Why I/We Hate Plagiarism

The whole Melania Trump-Michelle Obama speeches story has caused an outcry within the media.  For the record, here is the biggest of the plagiarisms–first, Trump’s excerpt, then Obama’s:


speeches2Most folks might find the Melania mania overblown, but it is happening for a good reason, one that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with journalism:

While the media are reporting an important convention-related story, it’s more than that.  Because it involves plagiarism, we journalists are also reminding ourselves, by our strong response, just how repulsive we find the use of others’ words and ideas without credit.

Personally, as an academic and a journalist, I find plagiarism the worst offense against the printed word — worse than bias or even inaccuracy.  While I can’t speak for all journalists or all academics, I would predict it’s close to the unforgivable sin for both professions.

In the world of ideas, plagiarism is theft; it is the stealing of someone else’s communication of their thoughts, the essence of what sets us apart as humans.

Plagiarism is fraud; it’s a shortcut for someone who wants to be thought of as creative, enlightening and productive without actually being creative, enlightening and productive. It’s a lie.

Plagiarism is dumb; in the age of Google, it is so easily detected. It’s an insult to me that a student would even try. Do they really think I am as lazy and dumb as they are?

For all of the accuracy and bias accusations made against the news media (and often peremptorily discussed without sufficient response by journalists), plagiarism is dealt with quickly and severely. Whether by a professor or by an editor, the perpetrator is justly punished.

When is the last time you have heard of an accusation of plagiarism by a journalist that the defended the way that the Trump campaign is defending Melania? If one is out there, I’m not aware of it.

(And don’t mention Obama’s plagiarism of words by his friend, Deval Patrick. It was reported, Obama had a press conference to openly address it, and he admitted that these were ideas he and Patrick had discussed.)

Particularly in an age of social media, when we quickly and clearly see evidence of a journalist or an academic committing plagiarism, we want to move straight from evidence to sentencing.

I hear critics minimize the plagiarism as the stuff of politics, filled with bland platitudes that are certainly repeated, to everyone’s boredom. If that’s how politicians want to be, that’s their business.

But I won’t brush it off.  My personal ethic is to credit where I read things, even through h/t’s on Twitter. Even if I can’t remember the source, I will point out that the words are not original to me.

Ideas, and the words that express them, are too important. When an individual thinks and crafts words that move a reader or an audience, it is a wonderful process. (That we forfeit the wonder of reading such words to less intellectually stimulating pursuits is to our own loss.)

Whoever worked with Melania Trump so poorly corrupted what had been a special moment. To rationalize or breeze past it is a disgrace to any thinking human being, particularly one who aspires to be President of the United States.

Credit Others’ Work, Because You Should

The Ethics and Legalities of Plagiarism and Copyright

Problems with copyright and plagiarism  were tough enough in the early days of the Internet.  With social media, it has gotten even worse because the speed of production and transmission makes problems easier, both intentionally and unintentionally.

With so many folks empowered to practice something close to journalism, it’s important to go over what you have to do, and what you should do, in crediting other people’s work.

What You Have to Do: Law

Copyright can be a cool thing to help you, and anyone can copyright what they create.  All you have to do is register it with the Library of Congress (and pay $35).  Copyright is assumed from creation, even during the few months it takes to get it registered.

That gives you control over its use.  It doesn’t mean people have to pay you to use it, but it does give you the right to tell them to take it down if they don’t want to pay you. And they have to comply.

If even ESPN is using something created and copyrighted by a high school student, and using it without permission, the Worldwide Leader, like everyone, has to take it down.  No one has greater right to violate copyright, by size or reputation.

On the user end, you do need to be careful about copying and pasting copyrighted articles or photos without permission.  You can usually quote from a copyrighted work within an article (it’s called “fair use”), as long as you don’t take too much.

But if you post a photo or put an article on your blog, be aware that many companies trace their work to protect against unauthorized use. Often, a quick e-mail in advance will get permission, particularly if your blog or publication is personal or has a non-profit mission. And such e-mails look so pro.

What You Should Do: Ethics

The principle is simple: always give others credit for the work they create, and never present someone else’s work as your own or allow a reader or viewer to make that mistake. And laziness is no excuse.

That friend who said something funny on Twitter? Quote tweet it.

That photo that you can download and put on your own Facebook page? Let your friends know who took it.

Among the professionals, and those who are passionate about what they create, nothing earns the label of “jerk” like someone who plagiarize other people’s stuff without giving credit.

Those of us to who are passionate about the idea of creation — particularly the craft of writing — take this seriously because creation is such an important thing to us.  That’s why, whether in the fields of journalism or education — both of which traffic in information and ideas — plagiarism is a moral offense that must be published.

The person who created it might not know it was stolen, and the audience doesn’t know and we might rationalize that they don’t care.

But when something is lifted without credit, it’s like the thief does not respect the concept of creativity and that there is a person behind those words or that image, a person who put effort into creating the quality that gets an audience’s attention.

If you jump past that, you are showing a callousness toward the creative process that, in fact, demeans you as a member of a creative community.  Perhaps that’s why people who do that are referred to as “jerks” — the creativity of a better insult would be lost on the target.

I have often said that poor ethics comes from treating people as the means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.  In dealing with created work, don’t just think about that useful info you are rushing to put into your own work; think about the person behind it.

Develop the habit of giving credit where it’s due, and allow that to develop in you the respect that is also due to the creator, and to the process.