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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.