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Easier today but wrong as ever to steal ideas

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 17, 2003


It would be so easy.

I have a column due; home and hearth beckon.

I had decided to write about plagiarism and discovered that a Chicago Tribune reporter had recently done the same.

A few keystrokes, a transitional sentence here and there and, presto, her work is under my name, and my day is finished.

I wouldn't do it, but plenty of others, in and out of journalism, have.

An instructor at a large state university told me of a case where a below-average student turned in a geology paper containing work obviously not his own. He confronted the student, who vehemently denied having plagiarized.

"Okay," the instructor said, "you refer here to numerous fissures. What, exactly, is a fissure?"

"It means a nuclear reaction is going on there," said the student, who, at least, probably now knows the difference between fissures and fission.

Plagiarism used to require a lot more work than it does now. When I was a kid, you had to hand-copy whatever you were lifting from the World Book Encyclopedia, which tended to be an educational experience in itself, and, years later, plagiarists had to retype what they were stealing.

Now a flick of the wrist, a tap on a mouse and a little cut and paste, and whole blocks of someone else's written product becomes yours.

People who should, today, don't seem to know exactly what plagiarism is. I once judged an essay contest in Pasco County where many of the students had plagiarized their entries. One "poem" was simply the lyrics from a Prince (yes, God help me, I recognized them) song. Another, on Teddy Bears, was available in gift shops printed on post cards.

I identified the work that was plagiarized and was disconcerted to note that the students who had proudly submitted the work were punished for it.

Concomitantly, most of the people today who unconcernedly mutilate copyright law by downloading free music, movies and other material actually don't know they are violating the law. I was impressed a few years back when a clerk at Kinko's told an artist I knew that she couldn't copy pictures out of a copyrighted book because it was illegal.

Those of us in the business are, or should be, more cautious than others about who owns what. Years ago I spent two days trying to get permission from Billy Joel's representatives to use two lines from one of his songs to introduce a column on piano bars. They wanted $200. I found another way. Later I learned I could have used the lines, properly attributed, under provisions of the law that protect critics, but it wasn't worth the hassle.

Later, my wife and I re-met when she was trying to get permission to use one word, "Margaritaville," in the name of a food-taster event in Zephyrhills. Jimmy Buffett's "people" refused. I recommended changing Margaritaville on Main Street to Tasting Away Again In Zephyrhitaville. No harm, no foul.

The thrust of the story by Julia Keller in the Chicago Tribune was, correctly, that legal and literary minds have struggled for decades without really coming up with a reliable definition of plagiarism.

Stealing other people's work, in journalism, is almost always cause for immediate dismissal. Still, I have seen a few otherwise good reporters give in to the temptation for reasons even they can't explain.

But, on the other hand, as ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, father of folksinger Pete Seeger, once said, "Plagiarism is basic to all culture."

In a body of knowledge where each of us stands on the shoulders of those who came before, it is sometimes difficult to maintain your balance without filching a paragraph or two from their pockets.

I cover myself as well as possible by identifying ideas not my own as having been stated before, and crediting the source, which is not only the correct thing to do but also helps spread the blame around if the source is dead wrong.

I would say that anyone who steals, in exact words, my original idea, is committing plagiarism.

But then that would lead to discussions of how long it has been since I had an original idea, and my critics are already having enough fun with the West Wing column.

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