Writer’s Journey: Plagiarism, Ethics, and Stealing
Some smart guy once said that “familiarity is the breeding ground of all contempt for the law.” Maybe it was Machiavelli. I believe that it also follows that familiarity breeds contempt for civility and social order; courtesy and honor. Blame poor upbringing. Blame the Internet. Blame social media. The fact is, we lost the old habit of near autonomic adherence to social order.
Meantime, we have seen social attitudes morph very quickly over a huge spectrum of behaviors. What was once considered 'unacceptable' behavior a few decades ago is now not only generally accepted but wholly embraced. Maybe it started with suffrage (joking!!). But seriously - how much we have changed in only just the last 10 years! But not all change has been good. Take my dilemma with plagiarism.
My material has been online for nearly two decades. I have produced more content than most, and continue to produce more. And I am widely plagiarized.
In a way, I take particular pride in the number of people who have taken materials from my articles and my book, "The Art of Jack Kirby." Rather than indignant, I feel relevant. I belong to the streaming conversation that fuels the Internet. I've been around on the webs so long, in some ways I'm part of its fabric; I am more than just another website, and this pleases me.
Does this in any way excuse overt plagiarism? No. Anyone who publishes a book that is a wholesale ripoff of another work should burn in hell. But what if someone cuts the corners a little to borrow a bit here and there? What's a paragraph or two between colleagues? Before the Internet, I'd say, "plagiarism is stealing! Plagiarism is a crime." Okay. Let's run with that.
Remember from Philosophy 101, that all ethics and morality arise from society’s acceptance of behavior. Call it the "social contract of what's cool." For example, in one community, the manner of “borrowing” may be called “stealing” in another. In some places, people might just as well shoot you for "borrowing" without asking. In another, they might be downright surprised that you asked. Buddha claimed that ownership was one of the keys of suffering. Psalm 112:5 says, "Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely..."
Well, I'm a pretty charitable guy, but is there a difference between borrowing a bike and "borrowing" intellectual property? What do we do if the plagiarizer will not/does not credit the original author, what then do we do? Is it really a crime, if so - to what degree? Should we go to any expense to rectify every case? As a good friend once said, "It all depends on how pissed off you are and how much money you are willing to throw at a lawsuit."
Post-internet and now elder didactic, I chose to feel gratitude when a peer finds my work important enough to include in their own. I choose to 'chill' and hope that people see beyond their selfish needs and give credit where credit is due.
Still, I'm no Buddha. I admit feeling that jolt of insult and hurt when I see that someone has carted off with my work without so much as a 'howdy.' Moreover, it is saddening to see such pervasive - brazen - acts of stealing. And let's be honest, business competitors do it to each other even more often than do bloggers and college students.
Philosophers say that perceived public reaction is the seed to what eventually becomes morally and ethically acceptable behavior. Follow that line of thinking and you see that it is society's malleable reaction that then becomes the attenuator for changes in what we accept as normal. Could it be then that the prevalence of plagiarism is merely the hemline of the present culture of "good enough"? Has our lackadaisical reaction to 'stealing' made us complicit in the lackadaisical observation of stealing?
I have no answers. There is no clear solution save calling my attorney every time I feel slighted - and frankly, I don't want to live like a nervous hen. So, here I sit at the junction between insult and pride – bad news, I am plagiarized; good news, I am relevant.