Nov 012013

oz_2701I didn’t intend to comment on this because I thought it was just plain silly, but someone engaged me, so here’s why I can’t get excited over Rand Paul’s “plagiarism”.

I think people are confusing plagiarism with reading a wikipedia movie synopsis. One is stealing someone else’s work and claiming it as your own – it’s immoral, unethical, and often actionable. The other is the moral equivalent of reading aloud from the back of the DVD case. It’s… whatever.

Seriously, should he have mixed around some of the words? That was stupid bullshit back in high school, and it hasn’t gotten any less bullshitty now that we’re adults. He has not stolen any ideas – there were no ideas to be stolen. Copying words does not necessarily entail stealing ideas. That which is immoral is the theft of ideas and presenting them as one’s own. Passing along information by reciting words is not that.

Note that plagiarism is something I do care about greatly (being one who tries to produce original intellectual content myself), and I despise any motherfucker who commits it. So when I say “who cares” it’s because I don’t consider it plagiarism, and not because I don’t care about actual plagiarism.  my position is – what he did isn’t plagiarism, so I don’t care. People who do care simply don’t understand why plagiarism is bad (or they pretend to care to score political points, which I suspect is more common).

I think really thinking about the question “Why is plagiarism bad?” will reveal why the simple copying of words is not necessarily plagiarism, and why the old high school trick of mixing up the word order and/or swapping a couple words with synonyms IS STILL plagiarism, even if it gets past the teacher’s “did he copy the exact wording?” test.

[here I was given a couple examples and asked to make clarifications]

Reviews aren’t the same as synopsis. Yahtzee’s reviews create something new and unique. They allow people who find they have taste similar to his to decide whether they want to invest the time and money a new game would require, or whether that would be better spent elsewhere. In addition, Yahtzee has the added bonus of providing lots of great unique humor (but that is by no means necessary).

A synopsis is a quick bare-bones summary of what a movie is about. All synopses (synopsi? synopsises?) of a particular work will by necessity be extremely similar. There’s nothing particularly unique about them, and there’s very little practical difference between writing your own synopsis and reading one that already exists.

I suppose exceptions would exist for very out-of-the-box synopses that introduce new ideas and make the reader think. Such as the Wizard of Oz one.

[claim is made that the Twilight books have “nothing original in them” and therefore copying them in full wouldn’t be plagiarism as a reducto ad absurdum]

That’s obviously false, it’s an original work even if it simply retreads lots of ground already covered by others in similar ways. But all art is extrapolations from prior influences. That’s precisely why you shouldn’t cry “plagiarism” when ideas aren’t actually being stolen and presented as the work of the thief. Sometimes people working in the same area under similar influences will make strikingly similar products. Should Lady Gaga be sued because Alejandro is so much like Don’t Turn Around? I’m willing to grant that she may have never even heard the original song, yet look how close they turned out. This sort of legal trolling will result in all art being destroyed.

I’ll note that this also happens with some frequency in the scientific fields – many discoveries are made near-simultaneous among people who never collaborated. Most famously, Darwin was nearly scooped by Wallace. When the surrounding level of knowledge gets to a certain point, and our technology reaches a certain level, some discoveries are inevitable. This isn’t due to any sort of malfeasance, it’s simply the environment forcing the result.

When your “influences” (or “environment”) is literally “this one movie and nothing else” and your process is “create a brief summary” – all the products that result will be nearly identical. Honestly, would it have made the news if he’d used the summary on the box rather than Wikipedia? Methinks not.

This is basically just another version of patent trolling. You can’t claim new intellectual work in a basic synopsis any more than you can claim that an “online shopping cart” is a protected patent. (by which I mean to say that you can get lawyers to argue it, but you can’t do it while retaining any moral integrity).

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