From the troubled to the troubling
Having struck a chord with a lot of readers earlier this week, I’m going to probably alienate many of them right now. The How Publishing Really Works blog declared 17 July Anti-Plagiarism Day.

Okay, I can see why. I do understand how galling it is to have work stolen and when it happens to a writer you admire immensely, as it did recently to a writer who is like a literary deity to me, then it almost feels worse than having your own work stolen.

However … most plagiarism that I hear of in the quotidian sense of the word is online, not print. That is, people have posted work online or had it accepted by some online journal or zine and that is what has been copied without their permission. And in this sense of the word plagiarism I think writers are at grave risk of making the same mistake as the recording industry in trying to patrol, rather than join, the technological revolution.

How many writers don’t own an MP3 player? How many don’t use the internet for research? And in all those cases (most if not all of us) do we make sure we have paid for the music we download or copy from a friend? Do we ensure we have the permission of every writer whose work we pillage to create our own? And do we then cite them in our acknowledgements? Are all our videos and DVDs and CDs unpirated …?

Right. I thought not.

So where do we get off on telling others to respect our rights to material in the electronic media? I’m not saying plagiarism is okay, I’m saying that it’s very easy to get on a high horse about something that we, ourselves, tend to do in other areas of life. You’re damaging the livelihood of a musician if you rip music from your friend’s hard drive to your own. You’re stealing the intellectual property of other writers if you use their material for research and don’t cite them (and who cites anything when writing for blogs or websites?) Giving an url, as I have above, is about as far as we go in acknowledging our sources, let alone honouring their rights.

So we need a different paradigm, not a police force. We, the writers, need to work out for ourselves how we benefit from the public exposure in online media and what we want to do about ensuring we get the benefit, rather than losing it to people who borrow or steal our words. What we don’t need is to get sniffy, miss the boat, and find ourselves like record companies – dealing with an explosion in interest in our material but with no way to profit from that interest because we’ve alienated all the technology innovators who might have helped us.

Plagiarism is wrong. Print plagiarism is unforgivable (what are publisher’s legal departments for, if not to prevent this?) but online plagiarism needs a debate, and it needs it now.

PS You can decide for yourself whether the pig picture shows greediness in action or happy harmony - clever, aren't I?

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