A preposterous argument for plagiarism
The ease with which content can be remixed these days not only has eliminated every technological barrier to plagiarism but also enabled some jaw-dropping justifications for this utterly indefensible practice.
A preposterous example of the pro-plagiarism argument is the case of a 16-year-old German writer, whose novel won wide acclaim before it was learned that she had copied whole pages from another book.
“There’s no such thing as originality, anyway,” said the author, Helene Hegermann, according to an article on Friday in the New York Times describing the controversy over her book, “Axolotl Roadkill.”
Amazingly, the author’s brazen argument was accepted by a judge for one prestigious prize for which the book was nominated. “I believe it’s part of the concept of the book,” said judge Volker Weidermann.
Talk about ethical roadkill.
To be sure, plagiarism wasn’t invented on the Internet. It probably goes back to the time that one cave artist copied another’s image of a mastodon in what arguably might have been the origin of language. Modern technology has just made plagiarism easier.
Copying, cutting and pasting are so quick that you don’t have to think about it. And that’s the problem. If you come across a passage you like, you can snip it, verbatim, right into something you are writing. If you like a photo, you can copy it, PhotoShop it a bit and stick it right on the page. You even can skip the PhotoShop part and use it exactly as it was published in the first place.
Because it takes considerably more effort to remix music and video, the outcome rarely is identical to the original, buttressing the case for those who say ideas can’t be owned by anyone and, therefore, are free for the taking. If the miracle of the modern media is that everyone has more or less free access to all manner of information, then how can anyone argue in favor of the archaic doctrine of copyright or against the anachronistic concept of plagiarism?
To muddy the waters further, there is the slippery legal concept of fair use, which says a certain amount of copyrighted information can be used without penalty by journalists reporting a story or by reviewers appraising an artistic effort. The problem with fair use is that the only way to determine if use was fair is if the owner of the copyright sues the allegedly offending user. Because fair-use cases are difficult and expensive to adjudicate, most copyright owners don’t bother, giving users ample room to stretch the boundaries of what is fair.
There are many who see nothing wrong with appropriating intellectual property created by another, noting that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Further, people publish things so widely and freely on the web that it is easy for a “flatter” to rationalize the “imitation.”
While the digital media may have made the motivations, rationalizations, opportunities and tools for ripping off content more plentiful than even before, the practice is intellectually dishonest.
No technological advance can alter the fundamental difference between right and wrong. It is wrong to steal someone’s bicycle and it is wrong to steal someone’s ideas or work product in order to represent it as your own.
If for some reason the foregoing ethical argument is insufficient, then consider this: Because the web is open, easily accessible and readily searchable, it is more likely than ever that cheaters will be discovered faster and more surely than ever before. As Exhibit A, consider this case in yesterday’s news of a New York Times reporter who evidently cut and paste items from the competition.
In other words, cheating is not only dishonest but it is also stupid. Credibility takes a lot of time and work for someone to establish. Once it is lost, it is enormously difficult – if not impossible – to get it back.