James Madison University student government president Brandon Eickel’s ouster curtailed a two-flank collegiate excoriation-fest, one resting on an allegation that would make any deskbound student tremble: the P-word. A few samples: “This raises the broader issue of plagiarism among college students,” “[Eickel’s acts] would be deemed plagiarism at a very minimum,” “we were dismayed to hear that Brandon Eickel … had plagiarized nearly half of his campaign platform” and so on, according to the Sept. 6 and 10 issues of The JMU Breeze and the Sept. 14 issue of The Flat Hat.
p. The firestorm appears jarring at first, considering the situations in which the word plagiarism normally shows up: Plagiarists purloin passages from books, mention ideas from scholars without citing their work and otherwise deny an author his or her due compensation for having labored over a keyboard. Compare this phenomenon to campaign trail mimicry, in which bumper sticker slogans predominate, and even help, the electoral process. Plagiarism thus seems to apply only to texts, such as books and scholarly articles.
p. Eickel’s brand of duplication, say detractors, lies closer to text-theft than to catchphrase-propagation. For example, Eickel’s promise to “turn leftover food into nutrient-rich compost for JMU’s flowerbeds and trees” mirrors Zach Pilchen and Valerie Hopkins’ promise to “turn leftover food into nutrient-rich compost for William and Mary’s flower beds,” without initially acknowledging the original.
p. Despite the glaring copy-paste ethos, Eickel’s missteps don’t quite qualify as plagiarism. As campaign messages, the two enumerated platforms extend beyond the words on their websites, forming inextricable facets of the campaigns. Unlike texts, campaign promises cannot exist independently of future action. Pilchen’s composting plan did not connote, “I think composting is a good idea,” but rather “If I gain office, I will be moved to begin a composting program.”
p. Furthermore, Eickel could not have intended the same sorts of actions as Pilchen, even if their promises matched word for word. Indeed, descriptions of action cannot exclude the context for the action. Take this simplistic case: Person A and Person B may both support the general act of giving an apple, though Person A’s gift of the apple to please a teacher denotes a starkly divergent set of circumstances than Person B’s donation of an apple to feed a starving child. Here, while both people engage in “giving an apple,” it seems clear that the two instances of giving constitute two discrete acts, involving distinct sets of motives and consequences.
p. In fact, when examined more closely, Pilchen and Hopkins’ composting plan even precludes inter-collegiate resemblance. When Eickel writes of disseminating “Know Your Rights” cards, surely he does not imply an intention to convince the members of the SA Senate to appropriate funds in order to raise awareness of the College’s unique residential policies among a uniquely minded College constituency. While Eickel copied words, then, he did so for a vision of action all his own. Even if Eickel wanted to ape what he thought worked in order to get ahead, his platform diverged enough from its source to pose an inimitable array of challenges. Policy, it turns out, cannot be plagiarized.
p. Eickel, then, did not steal policy without attribution — that would be impossible. What he did do, though, was gain inspiration, apply that inspiration in a way that would suggest plagiarism and then, most likely inadvertently, indicate his version as copyrighted. That was where he blundered: his use of “copyright” tipped the aping issue from the realm of common courtesy to that much grimmer realm of legally punishable idea theft. Best of luck to the sloppy non-plagiarist.
p. __Paul Gottschling is a junior at the College.__