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Archived updates for Monday, December 20, 2004

I'm Sorry, Please Don't Sue Me

The December 17, 2004 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education examines academic plagiarism in detail -- not the kind that procrastinating, lazy students engage in late at night, but "the kind that professionals who know better attempt in order to further their careers."

"Defining just where influence ends and plagiarism begins can be a difficult question," writes Scott McLemee. "Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wanted the American scholar to live in a state of radical originality, ended up conceding that 'all my best ideas were stolen by the ancients.'" Musicians know that all great composers steal; documentarian's lament over dissappearing history; and artists are plagued by intellectual property issues. Even technological contributions can be viewed as more of process involving every element of society, than the singular obsessions of lonely geniuses. It's no wonder that we are now seriously considering protection for "traditional knowledge" and "cultural expression."

According to Stuart P. Green, a professor of law at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, copyright law "protects a primarily economic interest that a copyright holder has in her work ... whereas the rule against plagiarism protects a personal, or moral, interest." But just how far should we go to protect these non-economic interests? When Malcolm Gladwell described the plagiarism of his own work in a November 15 article for The New Yorker, he concluded that "In the worlds of academia and publishing, plagiarism has gone from being bad literary manners to something much closer to a crime. We have somehow decided that copying is never acceptable and the ethics of plagiarism have turned into 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." Others have even gone so far as to suggest that if the phrase, "To promote the progress," in the U.S. Constitution means prioritizing people's access to writings and discoveries, then the rise of open source production and dissemination of content may now be demonstrating that the incentive justification for intellectual property just isn't true when the means of production and distribution are in the hands of individuals, without the need for significant capital contributions.

Of course, most of us would like to see our works receive recognition, if not outright acknowledgement. In the Talmud, notes Professor Green, "a person who reports something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption into the world." Rabbi, Joseph Telushkin explains the reasoning behind that text this way. "If a person presents as her own an intelligent observation that she learned from another, then it would seem that she did so only to impress everyone with how 'bright' she is. But if she cites the source from whom she learned this information, then it would seem that her motive was to deepen everyone's understanding. And a world in which people share information and insights to advance understanding, and not just to advance themselves, is one well on its way to redemption."

And if that world includes a few blog posts, well then, I'm sorry, just please don't sue me.
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