7 December 2008
This piece, in the Guardian’s review section, starts with borrowing as the source of current economic woes, then moves on to the experiences of debt of authors and characters, before engaging with the history of borrowing the ideas and words of writers who have gone before us. By courteous acknowledgement the ancient Romans kept those sweet from whom they had taken ideas; they expressed their indebtedness. Ben Jonson, in the 16th century, used the word ‘plagiary’ for the stealing of poems, lines, and phrases from contemporaries. The idea of English being indebted to other languages for words it was appropriating emerged in the 17th century. Then, in 1710, came law, in the Copyright Act. An idea that comes across most strongly is that acknowledging sources strengthens the author’s own position as being worthy and honourable. We are always in debt to the past and those who have written in it.