Borrowing or plagiarism?

posted in: language, writing | 1

Copying or honouring, stealing or developing your own style?

With the Rolling Stones in the courts (again) for alleged plagiarism, and the 400th anniversary of the birth of one of the most iconic, inventive writers in English history just around the corner, it’s an interesting question.

When you really like a piece of music, or a book, or a film, it’s hard not to reference it in your conversations.  In our house, ‘I have a bad feeling about this’, and, ‘no – it’s only mostly dead’, and ‘bapple’, appear regularly.  But we don’t make films, and no-one is going to sue us for copyright infringement.  (Star Wars – all of them, The Princess Bride, and Minions, in case you’re not on the same wavelength.)

guitars, drums and mic stands set up for the band to beginAs a musician, I can empathise with the Stones’ defence that there are hundreds of songs out there with that particular chord progression in, so you can’t copyright it.  There’s more to it than that, but that’s what they’re claiming.

And in any case, copying another’s song isn’t always deliberate.  I’ve been present when a friend has realised that his brand new song actually bore a striking resemblance to something in the charts at that time, which must have slipped inside his head un-noticed.  His song had to be scrapped, as it was so closely related that it couldn’t have been re-worked into something less alike.

William Shakespeare, the Chandos portraitBut what about Shakespeare?

Is the copying of so many of his words and phrases plagiarism, or honouring a great wordsmith?

These are just some, borrowed from an article in the Independent newspaper:

  • Send packing – Henry IV
  • Good riddance – The Merchant of Venice
  • Mum’s the word – Henry VI, Part II
  • Eaten out of house and home – Henry IV, Part II
  • Rant – Hamlet
  • Negotiate – Much Ado About Nothing
  • A wild goose chase – Romeo and Juliet

But that’s OK, apparently.  It’s not plagiarism, and no-one will sue you for having a rant (depending on the content of the rant, naturally.)

 So where does the line fall?

Well, if I’m writing something, and copy Shakespeare’s turn of phrase, and try to pretend it’s my own, then a) someone will notice, I expect, and b) that’s plagiarism.

If I’m writing and deliberately and explicitly quote someone, that’s respect for their work.

T.S. Eliot said,

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

Which is a whole lot more erudite than I can sound on my own, so I’ll not try.


hand writing with a black fountain penCreating your own music, writing, painting, fashion sense, etc, is a matter of trial and error, experimentation, and being a magpie. Borrowing little bits of things you like from other people, to create your own style, is fine, even necessary.  How do you develop something that’s your own if you don’t emulate those you admire?  Very few things are truly original, and much of what is current builds on what has gone before, in every field of artistic endeavour.

So, in a nutshell, quote with acknowledgement and respect, and don’t pass off someone else’s work as your own.


Apparently “stealing from one source is plagiarism, but stealing from many sources is research.”

Wilson Mizner, 1876-1933.

  1. Cas Smirthwaite Walker

    Nice article Hannah. An interesting topic that is very relevant to many different fields of work! Speaking for myself, all designers are heavily influenced by what is around them; I am constantly taking in others’ work, consciously and subconsciously, storing it up mentally. It’s sometimes very difficult to be truly original in a world where there is so much information readily available. Occasionally one can’t even remember where the idea originally came from and if there are similarities to the work of another, these similarities can be completely coincidental! Like your musician friend. 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.