Ownership and Plagiarism

Leonard Pitts, syndicated columnist based at the Miami Herald, writes passionately about discovering that his columns were plagiarized by a young writer at a small newspaper in Georgia. The plagiarist has been fired.

I’ve been in this business 29 years, Mr. Cecil, and I’ve been plagiarized before. But I’ve never seen a plagiarist as industrious and brazen as you. My boss is calling your boss, but I doubt you and I will ever speak. Still, I wanted you to hear from me. I wanted you to understand how this feels.

Put it like this: I had a house burglarized once.

This reminds me of that. Same sense of violation, same apoplectic disbelief that someone has the testicular fortitude to come into your place and take what is yours.

Not being a writer yourself, you won’t understand, but I am a worshiper at the First Church of the Written Word, a lover of language, a student of its rhythm, its music, its violence and its power.

My words are important to me. I struggle with them, obsess over them. Show me something I wrote and like a mother recounting a child’s birth, I can tell you stories of how it came to be, why this adjective here or that colon there.

See, my life’s goal is to learn to write. And you cannot cut and paste your way to that. You can only work your way there, sweating out words, wrestling down prose, hammering together poetry. There are no shortcuts. . . . .
The dictionary is a big book. Get your own damn words. Leave mine alone.

Pitts is a gifted writer, but his anger — which is justified — gets in the way of the argument. The plagiarist didn’t “steal” anything that Pitts hadn’t already given away, and been paid for as well. Pitts doesn’t own any of the words in the dictionary, and he still has the thoughts and emotions behind his work. No one can take those from him.

To me, the right button here isn’t the “theft” button, it’s the “cheat” (or “fraud“) button. A plagiarist defrauds the audience. It’s not Leonard Pitts who should feel the most outrage in this setting. It’s the owners and readers of the Cartersville Daily Tribune News.

3 thoughts on “Ownership and Plagiarism

  1. < "A plagiarist defrauds the audience. It’s not Leonard Pitts who should feel the most outrage in this setting. It’s the owners and readers of the Cartersville Daily Tribune News.">>

    Indeed. I explore how trademark law (which focuses on the consumer/reader rather than on the author) might be a better way to examine this issue in “The Birth of the Authornym: Authorship, Pseudonmyity, and Trademark Law,” 80 Notre Dame Law Review 1377 (2005).

  2. To contend that the “justified” anger of an author whose work has been boldly plagiarized somehow interferes with his “argument” is absurd. It is, indeed, righteous indignation that is, ultimately, at the heart of the law. Imagine that no one was angry when his property was misappropriated. Would there ever have been a law against stealing? Would thieves ever have been punished for stealing things that the owners didn’t care that they stole? Of course not.

    Even more absurd is the rather silly contention that “the plagiarist didn’t “steal” anything that Pitts hadn’t already given away, and been paid for as well.” This comment reveals incredible naiveté and a profound lack of understanding of the basic philosophical underlayments of the law. Uniquely insightful, talented, useful, appealing arrangement of pedestrian raw materials is the very stuff that is protected by trademark, copyright, and patent law.

    To ascribe damage merely to the defrauded consumer while ignoring the greater damage to the creator of the consumed work, who has been denied his due recognition and/or compensation for his work, is to turn the law on its head, making right out of wrong and wrong out of right. This Marxist view of property rights is a strange thing to behold among those to whom we are entrusting protection of those very rights. Among other things, Herr Marx took the position that property belongs to those who need it, not to those who create it. This seems to be the position that MJM espouses in his comments.

    To paraphrase MJM, vis-à-vis plagiarism, ‘if someone steals your identity and sets up a law practice using your credentials, you shouldn’t be angry. You don’t own the words you wrote during all those grueling midnight toils, or the grades you received as a result, or your law degree. After all, you still have the thoughts and emotions behind your work. No one can take those from you. It’s not you “who should feel the most outrage in this setting.” It’s your law school and the “cheated” clients of the person who stole your identity.’

    This hypothesis tells me that MJM has failed to grasp the fundamentals of property law that were supposedly the subject of his education and has, instead, seized upon the arguments of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as the philosophical bedrock of his view of property ownership. This is a bit disturbing, considering the pure evil that has been visited on the world during the past hundred years, or so, by those who adopted this point of view. I won’t follow this exposition to its logical conclusion, as the end result of applying the theory of socialism/communism in the former Soviet Union is well known, but allow me to observe that pursuit of that warped view of property rights has resulted in the hideous murders of hundreds of millions of innocent people and the squandering of untold wealth and human resources on the machines of war, rather than the building of civilization. To say that I strenuously object to MJM’s comments on this topic is to say that the Grand Canyon is a ditch. It simply doesn’t reach the level of expression necessary to convey the magnitude of my, yes, “outrage.”

  3. Wow. Mr. Van Noy’s dazzling conflation of plagiarism and copyright issues isn’t enough; he paints Richard Posner, of all people, as a Soviet-style communist!

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