The rules of plagiarism

March 2, 2015

One of my favorite musicians is the mythical Bob Dylan, a man of singular talent who gave birth to a strand of acoustic rock so compelling that it made others want to rip it off. And so they did. By the hundreds. His work became an inspiration for Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, and Kurt Cobain, all legends in their own right. They borrowed elements of his lyrical style or his rhythmic pacing and mixed it with their own. They took his ideas, just as Dylan lifted the ideas of Civil War poet Henry Timrod, the freed slaves’ spiritual song “No More Auction Block for Me,” and the oral history of a Japanese Yakuza gangster.

Wrote Salon music critic Noah Berlatsky, “Given his status as ultimate awesome courageous rock God, Dylan has influenced just about everybody. And, inevitably, too… many of those he’s influenced have outshown him.”

What’s this blasphemy? Gone on to surpass him? After pilfering his work? Well, as anyone who’s ever turned on a radio can tell you, that’s precisely what the world of music expects artists to do: Take something that wasn’t theirs, mix in their own ingenuity, and build a road to the next break-through genre. It is generally viewed by the robbed musician not so much as a reason to gripe than as a time to accept flattery. After all, copycats breathe more life into ideas that might otherwise fade.

Chronic music thieves make their own genre. They’re called cover bands, and I’ve seen good ones pack a club even on a Monday night. When you think about it, it’s a defensible approach, this notion of one person’s ingenuity leading to another’s.

In journalism, we don’t want anything to do with such thinking. We call that kind of conduct plagiarism, and it is the difference between these two perspectives that gives rise to our cover story this issue. It boils down to this: The taking of ideas is generally sanctioned, but taking someone’s words is scorned.

Writer Marc Fisher examines the confounding state of plagiarism at a moment when editors are struggling to define the term, explain the rules to their writers, and mete out punishments for those who cross the line. The debate was ignited most recently by allegations of plagiarism against international affairs columnist Fareed Zakaria and author Malcolm Gladwell. Purists aligned on the side of the (anonymous) accusers, plagiaristic progressives on the side of the accused.

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Unfortunately, rather than engaging in an intellectual debate about these issues, many top editors are cleaving to an old and rigid definition of plagiarism—labeling it “the unforgivable sin”—while building large staffs dedicated to aggregating without attribution. It’s not that stealing another writer’s work is proper. It isn’t. It’s that editors don’t clearly define when circumstances allow reporters to take material from others and when they do not. Do the circumstances matter? Is lifting several consecutive paragraphs of exquisite writing the same as not bothering to rephrase a sentence from a report? To my mind, the latter is laziness; the former is theft.

But in many newsrooms, the editors seem to have just one ruler they use to measure every infraction, an approach that has passed its prime.

Fisher deftly and delightfully takes on these questions in his piece. Chief among those is whether journalism is so different from other creative terrain that we must hew to standards that are being relaxed in other parts of our culture. A good question, though it’s not mine. I stole it from Fisher.

Elizabeth Spayd is the editor in chief and publisher of CJR.