Plagiarism: Derivative or transformative? It’s shades of gray
Journalists are aggregators. In an article about plagiarism in The New York Times, David Carr points out that written pieces from journalists reflect preceding ideas. So for Carr, plagiarism is all about execution.
But proper execution can be a finicky thing. In November, for example, Jim Romenesko resigned from the Poynter Institute over failure to properly use quotation marks and indentations. Romenesko had attributed the source of information in all his stories. But controversy arose over his execution of simple grammatical mechanics.
So while many journalists agree that writers such as Stephen Glass and Jonah Lehrer clearly committed plagiarism, where do people like Romenesko, who made a simple honest mistake while attributing everything, fall? Is plagiarism a zero-tolerance game, where any violation banishes you to the depths of journalism hell? Or is there a gray area in between Glass and Romenesko in which each case should be considered individually before eternal damnation?
In a piece for the New Yorker in 2004, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about playwright Bryony Lavery who was accused of plagiarizing an article of Gladwell’s. Lavery didn’t copy any of Gladwell’s ideas, rather she copied a few sentences of Gladwell’s that were mostly rewordings of material from textbooks.
Gladwell links plagiarism with intellectual property. With intellectual property, the issue isn’t whether or not you can steal someone’s idea. The issue is where and when the lines can be broken. Patents on drugs, for example, exist so that a time period elapses for the drug’s creator to bank off the initial market before other manufacturers are allowed to copy the drug. The issue isn’t that drugs cannot be copied by manufacturers, but rather when is it appropriate to allow others to do so?
This leads Gladwell to conclude that copying someone else’s ideas is all right if it serves a broader purpose and is transformative. He gives the example of Nirvana copying the riff from Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” in its own hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The problem with plagiarism is when copied works serve no broader purpose and are simply derivative, Gladwell said. Examples of this, to me, include anything released by Pat Boone.
“Old words in the service of a new idea aren’t the problem,” Gladwell said, “what inhibits creativity is new words in the service of an old idea.”
Plagiarism will always be a hot topic in journalism. While no sane person will advocate allowing anyone to copy another’s work at all times, perhaps there are other ways to view this issue than the idea, “it is never OK, and is always bad.” Gladwell’s say is not final, and he leaves many points to argue. But he at least opens up the conversation and hopefully turns talks about journalistic plagiarism from monologues into dialogues.
_ Ross Benes