Julia Keller, on the recent “mini-epidemic” (what used to be called a “trend”) of high-profile plagiarism/literary fakes:

Is it desperation? Panic? Hubris? Stupidity? Shortsightedness? An honest misunderstanding of the rules of the game? After all, hip-hop artists often sample other musical works in their songs; film directors regularly reproduce the scenes of directors whose works they admire.

But when writers do it, it is called something else: thievery.

Sigh. 15 years after Campbell v. Acuff-Rose, apparently word still hasn’t gotten around that sampling isn’t plagiarism. It’s way different. Kanye West is no more a thief than T.S. Eliot.

The whole purpose of prohibitions (legal and societal) against plagiarism is to prevent artists from taking work that isn’t theirs and passing it off as their own. For reasons I’ll never really understand, critics like Keller always emphasize the act of using someone else’s work without taking into account the second part of the equation, which is really what separates plagiarism from artistic recycling.

Why do writers get called out and not hip-hop artists? Writers (well, some writers) aren’t expected to use other people’s work. If they do, they’re expected to use quotes or references. Most of the time, at least–if I say that 15 years ago people thought sampling was plagiarism but the law took the road less traveled by and that made all the difference, I don’t have to point out that I’m paraphrasing Robert Frost. If I say that shit is bananas, I don’t feel the need to cite Gwen Stefani. Those constructions are so familiar that there’s not really a question that I’m trying to pretend I came up with them. There’s no presumption that I am using other people’s work and pretending it is mine.

There are other ways to use other people’s work without acknowledging it in such a way that it’s not plagiarism. A substantial percentage of “The Waste Land” consists of ripped-off quotes, rewritten lines, vague references, etc. And anyone who reads Eliot knows this; it’s part of the game. Aside from the artistic role of his borrowing, that’s just his style; even though he doesn’t cite every taking, he doesn’t need to because there’s a reasonable expectation that his readers know that he’s doing so, even if they don’t pick up every reference.

And that’s kind of where hip-hop is at right now. There’s a reasonable assumption that listeners expect that Jay-Z didn’t hire a session musician to come in and play a bass line he wrote for “Hello Brooklyn 2.0.” Even if you didn’t realize that it’s a rehash of a Beastie Boys bass line (I didn’t), because of the nature of the form, you wouldn’t be shocked when you found out. Once you get really deep in the weeds, to the point where you can trace the evolution of samples, it actually makes the music a lot more fun (see Nate Harrison’s brilliant video on the history of the “Amen Break” below).

(The law, of course, views these things somewhat differently–there’s a fair amount of interesting case law about how much of a recording you can use, under which instances you can and can’t use someone else’s melody, and so forth. Which is fair enough: the law has to be a lot less fickle than art. Not to mention that one’s economic obligation to sources is a different thing entirely from one’s intellectual obligation.)

So it’s not about whether you’re a writer or not; it’s not about crazy hip-hop dudes against staid prose-heads. It’s about how spheres of expectation develop around genres. As the Amen Break video explains at the end when it gets more theoretical, this affects law, which in turn affects culture, and a lot of people who really care about these things have been fighting these battles for a long time; it’s frustrating to see rich topics like these lumped in with dull fights over cheap sentence-robbers.