Redefining Plagiarism in the Internet Age

I recently email blasted some friends of the site excitedly throwing around terms like 'plagiarism' and 'internet theft.' Why? Bill Simmons had written and posted an article on Grantland regarding the NFL headhunting scandal that hit awfully close to home. In fact, it seemed to be almost a mirror of a piece I had posted just about one month prior to Mr. Simmons going to press. Of course I was only half-joking about the theft of the article, particularly after some of my kind-hearted readers gently reminded me about my past claims of government surveillance (maybe true) and Chinese efforts to spam the site (definitely true, maybe) that I had made in the past.

Aside from any propensity to cry wolf, I also failed to take my own claims of Simmons' impropriety seriously just because of the nature of the world we live in today. There is so much information, so many different threads coming from different sources all the time that it is very possible, and indeed it is highly probable, that different writers coalesce around similar ideas without directly having seen each other's work.

I guess if you are a high school student, this means that the internet has made it both more easy and more difficult to get caught for cheating; if you go word-for-word, a quick Google search will sniff you out. However, if you are merely reflecting the general feelings of some segment of the population, then it actually may provide a valid excuse to the accused.

Things are similarly complicated for writers, whether they run one of the biggest websites in the country or a micro-blog with twenty-ahem...ergh, excuse me, readers a day. Of course when you are in law school, or journalism school and you write a paper you are expected to cross numerous t's and dot both the i's and the j's while researching and writing. In short, my old legal writing adjunct probably could have had an uncomfortable talk with Mr. Simmons if he handed in a paper like his article a month after I did the same with mine.

However, in the internet age, with 24-hour talk radio, smartphones, e-readers and the like, more and more people are informed, more and more people are forming opinions based on that information and more and more people (like myself) have fora in which to discuss them. In short, the likelihood of me and Bill Simmons writing similar articles and having them posted in a forum for all the world to see has never been higher.

So how to redefine plagiarism in the internet age? I am not quite sure. Indeed, at least half of the articles I write are in direct response to something I have read somewhere. While I always attribute such articles and their writers, I am not exactly following standard rules when I do so. Often it is merely a link to their work. In fact, and in a nice example of The Circle of Life I referenced no less than two Grantland articles in the headhunting article I wrote.

I am also not sure it matters in most contexts. Of course we want to avoid student plagiarism to ensure that they are doing their own work and participating in the prescribed educational processes. I also might feel a bit differently if I suspected someone had lifted some of my more academic work without a cite. And I am sure some paid-websites would have something to say about merely linking to their work (I myself have had to scrap a few ideas here and there, or at least get data from a different source, after some particularly nasty legal auto-generated legal warnings).

However, in most garden-variety situations, the internet should exist as a democratizing force in the area of information. If someone uses my ideas, if people link to my articles, if Bill Simmons runs across one of my posts and it inspires him, all of these are benefits of the internet, not causes of friction. I think to a great extent that this has been one of the markers of the internet world. I guess I am just writing to say that I hope it stays that way.

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