Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Imitation is....

A few days ago, I was trying to find the exact quotation matching a half-remembered phrase from a poem.  So I googled it, too lazy to pull down the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations or get up to fetch the book where I knew I would find it.  Among the top web-hits were two that I followed up. One was a sermon I'd preached some years ago where I'd quoted the poem.  It was about St Mark's resurrection story and was on the Cathedral website.  Text identified, quotation corrected, job done. 

But the other hit intrigued me.  It looked as though this same quotation was being used in an uncannily similar setting, a blog about how St Mark talks about the first Easter Day.  As I scrolled up and down, I thought first: this chap's 'take' on the story seems very like my own.  Then I thought: he even writes like me.  And finally - far too slowly - I cottoned on to the awful realisation.  This is me!  I was reading my own sermon on somebody else's blog. It was topped and tailed and there were a few small amendments, but apart from that it was word for word what I had written back in 2004. 

Now, I wouldn't have minded in the least if the blogger (a priest) had acknowledged his sources.  I'm not proprietorial about preaching: you fling your words from a pulpit (real or virtual) out into the world and if someone picks them up and runs with them, that is gratifying, and indeed, God-given. It's the idea that another writer could simply copy someone else's text and pass it off as his own. That feels like a kind of theft.  (Which under copyright law it is: intellectual property is precisely that - property.)  If a student is found doing it, he or she is awarded zero for that assignment and disciplined, sometimes severely.  Plagiarism is taken very seriously.

I have tried to reflect what I think and feel about this little episode. My first reaction was a kind of amused bafflement.  If this priest down under reckons my work is good enough to pass off as his own, I should take it as a compliment.  Imitation, famously, is the sincerest form of flattery.  But then I began to think about the consequences.  My reason for googling the poem in the first place was that I wanted to rewrite that part of the sermon with the poem in a chapter of my next book.  What if readers were to stumble across the blog and find all-too-similar material there? Wouldn't it be I who would then be suspected of plagiarism?     

I tweeted about this and got a unison response: I need to challenge the blogger.  So I did.  I left an anonymous comment on his blog saying he should acknowledge his sources and directing him to the Cathedral website.  The next day I went back and added a link to my sermon in case he hadn't found it.  One or two others did the same.  None of these comments were published, and 3 days later the blog still hadn't been taken down or amended to attribute the source.  So I tweeted links to both his site and mine and having 'outed' him, waited to see what would happen.  So far, nothing: this story (like Mark's resurrection narrative!) may not have an ending. 

There is moral hazard attached to the worldwide web. It is just too easy to lift other people's writing, photos, artwork or music and pass them off as your own.  When a priest does this, it raises rather sharper questions about Christian ethical behaviour.  OK, so in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was perfectly normal for Baroque composers to lift musical themes by others and incorporate them into their own works.  And in ancient times, pseudepigraphical texts carried the names of well-known writers to lend them authority.  There are examples in the Bible itself.  But that was then; this is now.  Our vastly increased access to information in the digital age needs to be matched by increased moral awareness about how we use these powerful tools. 

What does this leave me?  I don't want to make too much of this. There are plenty of bigger issues to keep us awake at night.  The worst thing would be to become self-important about it. That's the moral hazard the victim faces. Perhaps a Christian response is to register the point and then get over it.  If we follow Christ the Servant, we shouldn't be surprised that we are sometimes 'used' or stolen from or walked over. 

It reminded me of a very Anglican limeric about the famous Victorian Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon.

There once was a preacher called Spurgy
Who greatly disliked the liturgy.
His sermons are fine:
I use them as mine,
And so do the rest of the clergy.

Here's the calculus of my emotions so far.  Flattered?  Yes, quite a lot if I am honest.  Amused?  Yes, a little, at this bizarre discovery.  Irritated, angry even?  Yes, but less than before.  Writing a blog is cathartic.  I recommend it. 

My sermon at - St Mark

His blog at

Judge for yourself. 


  1. At least your sermon is being used as a sermon, Michael. A piece I wrote a few years ago has been plagiarised in several places around the internet, and I discovered that it appears in at least one buy-an-essay website with someone else credited for it (and presumably taking a cut of sales). Huh! Attempts to get it removed or at least credited have, like yours, met with complete failure.

    1. Your story is dispiriting. It must happen more than we realise. It's the shadow side of the web. But yes, as you say, at least in my case the genre hasn't been violated.

  2. I think that you were right to challenge him, whether or not he is honest enough to respond. Perhaps he is embarassed about it all, or forgot where he sourced the material.

    I often use material from other sites, but always accredit it and post a link to the original source. Surely that is good manners, let alone compliance with the copyright applicable to intellectual property.

    Somewhere in all of this is as you point out, integrity. I don't think that I could live with myself if I committed such a breach of manners and ethics. And I fear that I would be pretty upset if it happened to me, unlikely as I don't publish that much on my own blog. Just ruminate on things, rather than composing stuff worth copying.

    I hope that he has the grace to acknowledge his mistake.

    1. I entirely agree with this. It is a matter of integrity. We shall see what happens...

  3. The blog now (24 May) appears to have been taken down.