Monday, September 03, 2012

Plagiarism is not theft

By now you've probably heard that Senator Tito Sotto has been exposed as a plagiarist because a speech he gave contained sentences lifted wholesale, copy-pasted, from an American blogger's blog post, one Sarah Pope. Asked for comment, Ms. Pope accused the senator of being a 'lying thief'.On the lying bit, Tito Sen's pronouncements in the aftermath certainly demonstrated evasiveness, outright condescension ('Blogger lang yan.'), and dishonesty when he initially claimed he didnt plagiarize. But what exactly did he steal?

First, let's try to define what plagiarism is. defines it thus:

pla·gia·rism   [pley-juh-riz-uhm, -jee-uh-riz-]
an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author's work as one's own, as by not crediting the original author: It is said that he plagiarized Thoreau's plagiarism of a line written by Montaigne. Synonyms: appropriation, infringement, piracy, counterfeiting; theft, borrowing, cribbing, passing off.
a piece of writing or other work reflecting such unauthorized use or imitation: “These two manuscripts are clearly plagiarisms,” the editor said, tossing them angrily on the floor.

Ok, lots of gray areas there because the dictionary definition omitted the element of malice, but anyway... include malicious intent (to defraud, to mislead) into that definition and we're all set. What is clear at this point is that Sotto's staff-member did a copy-paste of paragraphs from Ms. Pope's blog post. If, as Senator Sotto claims, he made 'an umbrella attribution', that is, if he did not intend to pass off the ideas or words as his own, in my opinion he's off the hook as far as the 'representation of that author's work as one's own' bit is concerned, if just barely. Let's give the senator the benefit of the doubt. But even if he didnt make that umbrella attribution, even if he passed off the words and ideas as his own, in other words, even if he is guilty as hell of plagiarism, what exactly did he steal?

Let me illustrate. Suppose I wrote a blog post, maybe this very one, and someone else sees it on the web, copies it, tacks his name on it as author, and posts it on his own blog site. We can conclude two things: 1) He is a dick, and 2) I didnt lose anything. We can call him a liar -- and lying is not a crime unless youre committing perjury -- but we can't call him a thief because I didnt lose anything.

Suppose further that said dick copies my blog post, tacks his name onto it as author, sells it to a magazine, and gets paid 1000 pesos for it. In this case, we can conclude that he is both a liar and a thief. But still the fact remains that I did not lose anything. The magazine publisher did. The plagiarist defrauded the publisher and stole 1000 pesos from him, but not from me. In other words, he plagiarized me, but he stole from the publisher. I have no claim to that 1000 pesos, the publisher does.

Now this whole plagiarism affair in the Senate, where it seems not only Senator Sotto is guilty, has got that august body thinking of ways to protect bloggers from plagiarism through some sort of law. In other words, theyre mulling ways for making plagiarism a crime. When Senator Sotto in a privilege speech said that plagiarism is not a crime in this country, our lawmakers, true to their busybody nature, took that to mean it should be. To protect bloggers, they said.

For all its good intentions, a proposed plagiarism bill is not only unnecessary, but it could be inimical to the free flow of ideas. It is the nature of ideas to have sex, to combine with other ideas and spawn new ideas. Ideas, in other words, are sluts. It is possible to overprotect the so-called 'intellectual property' of some person or corporation such that it is prevented from boinking with other ideas. There is nothing new under the sun. Every so-called new idea came from something else. The Lord of the Rings borrowed heavily from Der Ring des Nibelungen. Darna was 'plagiarized' from Wonder Woman. In an episode of The Simpsons, Itchy and Scratchy studio head Roger Myers had this to say:

“If it weren’t for someone plagiarizing the Honeymooners, we wouldn’t have the Flintstones. If someone hadn’t ripped off Sgt. Bilko, there’d be no Top Cat. Huckleberry Hound, Chief Wiggum, Yogi Bear? Hah! Andy Griffith, Edward G. Robinson, Art Carney! Your honor, you take away our right to steal ideas, where are they gonna come from?”
There is of course a difference between taking ideas from someone else and doing something creative with them, and maliciously taking ideas with intent to defraud. I suppose it is the latter that the ladies and gentlemen of the Senate want to protect bloggers from, but there is no need for that. We already have laws against fraud. A law criminalizing plagiarism will only result in confusion and claims of plagiarism that could lead to unjustly impugned reputations and court backlogs. The issue of plagiarism is something for ethics committees and not courts of law, something for society and not the State. The blogging community has dealt with plagiarism with the age-old method of shaming scoundrels in public, be they unknown Joe Schmoes or 'literary giants'. Even if I suspect more than a few bloggers would welcome a plagiarism law, I say they would be better off without it. The plagiarist after all is harming himself more than anyone else.


R.O. said...

Thoughtful separate opinion. (So it will take plagiarism to wake you up from the blogging doldrums.)

Jego said...

Ive been reading too many 'plagiarism is theft' articles and blogposts lately kasi in the aftermath of the Tito Sotto ek-ek. It's ridiculous.

grifter said...

Sting did say nothing is original in the wake of the Police's Synchronicity and their success. You are right; the Senator has already proven your point as is, damaging his rep significantly, but moreso because he was called out on it and he steadfastly believes its not that big a deal.

Jego said...

Yap. Even Einstein's theories were spawned from marrying his own creative thinking to those of Lorentz, Poincare, Gauss, etc.

By the way, when I wrote 'There is nothing new under the sun' above, I failed to give credit to King Solomon. In other words, I am a plagiarist. :-D