Pocahontas, Avatar, Sherlock Holmes and Academic Plagiarism

I should have been working on a paper, but instead, a girlfriend and I got sucked into watching Pocahontas at 2:15AM. Pocahontus an amazing Disney movie – a classic – about love and differences and how we learn from the worlds of others.

While I was watching the movie, I was appalled at how similar the 2010 movie Avatar is to Pocahontas. What I thought was so beautiful and unique to Avatar only – such as the lighting up of a tree upon human touch – is actually in the movie Pocahontas. Even the story lines are familiar: two worlds that meet initially due to greed develops into a beautiful love story of understanding, tolerance, and acceptance. Now, I know – a lot of movies have this theme – but the similarities between Avatar and Pocahontus were uncanny – particularly the conflict between Native and Western civilizations, the special song-and-dance scene between the two protagonists where the Western man learns about appreciating nature, and even the use of a Willow tree to “hear” the spirits of the ancestors. I mean, seriously, Avatar is like watching Pocahontus-version 2-slightly-adapted- in-3D. Copy cat much?!

Of course, we hail James Cameron as making an amazing movie – but I don’t remember seeing “special thanks to the creators of Pocahontas” in the credits . Perhaps, he doesn’t need to. But in this day and age, I see that adaptations either fail to recognize their original sources, or mimic them in which a way that the deviance is horrendous – like the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie. If you have read any of the Sherlock Holmes novels, you would know that the stupid romanticized storyline between Irene  Adler and Holmes in the movie was a completely fictional and simply an abomination to the whole character of Sherlock Holmes. In an attempt to please mass audiences, the original source was betrayed into a commercial film success.

Where am I going with this? Well, for one, I don’t think there is any student who could get away with mimicking other sources of information and not referencing them. And at U of T, where things lik Turnitin.com are mandatory, I think there is a struggle between sourcing and intellectual property ownership.

I recognize that is sometimes very difficult to find the original source. The use of the world-wide web means that we share pictures, thoughts, ideas and designs from sources so many times over that the difficulty that comes from tracing the original source becomes exponential. But part of being a student means that the dark cloud of potential academic plagiarism looms over you, all the time. Certainly, many of you may have committed “soft plagiarism” and if you have ever been penalized for it, you know the university comes down hard on students who fail to identify original sources, or make adaptations of others’ ideas.

A few weeks ago, I was signing onto Portal ( U of T’s awesome virtual blackboard) and I saw this interesting piece warning students about academic plagiarism  — the attached PDF made an example of three students who were subject to review by a university board. Similar to a trial-style, the “accused” student was subject to an investigation and hearing. I found it interesting that in all three cases provided in the PDF document, the student under review was not present at the hearing. While I understand it is optional, I  was appalled a student could be strongly penalized without at least knowing the case before them!

What I find so interesting is that, in a world where plagiarism is so intrinsic we don’t even notice it, students are expected to be better than the film company who strips ideas off of previous movies or books. It seems students are not properly equipped to understand the importance of sourcing. In no way should plagiarism should not be condoned  – every individual should have the right to claim ownership to their own work, and be credited for it by others who use it. But in combination with turnitin.com and hearings, it seems students get the short end of the stick – they get stripped of their own work to turnitin.com and yet are not properly trained to really understand the importance of, and how to properly source their work (very clear in situations of “soft plagarism”). And what really confuses me is how at other universities, students can opt against turnitin.com…?

What do you think? Even though Avatar strips off of Pocahontas, maybe students need to step up and be more accountable for their work?


Surviving Studenthood


One response

  1. I LOVE Pocahontas! I had to say that. Very few of my friends name it as one of their favourite Disney movies so I’m glad to see you watched it 🙂 A number of blogs have been popping up comparing it to Avatar.

    Interesting point on movies and plagiarism versus academic conduct. As you said, it can be difficult to determine whether something we create resembles some previously existing work with which we are unfamiliar. That’s why copyright law is so fascinating…

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