CRF Blog

Why plagiarize when you can rip off a writer’s thoughts?

by Bill Hayes

In Why plagiarize when you can rip off a writer’s thoughts? for the Columbia Journalism Review, Marc Fisher questions what the standard for plagiarism should be.

Amid that jumble of standards, under the crushing power of the scarlet P, is it time for a ceasefire in the war on plagiarism? Some notorious plagiarists are serial offenders — con artists and fabulists such as Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass — but should there be different penalties for those who broke rules that were never clear to them in the first place?

No one argues for wholesale theft of others’ work, but a growing chorus of academics and others find it counterproductive to focus on rooting out scofflaws. As far back as the 19th century, the German poet Heinrich Heine, citing literary stealing by Goethe and Shakespeare, wrote that “Nothing is sillier than this charge of plagiarism… The poet dare help himself wherever… he finds material suited to his work.”

In all forms of art and culture, appropriation of others’ work is essential to creativity, Lethem contends. The American mistake, he says, has been to adopt a mercantile, legalistic ethic in which a piece of writing is a commercial product rather than a way to advance ideas and spread information for the public good.

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor, takes the notion that ideas want to be free a step farther. In his books, Free Culture and Remix, Lessig says it’s wrong to apply to writing the same rules we use to protect against theft. “Ideas released to the world are free,” he writes. “I don’t take anything from you when I copy the way you dress.” He quotes Thomas Jefferson: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Gladwell, responding to Our Bad Media’s allegations, directed readers to a piece he wrote for The New Yorker in 2004 about his reaction when a playwright used, without attribution, passages from one of his own articles. Initially miffed, Gladwell examined why plagiarism has become such an ethical tripwire. When he finally confronted the playwright, Bryony Lavery, about why she hadn’t credited him for the material, she told him: “I thought it was OK to use it… I thought it was news.”

Gladwell found some merit in that notion. “When I worked at a newspaper,” he wrote, “we were routinely dispatched to ‘match’ a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else’s idea. But had we ‘matched’ any of the Times‘ words — even the most banal of phrases — it could have been a firing offense.”

That notion of originality, Gladwell concluded, is “the narcissism of small differences: Because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.” He decided to let go of his offense over his words being appropriated; he would no longer pretend “that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and an eternal life.”

Does that mean Gladwell wouldn’t mind if I took one of his elegant New Yorker pieces and published it under my byline in The Washington Post, where we were once colleagues? Of course not, because by merely stealing his words, I would not be doing anything creative. [more]