Charles Hartman describes the discovery that David R. Morgan plagiarized his 1974 poem “A Little Song”:
When Morgan mutilated my poem, he was mutilating the tedious and fervent labour, the discovery of what I hadn’t known I meant to mean, and the reward of a single moment of high praise. ‘A Little Song’ has faults, including some melodramatic and opportunistic line-breaks. How would I feel if the thief had improved my poem? I’d be abashed, but I’d also be bewildered that someone who could do that would bother, rather than write a better poem of his own.
In the early rounds of emails, several people said: ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ I never knew that the aphorism was coined by Charles Caleb Colton (1780-1832), but it is now no more difficult to learn such a thing than to find out whether a particular poem has been published under more than one author’s name. It took me slightly longer to see why this response felt so off the mark. But of course plagiarism isn’t imitation. Imitation means trying to duplicate a process you’ve watched someone else go through.
Defining plagiarism is trickier than you might think, but most of the time we distinguish it from other kinds of copying (allusion, quotation) fairly easily: it’s plagiarism if the copyist hopes no one will notice.