FAQ U: What is Plagiarism?

For a while, I’ve had a big theoretical post about art in my drafts—not that I think my own thoughts are that important, but that it was something I wanted to explore for myself. This post anticipates that draft, but it’s also a response to people who were confused by my dual position from that article a few weeks ago: (a) that I’m a communist and don’t respect copyright or intellectual property, and (b) that I think plagiarism is both disrespectful and unethical. If I oppose intellectual property, why does it matter if someone violated someone else’s intellectual property?

The short answer is that it’s not a question of intellectual property, but one of creative integrity and appropriation. I often pirate game materials and other things, to read and share with others. No one thinks I wrote any of it, and I’m making no money. The opposite is true when it comes to commercial plagiarism like the case study from earlier this month: the author printed other people’s work as her own, and made thousands of dollars from it—that is, from treating it as her own intellectual property. The distinction is between expropriation and appropriation, between tearing down a picket fence or building your own.

Let’s explore this apparent contradiction, which is one that only exists if you see it through the capitalist legalist lens of property ownership. This isn’t me trying to prolong the discourse around that post, which I see as one and done. Rather, I think this topic in itself is fruitful for the sort of analysis I like to do in general.


First, I want to signal that by talking about the ethics of plagiarism or whatever else, I am departing from bog standard Marxist discourse which—strictly speaking—is not concerned with questions of ethics, much less universal ones. Marxist methodology is scientific critique via systems analysis, understanding how the basic objects and relations of a system generate emergent behavior.

We’re going to use a sort-of Marxist framework to look at the relations that underlie intellectual property. However, that framework doesn’t extend to me saying that being dishonest about your work is bad. That’s just shitty behavior that violates interpersonal norms—even if in the service of one’s economic interests, which is a Marxist angle (and the one in which I’m interested)!

We good? Great! Let’s get going.

Intellectual Property & Plagiarism

Intellectual property is the legal notion that a person or firm owns an expression of human thought—whether a character from a cartoon, or a blueprint for a plane. If someone originates such an expression, they can claim a right of ownership that (theoretically) prevents others from appropriating and profiting off that idea. When you picture the cultural output of a capitalist society as a vast ocean of commodities, which it is, you know that someone owns them and whatever puts them out into the ocean.

It’s called intellectual property because it’s homologous to plain old physical property. The capitalist owns a piece of land or a factory or an office building or machinery, and claims the exclusive right to use and profit off of all this property. The fun thing about intellectual property is that it’s not a weird extension of “physical” property, but its purest expression. The latter was never about physicality, that the capitalist could grasp it in his hands. How could he? It’s all about the right to own something, the right to use something, the right to profit.

Plagiarism is orthogonal, or independent, of copyright infringement. Let’s go back to Plagiarism.org, which lays it all out for us: “[…] plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else’s work and lying about it.” It’s not about taking influence from other creative works, even unspoken. It’s about lifting passages or ideas and presenting them as your own original expression. It’s not about creative bankruptcy, or a pandemic of uncreativity. It’s about dishonesty about one’s work.

Plagiarism can constitute copyright infringement, but not necessarily. One is about dishonesty concerning your own creative expression. The other is about infringing someone’s property rights. This means that one could plagiarize without infringing the copyright of the author from whom they plagiarized, like if that author released their work to the public domain. One could even infringe copyright without plagiarizing the work they’re infringing if they don’t lie about having composed it. To repeat: one is about property relations, the other is about creative fraud.

Property & Plagiarism in TTRPGs

People have, rightfully, pointed out that the OSR in general is creatively bankrupt or even incestuous. Yes! I agree and love that phrasing. There’s something to be said for the ‘rule’ that 90% of all literature of any genre is dogshit, but something about the OSR’s constant self-fellation—its overreliance on signifiers and aesthetics deemed “old-school”, its empty slogans reduced from dogma, and even its persistent worship of Gary Gygax—that makes it seem especially uninspired and unoriginal. The OSR is, creatively speaking, dead unless you find work by authors almost embarrassed to be tangential to it.

Here’s the point, though: unless one is taking credit for something they did not write, they are not plagiarizing. They could print the most uncreative, regurgitative slop, another book about broke adventurers delving into holes teeming with 2d6 goblins, one of hundreds, and they would not be plagiarizing. They could find yet another new way to rephrase B/X, another way to refactor the same math, another way to over-complicate playing pretend, and it wouldn’t be plagiarism. It would just be slop. If you’re surprised that I feel this way, you haven’t been paying much attention lol.

One particular form I do kind of respect, and one that has come under fire in light of this discourse, is the retroclone. Most that exist (at least, the ones of note) are free or at-cost versions of defunct books made by hobbyists to preserve a certain way of playing games. OSRIC, Basic Fantasy RPG, Delving Deeper, Iron Falcon, and so on. They are derivative, sure, but more precisely they’re facsimiles. Sometimes they contain the author’s vision of the original text, and other times they’re an attempt to systematize or re-present that text as accurately as possible. Are they plagiarism, either way? No! No retroclone presents itself as an original work, and no one (you’d hope) reads a retroclone under that impression.

That being said, if you were to also throw retroclones into the slop bucket, that still doesn't mean they're instances of plagiarism any more than the rest of the slop. They might infringe someone's copyright or they might be uncreative but, unless they took credit for someone else's specific work, they plagiarized nothing.


Plagiarism is a specific but simple act of dishonest self-aggrandizement. It is not cop behavior to point out that someone has taken advantage of people’s trust to take credit for other people’s work and make thousands of dollars on it, but perhaps it is landlord behavior on the plagiarist’s part to appropriate someone’s creative expression and turn it into their own (somewhat) profitable intellectual property.

What about expropriation? Take something trapped in the confines of intellectual property, and release it to the public. It's always worthwhile, and can be accomplished easily with honesty and integrity.

Getting back to game stuff soon! Just slow with the holidays.


  1. thank you! this really helped me articulate how i feel about IP laws and why they suck, i hadnt really solved the missing peace that is plagiarism also sucking

  2. Does the "B" in Marica B stand for based? 'Cause this article is based af.


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