Rethinking Plagiarism

from the creative-growth dept

Ed Felten points to an absolutely fascinating article by Malcolm Gladwell concerning his realization that a Broadway Play had “plagiarized” an article he wrote. The article discusses intellectual property rights in great detail, and Gladwell comes to the conclusion that while he was initially upset, he’s gradually changed his mind. Yes, the playwright definitely took some words from what he had written, but she took them and did much more with them, putting them in an entirely different context, and creating a well-regarded (until the plagiarism charges came out) fictional play — allowing his words to live on in a different way. The article also discusses the subject of his article, a psychologist, who was quite upset by the play, because she believes her life was “stolen” and put on the stage without her permission. Even worse, she claims that while the character is recognizable as her, the character does some things that the woman in real life had never done — and which could reflect poorly on her. Gladwell (and Felten) raises a lot of issues concerning the limits of intellectual property law, and the ability of artists to build on the works of others to create something new. He gives a variety of examples of music compositions that clearly have the same lines played, but wonders if that’s really a bad thing. There’s a great example of a composer who sued Andrew Lloyd Weber for “stealing” the opening bars of a song he had written. With some research, it was discovered that even earlier compositions of Weber’s used the exact same bars — and even that much more of the accuser’s music could have been considered “copied” from earlier Weber music. The entire piece is well worth reading, and shows why the concept that intellectual property can be “stolen” is wrong — and how we’re all often better off when we can build on the works of others freely.

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Comments on “Rethinking Plagiarism”

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Aaron Ortiz says:

Shoulders of Giants?

The line between flattery and plagiarism is whether the new work is “original”, too bad that word is more than a trifle subjective….what do you think?

Maybe a word count could work, for example, being authorized to copy 10 words or less, or only being allowed to copy sentence fragments, but not full sentences.

In music this might translate to copying 2-4 bars, or a phrase, but not a complete melody line.

Lawyers out there, how does the law specify it?

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