Plagiarism in the Internet age: The issue isn't copying, it's attribution

By David Holmes , written on July 29, 2014

From The News Desk

I know I'm playing directly into someone's hands by writing this, but hey the writer asked for it.

During a Washington Post live chat, Internet gadfly Gene Weingarten holds forth on the Benny Johnson plagiarism scandal at Buzzfeed. If you're just getting caught up, Johnson grabbed full lines from questionable sources ranging from the "kind-of-alright-as-long-as-you-check-the-source" Wikipedia to the hilarious and embarrassing Yahoo! Answers. The plagiarized content was used for the kind of bottom-of-the-barrel listicles that drive most of Buzzfeed's traffic.

Here's Weingarten (and don't worry, I didn't forget the block-quote): be guilty of theft, one must steal something of some intrinsic value. An original insight, such as Gladwell’s, qualifies very clearly. When the dreadful Jayson Blair egregiously stole the on-the-scene reporting of journalists who had been to crime scenes that Blair claimed to have been at but had not, that was indeed grand theft. But I contend you cannot steal something of no intrinsic value; say, a fart. Someone who steals a fart is a weird, disreputable person, perhaps, and even someone deserving of firing, perhaps, but not a thief. This is Mr. Benny Johnson.
Weingarten can be a pretty hilarious guy, and here he's on fire. And he certainly has a point ithat the plagiarism of a Jayson Blair or Jonah Lehrer is far more egregious than Johnson's because they're claiming as their own something that another writer worked hard on either through critical thought or original reporting.

But I don't agree with drawing a line in the sand like this between plagiarism and mere hackery -- first off, one man's treasure is another man's trash. Obviously there are hundreds of thousands, in some cases millions, of readers who adore those Buzzfeed listicles, and the traffic they drive helps make up a significant portion of Buzzfeed's revenue. And while using direct quotes without using the proper marks or citations is indefensible, I don't think there's anything inherently evil (unseemly for sure) about repackaging someone else's ideas in a way that speaks more loudly to audiences. This is a variation of the entire model used by the Internet's biggest platforms, from Facebook to Pinterest.

The problem lies in attribution. The bad thing about the Web is that it's easy to steal stuff. The great thing about the Web is that it's the easiest thing in the world to link to your primary source. This was Johnson's biggest crime. The lack of quotation marks in some of his direct quotes would be almost a formality (emphasis on "almost") had he included a link to the source. The practice of linking acts as a service for both great and terrible content -- it gives the original writer credit when the content is great, and alerts the reader to a possibly questionable source when the content is bad.

You may despise aggregation (or it's new disguise, "explanation"), but it's become such a norm on the Internet that it's important to enforce best practices in the field even if the content, in the eyes of discerning readers, is shit. Here at Pando we try to only produce stories that involve some original insight or analysis. I hope this article passes the test but ultimately it's up to the readers to decide what has value, and the proof for Johnson's articles lies in the "likes" these Buzzfeed posts inevitably accumulate. That's why Weingarten's theory that it's only plagiarism if the original work has more value than a "fart" doesn't hold water. Or put another way, one man's fart is another man's fortune.

[Image credit: Public domain]