The world is looking more like kindergarten every day. Back then, every time you found something neat to hold onto, some grown-up told you to share. But when I grew up and began to write, I was pleased to learn that there were some things you don’t have to hand over. I could not steal others’ work. And they could not steal mine.
But every time a public figure breaks that rule and gets caught by the public, as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul did when he swiped paragraphs for his September op-ed in the Washington Times from a piece by The Week magazine senior editor Dan Stewart, I wonder.
No big deal?
“I’m indifferent to being plagiarized, because today’s media environment has changed what it means to have ownership of a piece of writing,” Stewart claims in his curiously sanguine response to the revelation that Paul was ripping off his work. “Once your words are published online, they become part of the currency of the internet … None of us can afford to be that sensitive about how others use or abuse our work.”
Of course everyone has known for years that my fellow Millennials will lift a page from Wikipedia and slap our own name on it quicker than we can post a selfie. But in every academic policy handbook I can remember, plagiarism is still the ultimate offense: the classroom equivalent of grand theft auto and an automatic “F.”
But now that we’ve graduated — why are you being so sensitive? Let’s share!
Stewart is oddly ambivalent to the reality of intellectual theft. “I know plagiarism is wrong,” he writes, but says he’s “flattered” that Paul lifted his work — because apparently journalists’ toils are littering the Internet like pretty shells on a public beach, and if somebody famous happens to pocket them, all the better.
Fair use vs. flattery
The Week’s editor in chief, William Falk, didn’t clarify the issue when we exchanged a few tweets about Stewart’s piece.
@AlainaMabaso Clearly, plagiarizing word for word is a major sin. Dan's point was that online mashups are blurring the concept of authorship
— William Falk (@WeekBillFalk) November 8, 2013
Stewart says, “There’s a big difference between fair use of content and claiming others’ work as your own.”
He implies that the difference in this case may be the extra exposure for his original article (though reader comment on multiple sites point out that it wasn’t Paul’s plagiarized piece that brought traffic to Stewart’s byline but rather the watchdogs who called the senator out on his intellectual filching).
Or maybe the difference is the plagiarizer’s status: “My work was stolen by an elected official and putative presidential candidate.”
So in the digital age, imitation isn’t the highest form of flattery; theft is, as long as the thief is somebody famous.
The line between careless plagiarism and harmless flattery isn’t the only one being blurred. In his piece, Stewart explains his willingness to lend his uncredited words to the senator by telling us about the first story he was ever paid to write, which was published in a tabloid under the name of a reality TV contestant. Stewart makes it sound as if a contract to write a fluff piece sans byline is the same thing as publishing your own research and opinions on a topic as important as criminal justice.
In my own career, I’ve written plenty of white-label blog posts for client companies, but that doesn’t mean I would smile and nod if someone stole a piece I had researched and written for a serious news outlet under my own byline.
Has the Internet made politicians’ platforms, promotional copy and journalism interchangeable?
“The first time I ever heard the word ‘content’ used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, ‘content providers’ — were essentially extinct,” Tim Kreider writes in his recent New York Times manifesto against the scourge of writing for exposure instead of a paycheck.
The problem goes beyond copycats
I think lax attitudes toward plagiarism (hey, at least I got some extra eyeballs!) is part of the same syndrome that lets writers believe they should work without pay, or blurs the lines between fundamentally different types of work. It’s all part of a larger dilution and devaluing of the writer’s craft.
I used to think plagiarism itself was the issue, but editors willing to wink at it show that the problem has sunk deeper than ever into our collective work ethic. Life is just so darn busy and complicated, and no one does it out of malice, plagiarizers and their growing list of defenders allege. Everyone’s aggregating content now — from coursework to campaigns to newsmagazines, how can you possibly monitor where it’s all coming from?
Maybe I’m naïve, but I thought keeping our lawmakers transparent, truthful and accountable was an important job of the press. If we give Senator Rand Paul a pass because we’re flattered he noticed us, what’ll we let slide next?
We may be exploring a wild new medium, but the rules of the business haven’t changed, and neither are they complicated for a responsible professional. If a decent college professor wouldn’t accept it, why should it fly in the working world?
If in doubt, I can return to the agreement I sign with NewsWorks each year: When I file my stories, it’s my job “to ensure that they are original works, free of plagiarism.” If I can do it, so can a senator. And I wouldn’t expect anything less from my editors, either.