No compassion for plagiarists

Nothing is sacred on the internet, not the words you write and publish in your blog nor the pictures you take and upload to Flickr.

I’m talking about plagiarism:

Plagiarism is the passing off of another person’s work as one’s own, whether deliberate or accidental. Accidental plagiarism is usually the result of poor citation or referencing or of poor preparation or a misunderstanding of plagiarism. Deliberate plagiarism is an attempt to claim another person’s work as one’s own. An unacknowledged use of words, ideas, information, research, or findings not one’s own, taken from any source is plagiarism.

The Boston Globe has a feature about online plagiarism with blogs. There’s even a blog about plagiarism, not surprisingly called Plagiarism Today. And who hasn’t heard of the high-profile (and unsuccessful) plagiarism lawsuit against ‘The Da Vinci Code’ author Dan Brown?

In the business world, there’s the recent example of Raytheon CEO William Swanson who has admitted plagiarizing another’s work with his book on management tips (and who was actually outed by a blogger).

I have a long-held belief that you should regard anything you put on a website as literally being in the public domain, no matter what copyright notices or conditions on use you might attach to it. People will steal it or otherwise use it without recognition of the originating source as these stories indicate. So anything you view as valuable to you, don’t put it on the internet.

Writing in New York Magazine, David Edelstein has a thoughtful feature about plagiarism which includes this great view:

[…] I have no compassion for plagiarists. They don’t go into trances. I think they sweat and lay a book next to the typewriter, and copy. I take the disclosure of their crimes as personally as possible. Words belong to the person who wrote them. There are few simpler ethical notions than this one, particularly as society directs more and more energy and resources toward the creation of intellectual property. Plagiarists have desecrated my profession and given every reader cause to doubt all I write. They have torn down the scaffolding of trust—from writer to editor, from publication to reader—that is the essence of journalism.

Not only journalism, of course – anyone writing and publishing anything is fair game.

The final word from Edelstein:

In this world of Google and Nexis, in which you can pick and choose among so many words written on a given subject, you can’t be sure that anything you read is original. Even this.

In the interests of acknowledging “use of words, ideas, information, research, or findings not one’s own” (see definition above), let me cite my other sources of background for this post – Andy Lark, Steve Rubel and Rex Hammock.

I wonder how and where this post will show up on the internet somewhere. Will highlighting the Creative Commons license that applies to this blog make any difference? And how would that really apply when I claim intellectual property ownership over my original writing, not that of others that I may cite under fair use, such as in this post?

Just asking.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Eric Eggertson


    I think David Edelstein is being a bit simplistic when he suggests the only way people plagiarize is by intentionally copying others’ writing.

    This assumes that all writers are very organized, and keep their electronic clippings separate from their own notes. It also assumes that people who have extremely good memories for retrieving blocks of text have equally good organizational skills.

    I suppose if no one had ADD, or was disorganized, or was sloppy when on deadline, I could agree with his zero tolerance stance. For my part, I continue to believe in the fallibility of the human mind.

    Yes, some plagiarists blatantly copy others’ work with every intent of passing it off as their own. I just don’t believe that’s true in every case.

  2. neville

    Plagiarized? Well, waddya know! So this line from Edelman’s article –

    …you can’t be sure that anything you read is original. Even this.

    – makes total sense, then.

    I just read the stories at those links, Bryan, especially the Poynter piece with the comment from NY Magazine spokeswoman Betsy Burton.

    Does the fact that the article is a plagiarization (is that a real word?) detract from anything in the article itself, though? I don’t think so.

    And Eric, re your final point that not every plagiarist blatantly copies others’ work with every intent of passing it off as their own, the fact that they commit plagiarism doesn’t excuse that, wouldn’t you say?

  3. Eric Eggertson


    I think there’s a huge difference between someone who intentionally steals something, and someone who does it inadvertantly, to some extent.

    If I fail to acknowledge the source of an idea through oversight or confusion, I may be technically guilty of plagiarism. But was that my intent?

    In your post about The New PR conference, you didn’t explicitly credit the graphic image’s designer. In fact, you probably had implicit or explicit permission to use the image for promoting the conference. In the context of your post, I certainly didn’t feel you were somehow claiming credit for the design.

    Does your omission of a design credit make you a thief? If I include a quotation mark on the end of a quote but inadvertantly cut off the quotation mark at the beginning of a quote does that mean I’ve plagiarized the quote?

    Anyone who thinks this stuff is black and white is ignoring the reality of how people write and share information these days.

  4. neville

    We need to get a lawyer in here to address those points, Eric ;)

    Seriously, good points. You’ve highlighted how this is not so black and white. but if it does come down to intent, how would that really fare in legal eyes, I wonder? A bit like “ignorance of the law is no excuse” perhaps.

    I think this fits with geographical-based copyright laws, ie, they appear to be outdated in light of how the global internet (in particular) makes it a simple matter to just copy and paste. The point in your last para, really.

  5. Eric Eggertson

    As much as this can be a legal issue, I think plagiarism will increasingly be a reputation issue. People who find themselves acccused of plagiarism will need to respond quickly and openly about what has happened, and how they came to publish the content in question. If they have obviously screwed up, a quick apology and correction of the attribution will go a long way to protecting their reputation and career.

    In some instances, though, plagiarism is a career stopper, or at least a major setback in a field like journalism or academia.

  6. Blog Run » Blog Archive » Multitasking, Portfolio-ing, and Plagiarizing

    […] No compassion for plagiarists With the ease of cutting and pasting that the Internet has brought, plagiarism seems to be a daily occurance, and blogs make it even easier to grab (okay, steal) content because blogs are partially based on others original content. Heck, look at the Blog Run – built off other’s posts, but to help other’s learn and see good ideas ou there. But, where is the plagiarism going to stop, and what is it doing to PR? […]

  7. neville

    Thanks Armin. My German is a bit limited for such a lengthy text. I have got some of the gist from reading it, but if you can help me throw all the light on it, that would be just great. Thanks.

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