Plagiarism Isn’t So Bad

There. The forbidden thing. I’ve said it. Also, I stole this entire article off of some old lady on street, just so we’re clear. She was carrying it around in her pocket. That’s why I tattoo all my best lines over my body. So no one can get them except some sort of horror movie villain, like that guy in Saw.

Though honestly, I just stole that notion of writing on the body (cc: Jeanette Winterson) from The Pillow Book. You know how it is.

In any event, now that I have said the forbidden thing, I expect flowers from Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair. Despite his fictional status, I also expect them from the Bradley Cooper character in the upcoming movie The Words, who, if the trailer is to be believed, seems to respond to his guilt about plagiarizing a novel by running, just running everywhere. That is what you do when you plagiarize. You run. Not literally. Sometimes the running is only in your soul. If can be depicted with a lot of jumpy camera shots in the movie depiction of your crime, as it is in Shattered Glass. Although in The Fabulist, the novel written by the, well, fabulist, Stephen Glass, the protagonist responds to his exile from journalism by moving home and working in a video store. So, sometimes it’s literal.

Fareed Zakaria has made a rather frantic dash away from his plagiarism scandal, attempting to minimize it by claiming:

“Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers.”

Jonah Leher offers a fuller confession, saying:

“The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at the New Yorker.”

He will continue to be working at Wired, and not a video store, albeit very, very shamed.

Because people want to make it clear that these are very, very bad thing people are doing. Reuters reports:

Suppose I steal my neighbor Jill’s flat-screen television and install it in my living room. Jill or one of her friends who knows about Jill’s missing television comes over to my house a few days later, notices the television and asks, “Hey, isn’t that Jill’s television?”

I immediately confess. “Yes, it is,” I say. “I’m really sorry. It was a mistake.”
Jill or any interested observer or even the police might ask, “What do you mean by ‘mistake’? Did you mistakenly break into her house and mistakenly haul her huge flat-screen into your living room and set it up on the wall?”

Well, so far, most of the press seems content to let a colleague – Fareed Zakaria, who writes for Time and the Washington Post and has a Sunday CNN talk show – get off with exactly that explanation for stealing something. In this case, the theft was plagiarism.

That Fareed, what a scumbag! He’s no better than a television thief. Since we’re talking about it, though, let’s look at some other scumbags.

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    • Elwarr

      So Shakespeare stealing from Plutarch who’d been dead for over 1600 years is the same thing as Zakaria stealing from a contemporary who doesn’t have nearly the same kind of national profile as he and no doubt received payment for publishing words not his own? Yes Jill Lepore is probably not suffering overmuch from the theft, but this happens A LOT and it often happens because big name writers steal from people who aren’t as widely read.

      And crediting authors in articles is standard practice and not just this thing we should do.

      • Jennifer Wright

        Well, first, Shakespeare did steal from his contemporaries. Second, I think that sets up an argument whereby it’s okay to steal FROM DEAD PEOPLE. Are we then, on board with plagiarizing Jane Austen? I also think crediting is much easier in news articles (and people do it) and somewhat harder, or at least inelegant, when it comes to novels.

    • Elwar

      Legally Jane Austen can’t be plagiarized because she was published prior to 1923 and her work is part of the public domain. So yes according to copyright law, it is okay to steal from certain dead people. Icky? Maybe. But definitely legal. Had Shakespeare been subject to contemporary law he’d have been in legal trouble.

      The reason it’s such a big deal is that word plagiarism has a specific legal context. Zakaria stole from both Lepore and the New Yorker. It’s not just a matter of admiring good work and passing it off as your own. It’s getting credit and possibly money for work not your own.

    • Jamie Peck

      You are free to throw in as many references to/lines from other people’s work as you like. You just have to credit them. We already have a system for this! To lie and say you wrote them yourself is fucked up on so many levels. I don’t think I’m really getting the sense that you get why it’s wrong beyond “you could get caught.” I think it’s a good thing that we have more rigorous standards of intellectual honesty than they did in Shakespeare’s time. I don’t have a ton of morals, but honesty is something I hold pretty highly.

    • Lemona

      I think comparing journalistic writing to creative writing in this context is a mistake.

      In creative writing, making allusions to the works of others is not stealing because the allusions will be recognized as such. We understand the difference between allusive use and stealing. Robert Louis Stevenson writes “Home from the Hill” and A.E. Housman repurposes RLS’s lines for his own poem, which alters the original in an artful way. Lifting of lines with no alteration (as in Opal Mehta) is considered stealing. Lifting of plot with no significant repurposing or alteration is considered being derivative. When Shakespeare “steals” he’s not wholesale lifting and not being derivative –he alters the pieces he takes in such a way that they are made new (and, history has voted, better) by his re-presentation of them.

      We expect journalistic writing to be only as good as the veracity of what is being reported. Accuracy is the standard, and plagiarism is a foul against accuracy because it is a misrepresentation of the information being presented (hence the existence of unintentional plagiarism). For instance, the Dershowitz-Finkelstein plagiarism charge was based around quotations, misrepresenting the use of Joan Peters’s sources as Dershowitz’s own, rather than a charge of lifting someone else’s words.

      Writers don’t work in a vacuum. We don’t expect or want them to; we do expect journalistic writing to be accurate about its sources.

    • T.Lawrence

      How many words,sentences,or paragraphs are required to be the same or nearly the same as what someone else wrote,in order to be considered plagiarism ? I hear a lot of song lyrics that say pretty much the same as others at some point,or are conveying the very same idea. I read books on religion that at some point come very near to saying the exact same words. In both cases,the ideas have been around for ages ! Is it then a case of someone stealing from someone that stole from someone? If someone now writes another comment on this topic that says exactly or pretty much the same as mine,would that certainly be considered plagiarism ?

      • Lemona

        Copyright laws stipulate how many words, phrases, etc., are required to be the same in order for a work to be considered illegal plagiarism, and copyright laws vary by medium. Yes, many songs are similar, and that’s why songs have their own special set of copyright laws, tailored to distinguish between what’s common (love songs with lyrics like “I need you” or “come back to me”), and what can be considered a case of theft. Theft actually happens surprisingly often, but the cases usually result in hushed up pay-offs. I have a lawyer friend who specialized in these cases. (She says Brooks & Dunn are the worst offenders.)

        Here’s a site that you might want to check out for general info:

        The “books on religion” you’re reading may use many of the same sources, and that may account for their similarities. What is important is the proper citation and crediting of those sources, which hopefully the books you’re reading have. Look in the bibliographies at the ends of the books and see if some of the sources overlap!

        If I cut& pasted your comment as my own, that would be plagiarism, and unfair to you, but you would waste your money trying to bring a copyright suit against me because my plagiarism in that case would not affect the (market) value of your comment. But that’s a whole other ball of wax . . .

    • Adam

      Why is plagiarism considered to be such a bad offence?