Decennial ABC: P as in Plagiary

If you want to know how people thought about something in previous centuries, it is useful to consult an encyclopedia from that time. No lack of encyclopedias since the 18th century.

Let’s have a look what Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia of 1728 said about plagiary:


Among the Romans, Plagiarius was properly a Person who bought, sold, or retain’d, a free Man for a Slave; so call’d, because the Flavian Law condemned such a Person to be whipp’d, ad plagas. See SLAVE.

Thomasius has an express Treatise de plagio litterario; wherein he lays down the Laws and Measures of the Right which Authors have to one anothers Commodities.

Dictionary-Writers, at least such as meddle with Arts and Sciences, seem exempted from the common Laws of Meum and Tuum; they don’t pretend to set up on their own bottom, nor to treat you at their own Cost.


So committing plagiary not nothing to be proud of, except if you are writing an encyclopedia. No crime in that, as you are supposed to take parts from older works anyway. That’s the way dictionaries are made, isn’t it?

What did people half a generation later think? The great Encyclopédie by Diderot and others, 1751-, states:


Chez les Romains on appelloit plagiaire une personne qui achetoit, vendoit ou retenoit comme esclave une autre personne libre, parce que par la loi Flavia, quiconque étoit convaincu de ce crime, étoit condamné au fouet, ad plagas. Voyez esclave.

Thomasius a fait un livre de plagio litterario, où il traite de l’étendue du droit que les auteurs ont sur les écrits des uns des autres, & des regles qu’on doit observer à cet égard.

Les Lexicographes, au moins ceux qui traitent des arts & des sciences, paroissent devoir être exemts des lois communes du mien & du tien. Ils ne prétendent ni bâtir sur leur propre fonds, ni en tirer les matériaux nécessaires à la construction de leur ouvrage.


If you don’t understand French, you did not miss anything.

Title engraving of Chambers' Cyclopaedia

According to Jeff Loveland, the main parts of this text originates in the Dictionnaire written by Furetière (1690), and possibly via the Dictionnaire de Trévoux it went into Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, and from there to Diderot’s Encyclopédie. [1]

The most positive effect of modern copyright laws on the making of encyclopedias was that since the 19th it was no longer possible to produce it with a pair of scissors. Lexicographers had to write articles by themselves – or make others write them for peanuts.

I wish you all a happy new year 2011!


Previously: A as in Advertisement, …, O as in Order


[1] Jeff Loveland: An Alternative encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal history of arts and sciences (1745). Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 2010, p. 82.


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