Where to draw the line on plagiarism?

Even as original a thinker as Isaac Newton acknowledged, “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Ironically, Newton borrowed that phrase from 12th century theologian John of Salisbury who wrote, in 1159:

“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

John of Salisbury may gotten the thought from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes:

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun

That’s the way culture advances. We build on the ideas of people who came before us. Restricting the flow of ideas stifles innovation.

Personally, I take it as a compliment when someone applauds or extends one of my ideas.

But there are limits. Some people seem to think that anything posted on the internet is theirs for the taking without acknowledgement, sometimes even claiming authorship. This is akin to assuming it’s okay to take a bicycle if it’s not locked. Either way, it’s theft.

Wikipedia: Plagiarism is defined in dictionaries as the “wrongful appropriation,” “close imitation,” or “purloining and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,” and the representation of them as one’s own original work, but the notion remains problematic with nebulous boundaries.

Nebulous? You bet. Wikipedia again: Playwright Wilson Mizner said “If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you copy from two, it’s research.”[69]

This morning I looked at a presentation on SlideShare by the head of learning of an Irish insurance company. Eight of the 33 slides were copied from a colleague’s presentation deck without attribution. Another slide credits me but gets the numbers wrong and attributes the idea to Time Magazine instead of Internet Time Group.

One slide re-labels Charles Jenning’s examples of 70:20:10 as 50:20:30 — I guess the presenter couldn’t believe that formal learning had such little impact. Another slide quotes a Nobel Laureate but fails to acknowledge that the quote was borrowed from Charles’ presentation. The Irish presentation had been rekeyed. Hint: keying someone’s material into your presentation doesn’t make it yours.

It gets worse. Clark Quinn and I found an entire white paper we’d co-authored on an international university’s site. It reappeared word for word — except for our names, which were nowhere to be found. It looked as if the university had written it. When we called them on it, their first defense was that they had found it on the web and couldn’t remember where. I demanded an apology; the university said it was not at fault. I gave them a choice: I would out them as brazen intellectual property thieves or they would take down the article immediately. They chose the latter.

Last month an LMS vendor borrowed 200 words from my site without attribution. They told me it was a mistake. The post now acknowledges *research authored and compiled by Jay Cross at:http://www.informl.com/where-did-the-80-come-from/. I once found a book, not a very good one, that had printed 30 pages from my site without permission! These are not isolated instances.

Everything I write online is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. That means you’re welcome to take it but must tell people where it came from and if you plan to make money on it, let’s figure out how much you’re going to share with me.

More than sixty people have asked permission to reuse things I’ve written, very polite of them, and I have yet to say no.

Plagiarism is like porn: you know it when you see it.

I have generally let this petty-thievery slide. Moaning about it is not worth the trouble. Furthermore, I don’t want reward some petty scofflaw’s site with more traffic.

When a plagiarist does get under my skin in the future, I’m going to send them a copy of this post. If they choose not to pay an honorarium for profiting from my work, I will make their transgressions public, pointing to my original work and their copy. I don’t mean to threaten.

It’s like Dirty Harry* said:

I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?




*Dirty Harry, Columbia Pictures, 1971