Piracy, Theft, Plagiarism
Last week Slate ran an article by Jody Rosen called Dude, You Stole My Article. It did not detail the exploits of a young man in his early teens sneaking into Rosen’s house, picking the lock on his cupboard and running off with his manuscript, nor did it involve an armed assault in which the titular dude, tall and masked, pointed a gun to Rosen’s head and demanded his hard drive, containing his draft. No, it was something comparatively more mundane: someone had plagiarized his article. To be precise, Rosen’s article is an exposé of an alt-weekly that consisted almost exclusively of plagiarized articles; its business model was essentially finding a few sources, copying part of them, reworking the punctuation, maybe changing a word every few sentences, pasting it together and calling it an original article. All without ever giving a nod to the original authors, of course. Fascinating story in itself, go read it if you haven’t already.
But anyway, back to the conspicuous lack of armed robberies or thieves sneaking into apartments at night, picking locks or smashing in windows in the article. Be aware of your language, here. Yes, I know, this usage of the verb “steal” is common. Hit me over the head with a dictionary, why don’t you. But it also conflates different actions. The whole piracy movement ought to have taught us as much.
By no means am I a card-carrying righteous pirate. I admit it, I pirate some stuff, but I’m under no illusion that I am sticking it to The Man or that I have a right to free games, music and movies, or anything of the sort. I can nod in the direction of the stream of indignant pirates, yeah, copyright laws are outdated, but no more than that. But they do have another good point, one about language: stealing, piracy and plagiarism are not the same acts. By using the same word for them all, by treating them as if they’re the same, you lose nuance.
Theft is when someone burglarizes your home. They sneak into your apartment and steal your xbox 360. It’s when someone robs a bank; it’s when someone slips a hand into your pocket, sneaks out your wallet and splits, all before you notice anything’s amiss. It’s when I remove something from your property, when I take something that’s yours, leaving me with your property and you without it. It’s when the score’s Me: One, You: Zero.
Piracy is when someone torrents a copyrighted movie. The copyright holders have their copy, I have my copy, my friends have their copy, no one earned a dime from the distribution, except maybe the company that delivers the bandwidth. I wouldn’t steal a car, you’re right, but I would pirate a movie, but those aren’t the same thing.
Plagiarism is when I take your work and pass it off as mine, not acknowledging you. Jody Rosen got a tip from a reader that someone seemed to have plagiarized his article. It turned out to be true. Rosen still has his article somewhere on his hard drive, I imagine, or at any rate in the archives at Slate.com. Anyone was free to read and save his piece, it was available publically online, the charge was zero, and I bet no one would have given a shit if I saved the article on my computer, or passed it on to my friends. But people gave a shit about this, because it was dishonest (someone was passing off Rosen’s work as their own, never acknowledging him) and it was unfair (someone was making money off Rosen’s work without his permission). And think they’re right to do so, but this wasn’t theft.
Now, as I said, you can hit me with the dictionary all night long, maybe the usage of “stealing” here was semantically correct. That doesn’t change the fact that stealing, pirating and plagiarizing are three different concepts. By using the same words and treating them as the same, you’re conflating issues, destroying nuances, and generally annoying me. Plus those righteous pirates. Even if you think all three are equally wrong, you should be able to see that they’re not the same thing.
Is any of this new? No, it’s not. To be honest I haven’t seen many people explicitly articulate the three-way distinction I’ve made here, but it’s implicit in a lot of discussions and it must surely have been made a hundred times before. But I felt like saying it, and I can honestly say that I’ve neither stolen, pirated or plagiarized this post. The bits are not copyrighted, I produced them, so it’s not piracy; I did not take them from anyone, leaving them without the original file, so it’s not theft; I did not copy it from someone else and claim it was mine, so it’s not plagiarism.