Ready for your daily logic fail? Check out this post by Adam Dachis over on Lifehacker, entitled “What is Plagiarism, and Is it Always Bad?“
Allow me to summarize Dachis’s argument:
- “We can’t really own words…their place is to be repeated without attribution.”
- Texts (such as sentences, paragraphs, and other strings of dialogue) are built out of words.
- Therefore, we can’t really own texts. (“The idea that they’re our words, in general, is problematic”)
(1) is true…words, as the atomic units of the language, are not the sorts of things that we can own. (Proper names may be a different matter).
(2) is true…texts are created using words.
Ceteris paribus the argument is valid, so the conclusion follows.
So, what’s wrong?
To put it simply, this post epitomizes the common misconception that plagiarism is wrong because it is stealing. The plagiarism = theft argument is everywhere…from academe to the recording industry to the corporate world, people place emphasis on the ‘property’ in ‘intellectual property’. This is wrong, and I think Dachis knows it. But, Dachis’s argument is simply that words are not capable of being property…he never gets around to the underlying problem with plagiarism.
Plagiarism isn’t wrong because it is theft. Plagiarism is wrong because it is a form of lying…specifically misrepresentation. Using Dachis’s example, when Bryony Lavery lifted text from Malcolm Gladwell’s 1997 article about Dorothy Lewis, Lavery wasn’t stealing text, she was falsely presenting another person’s ideas as her own. This is why we insist on citing sources and including references, not to mitigate against stealing (do carjackers get a free pass if they slap on a bumper-sticker with the original owner’s name?), but to ensure that the provenance of the thought involved is correctly represented (which is why we cite paraphrases, too). When I grade student papers, instances of plagiarism do not offend me because I pity the original author’s loss…instances of plagiarism offend me because they make it clear that the plagiarizer has been unwilling to put in the time and effort to express his or her own ideas.