Excuse me while I grumble for a bit.
There seems to be a fad of sorts going on about plagiarism — people picking through the work of other writers looking for writing that appears to have been copied and pasted from somewhere else and then making a big deal about it. There’s software that makes that easy, I understand.
The New Republic published an expose of Chris Hedges a few weeks ago that was fairly damning, for example. Some of the examples were whole paragraphs word-for-word, which is obvious plagiarism, although I felt some of the other examples were brief and not word-for-word, and those were more ambiguous.
As Chris Hedges is someone whose work I admire, this was disappointing. It was particularly galling to see Hedges use the work of other contemporary working writers without attribution, because we contemporary working writers are an underpaid and under-appreciated crew, and recognition by a “name brand” like Hedges could boost a career. And such recognition wouldn’t have cost Hedges anything.
Now somebody’s going after Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson, whom I never read. I looked him up, and it appears he mostly does Buzzfeed-style articles that are clever photo-stories; good for a few seconds of diversion but not that meaty. Here’s an example; apparently Buzzfeed actually sent the guy to Fort Hood to produce this, so I assume the photos are original and not ripped off Flickr. But maybe someone should check.
So the guy is mostly just writing photo captions, and even that isn’t original? And how do these people get jobs as writers? When there are tons of genuinely talented and hard-working scribes writing for pennies a word and struggling to keep the electricity bill paid?
But like this guy, I’m less outraged that a glorified photo-caption writer’s compositions turned out to be tweaked pastes from Wikipedia than I am about the way so many commercial websites assume everything on the Web is fair use. Many times I’ve found entire articles of mine from here and from About.com republished without my permission, without linking back to the original, sometimes without attribution. Even if there is attribution, what I’m paid by About.com depends in large part on the number of page views my articles receive, so somebody republishing my stuff to drive traffic to his site literally is taking money out of my pocket.
Really, people, what’s so hard about links? I don’t mind if people quote even big chunks of my articles, as long as it’s clear what they’re quoting and as long as there’s a link to the original. Links are good. Links are my friends.
The other issue, though, is that sometimes these plagiarism examples are a tad iffy, too. If, for example, Wikipedia says “On March 6,1872, Amelia Jones ate ten pounds of turnips” and then another writer posts that “Amelia Jones ate ten pounds of turnips on March 6,1872,” is that actually plagiarism? How about — Ten pounds of turnips were consumed by Miss Amelia Jones on March 6, 1872. There were ten pounds of turnips, see, and then this Amelia Jones dame comes along and eats them on March 6, 1872. It was 1872, on March 6, when the remarkable Amelia Jones consumed ten pounds of turnips. But if the details of the consumption of the turnips are just an aside, and not something you want to emphasize or linger over, you may want to just stick to the plain facts. In that case anything you write is going to be pretty much the same thing Wikipedia says, even if you never saw the Wikipedia article. Sometimes similarity is a coincidence.
Some of the examples of Johnson’s alleged plagiarism strike me as being a tad anal; the example regarding Ted Kaczynski, for example, is a stretch. The two excerpts are not word for word; they are restating the same facts. There is no copyright on facts.
On the other hand, this Johnson guy was caught copying and pasting wholesale from Yahoo Answers to write his photo captions, which is much more pathetic than copying and pasting from Wikipedia. Wikipedia articles can be skewed and selectively written to reflect the biases of the authors, but at least it’s pretty reliable about basic facts. I will check with Wikipedia for the date of a historical event or how some famous person’s name is spelled, for example. But Yahoo Answers isn’t reliable even for that much.
But it’s also the case that if one is under the gun to produce thousands of words a week to make a living (not that Johnson wrote that much), pasting something into one’s document with the correct names, dates and other facts from another source and then rewriting it in one’s own words is a great time-saver, and I’m sure all of us do that sometime. All that matters is that the end result is original composition.
I also hear complaints about people plagiarizing themselves, or pulling sentences and sometimes whole paragraphs out of their own older work and re-using it in something new. To me, that is not plagiarizing; that is recycling. If the work is my own intellectual property I can do whatever I want with it. If something is substantially taken wholesale from an older piece I’ll say so, but if it’s just a short paragraph in an otherwise new composition I probably won’t. If the old paragraph says exactly what I want to say I don’t see the point of taking the time to write another one. Why is that a big deal?
When G. F. Handel needed a first choral movement to his oratorio Israel in Egypt, he recycled an older composition, the “Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline.” He made no changes to the music itself. He tweaked the words just a little and gave it a new title, so that instead of mourning Queen Caroline it mourned the death of the Old Testament Joseph, the guy with the fancy coat. The oratorio was a box office bomb, but not because of the recycled chorus, I don’t think, although it may have been a factor.
Handel was infamous for recycling musical themes from other composers, actually. When he did that he gave the music his own original twists and flourishes and usually improved it. And in his day a composer in Italy might not be immediately aware he’d been copied by a composer in Britain. If there’d been an Internet back then Handel would have been buried under lawsuits, however.
But before the modern era it was not at all unusual even for the great composers to work melodic themes from other compositions by other composers into their own work without going out of their way to let the audience know they had done that. And this was perfectly acceptable, as long as it wasn’t copying from another composition note for note.
All this is to say that while I sincerely hate it when writers rip off other writers, let’s apply some sense to how we define “rip off.” Creative people riff off each other all the time, and always have. Perhaps we should neither a borrower nor a lender be, but am I a bad person if I don’t tell you I just quoted Shakespeare’s Hamlet?
Update: Dylan Byers points out that BuzzFeed’s content largely consists of “repackaging funny things found on Reddit,” according to Adrian Chen.