Evolt.Org has an interesting look at plagiarism on the Internet, and I’ve either done or had done to me pretty much everything mentioned there.
Idiots who mirror a site and then put it on their own server without permission are, in my opinion, the lowest of the low. Had someone do this to my site and put part of it up on a pornographic site, largely because Hotbot was returning my site in the top 10 for people who would search on phrases like “rape pictures,” even though the actual page was a dry look at criminal statistics.
On the other hand, I am a design swiper. If I see a color or a format I like I’ll hit “View Source” and see if there’s any way I can integrate something similar in my site. I don’t think it makes sense to just wholesale swipe someone else’s design and just change the text as I’ve seen some people do, but I don’t think copyrights on specific design elements as opposed to a design as a whole make a lot of sense.
The question I have wondered about ever since I started getting paid for writing many years ago is the whole plagiarism issue. At the extremes, everybody can agree. If I download a text file of a Dostoevsky book, replace Dostevsky’s name with mine and then upload it to my site, that’s clearly plagiarism (actually today that might be called art, but we’ll leave that for another day). On the other hand if I sit alone in my room and write a sentence that nobody else ever has, that’s clearly not plagiarism.
But what about Shakespeare as Evolt.Org puts it? The author, Erika, notes that her English teacher warned students not to plagiarize, but at the same time instructed her on Shakespeare.
Of course, the plots for many of Shakespeare’s plays were based on the plots of medieval French folk stories.
Did that make Shakespeare a plagiarist? Did he take credit for someone else’s ideas? Or are folk tales simply the clip-art of literature?
There is an amusing science fiction version of this problem that centered around the television show “Battlestar Galactica.” When it was released, George Lucas actually sued those associated with the show arguing that “Battlestar Galactica” was a rip off of “Star Wars.” Among other things, Lucas claimed he had a copyright on scenes depicting space battles between small fighters and large capital ships. The lawsuit also claimed that Lucas had a copyright on the veteran serious warror/wisecracking young hotshot relationship a la Ben Kenobi/Luke Skywalker, so the Apollo/Starbuck characters in Battlestar Galactica were a copyright violation. This is especially ironic given the fact that as even Lucas acknowledged, “Star Wars” was just a clever rip off of several other films, and was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s excellent films (which themselves are often updated retellings of folk stories).
There are all sort of grey areas with the sort of political commentaries that I write. If you open a newspaper and read any opinion column, for example, you will find many sentences that contain information that are clearly not the result of original research carried out by the writer but you’ll never find footnotes and oftentimes you won’t find any sort of attribution at all for facts and figures. Add to that the fact that there are only so many ways to say the same thing and on a strict definition, plagiarism is an epidemic in the nation’s newspapers.
When I was in college, for example, there was briefly an enormous controversy over a historian whose name escapes me who had written a very well received biography of Abraham Lincoln. A few years later someone emerged to claim that large passages of the book had been plagiarized. The case against the author fell apart for this reason: the plagiarism charge was based on having a computer hunt for similarities between the new book and several older biographies of Lincoln. Sure enough there were quite a few similarities, but the problem ultimately is that there are only so many ways to describe, say, the childhood of young Lincoln and it was inevitable that if I or anyone else writes an essay on Lincoln’s early career as a lawyer, it’s going to have a lot of similarities to the probably thousands of books and popular and scholarly journal articles that have described Lincoln’s legal career.
Part of the problem is deciding just when a fact should be cited. A person I knew was universally reviled by her college students because she regularly gave them F’s on their essays if they didn’t cite even the most banal of facts, which to me always seemed extraordinarily absurd given the amount of things we know only because we have read about it or heard it somewhere.
As with many things in life, I think the answer is just to use common sense, but there are a lot of minefields out there where it’s hard to know when you’ve cross the line into plagiarism.