There’s been a lot of talk in the news lately about plagiarism. But what is it and why is it considered to be a bad idea? If you’re planning on going to an American university or getting a job in the U.S., this is very important for you to know. Plagiarism can get you expelled from school or fired from your job. Plagiarism is stealing the words or ideas of someone else and trying to pass them off as your own. It sounds obvious: most people know that you cannot hand in an essay that was written by someone else. But there are lots of different ways to plagiarize and sometimes it can be hard to know if you’re doing the wrong thing. After all, if you’re doing research you have to look up other people’s ideas and quotes, don’t you? I’ve found that a really helpful way to learn about plagiarism is through music. Musicians borrow material from each other all the time, but they know the right way to do it. Here are three ways to do it right, one way to do it wrong, and one example of something that looks like plagiarism but really isn’t.
AVOIDING PLAGIARISM WHEN REFERENCING SOMEONE’S IDEAS
If you want to refer to an original idea or theory that someone came up with, you have to cite it. Citing is officially giving credit in a written or spoken piece. If you want to cite someone’s idea, you don’t necessarily have to quote the entire theory, but you do have to give credit to the author or creator. If you are talking about the theory of relativity, you mention Albert Einstein. If you are referring to Spiderman, you have to mention Stan Lee. In the same way, when musicians cover songs originally written by other musicians, they have to give those musicians credit. Listen to the following version of a song called “Hurt”:
The man singing, Johnny Cash, is not the original singer of the song. Johnny Cash was a famous country singer who reached out to the original artists, a nineties rock group called Nine Inch Nails, and asked for their permission to use their song. They agreed. Cash changed very little about the song, and anyone familiar with the original would absolutely recognize his remake. But because he asked for and was granted permission– because he cited Nine Inch Nails– people can enjoy his remake for its own merits while also still respecting the original creators.
AVOIDING PLAGIARISM WHEN CHANGING SOMEONE’S IDEAS
Sometimes, you want to write a paper or start a discussion using someone else’s ideas even though you disagree with them. Even then, you need to cite the original argument so people know you did not come up with your opposite opinion completely on your own. Everybody knows the strong beats and catchy tune of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”:
When Chris Cornell wanted to record his own version, he had to ask permission from either Jackson or Jackson’s estate after his death. The result is almost unrecognizable from Jackson’s original:
Nevertheless, without the permission of Jackson, Cornell could not legally have recorded the song. Instead of appreciating Cornell’s guitar and vocal skills, people would only be able to focus on how the music did not belong to him.
AVOIDING PLAGIARISM WHEN QUOTING SOMEONE’S WORDS
If, instead of citing someone’s ideas, you want to report the exact words that someone said, you can absolutely do that! But you have to take one extra step from when you cite ideas: you can’t just say who wrote it and where it came from. You also have to put quotation marks around the words themselves, so that your readers know you didn’t put together that phrasing on your own. In music, sometimes a musician doesn’t want to record a remake of an entire song. Sometimes, they just want to borrow a few lyrics or a guitar riff and use it in their own song. This is called sampling. It’s totally legal, but– just like with remakes– you have to get the permission of the original artist. Sometimes this leads to the most delightful collaboration!
For instance, listen to the lead guitar on Led Zeppelin’s song “Kashmir”:
Pretty distinctive, no? When Diddy wanted to use that same riff on the song he wrote for the movie Godzilla, he asked Led Zeppelin for permission. Not only did they say yes, but their guitar player agreed to play for Diddy’s recording! Citation allows for great things!
AN EXAMPLE OF DOING IT WRONG
If you don’t put someone’s words in quotation marks or significantly alter those words in a manner known as paraphrasing, you can be accused– and rightly so– of stealing someone else’s work. The nineties rapper Vanilla Ice learned the music version of this the hard way. When he put out his song “Ice, Ice, Baby” nearly twenty years ago, immediately people recognized the beginning notes as coming from another song: “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie. Listen to the two songs yourself and see if you can sport the similarities: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rog8ou-ZepE and
Vanilla Ice did not ask Queen or David Bowie’s permission to use those opening notes, and so they took him to court, sued him, and won! Plagiarism doesn’t pay, folks!!
You do not have to cite a known fact. For instance, John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. If I were to include this information in a paper, I would not need to cite my source because this isn’t an idea– it’s an actual fact. Similarly, in music, if you use satire– if you make fun of a song by changing its lyrics but make it clear that you’re not really copying the song– then that doesn’t count as plagiarism. The best examples of this type of music are the songs written by Weird Al Yankovic. He has been writing songs like these for years: “Eat It” instead of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It;” “Living in the Fridge” instead of “Living on the Edge” by Aerosmith; “Perform This Way” instead of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” They are not considered plagiarism because there is no way anyone could mistake them for the original songs on which they are based. However, just to be polite, Weird Al always asks the original artist for permission anyway! As a closing piece of music, listen to “Word Crimes,” which makes fun of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” It’s perfect for English students!