of time to an author's original creation, which no one else may claim or use. Fortunately, the law concerns only the form of expression and not the subject itself. For example, anyone can write about the traditional epithet of Filipino indolence, but only one author may personify through our legendary Juan Tamad. To write about another "lazy" Filipino different from Juan Tamad is not plagiarism. It in fact shows one's fertile imagination.

The Philippine government has its own copyright law, the Intellectual Property Code of the Philippines (or Republic Act No. 8293). It includes rights to patents and trademarks, and, of course, written compositions.

There does not seem to have been any notable case of infringement of the Philippine copyright law. It could mean that our people are not generally writers – we must keep in mind that a Filipino author can hardly support a family – or that no one cares enough to read Philippine publications. This is sad.

October 5, 2009 Monday
BYLINE: Jose S. Arcilla S.J.
LENGTH: 540 words

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