Here's an interesting (if flawed) article from Slate on plagiarism. The article by Meghan O'Rourke quotes from a new study on the phenomenon, The Little Book of Plagiarism by law professor and Judge Richard A. Posner.
O'Rourke seems to conclude from Posner and other sources that the reason we (Americans versus anyone else, who presumably either don't care or care for different reasons about plagiarism) have issues with copycats is their compromised work ethic:
The cribbed student essay—which Posner views as a particularly insidious form of plagiarism, committed by approximately one-third of high-school and college students—isn't an academic crime because a C student has tried to pass himself as a Matthew Arnold in the making. It's an academic crime because the student who buys his thesis from a paper mill has shirked the labor that his fellow students actually perform.
Um, no, sorry: It bugs me that anyone, C student or Honor Roll star, would try to pass himself off as a Matthew Arnold in the making. Yes, the fact that the plagiarizer hasn't done the work is certainly partly why I consider it unethical, but what about the fact that the person is trying to portray a thought or idea as his own when, in fact, it is not?
The argument that shirking is more of an issue than fraud seems to me to say more about how our workaholic society is shaping our ethics than about authors who copy other author's sentences. Are we really so impoverished of ideas that we believe original thinking is an impossibility, and that plagiarism is inevitable (therefore, crediting someone else for their work becomes more key than the fact that the idea is ripped off)? Do we so worship blood and sweat that we value the measurement of these sacred liquids we pour into an activity versus the quality or originality of the work itself? Maybe Ian McEwan spent a lot of time finding the exact sentences he copied in Atonement: Shouldn't that count?
And, are the ubiquitous "we" really obsessed with the act of plagiarism itself, or are we just pissed off about the fact that we got duped?