Plagiarism: When Digital Worlds Collide

The Next Web LogoOne of the most difficult aspects of dealing with plagiarism is that plagiarism, primarily, is an ethical issue. Though there’s a great deal of overlap between plagiarism and copyright, the core issue of when unattributed copying/reuse becomes plagiarism is an ethical one and, like most matters of ethics, there’s a lot of variance between person to person.

However, in addition to individuals having different views on plagiarism, different industries and even fields of study have diverging views as well. A novelist, for example, faces a different standard of plagiarism than an attorney, which is different than a physics researcher.

The thorniest cases of plagiarism are ones where world’s collide. Where people from two different fields cross paths on a plagiarism issue and the plagiarizer feels that they did nothing unethical but the alleged victim feels slighted.

That at least appears to have been part of the problem in a recent dispute between blogger and designer Joshua Gross and tech blog The Next Web. However, even though that case seems to be largely resolved, it points to a much bigger problem that, from anecdotal evidence I’m seeing, seems to be growing.

The Joshua Gross/The Next Web Case

Yesterday, Gross posted an article on his blog about how new buttons on electronic displays in New York City taxis had managed to increase tipping drastically. Later that day, The Next Web posted its own take on the story.

However, Gross took exception to the way the new post was handled. Though it did provide attribution to Gross, the attribution was buried in the story and it seemed that much of the text from TNW version of the story was taken either verbatim or only loosely rewritten, all without nay quotes or direct references to where the content came from.

According to his blog, Gross approached TNW about the article saying in a tweet, “If you guys wanted to use my article, you should have asked. Copping (sic) the content and barely rewriting it is so lame.”

This prompted a response from Zee M Kane, the CEO of TNW, saying in one tweet (of several) that, “We couldn’t have made it any clearer that you were the source for the story.” He also went on to say that, “Facts are facts and we included them.”

This prompted Gross to post about the allegations and the story quickly gained traction online, in particularl with Hacker News. Shortly thereafter, Kane revisited the case and posted an apology as a Google Doc.

In the apology, Zee said that it was a matter of poor timing, that he never saw the improperly attributed version and that he responded out of anger without all of the facts. However, he did add, “I do think quoting the original post might have been a better option. However, Harrison Weber (our author) decided to paraphrase and clearly didn’t do a particularly good job. I don’t however think that it warrants an all out ‘plagiarism’ attack.”

However, the new apology doesn’t seem to have done much to placate the angry mob, which includes Matt Finkel, who refers to it as a “Lolpology”. Another poster, writing under the name Fruchtose, found that the posts was over 70% similar if you discard the intro in the article on TNW.

What’s clear is that there’s a lot of difference between what some of the people involved consider plagiarism and the others. However, these are the types of debates that are becoming much more common and are only likely to grow in terms of intensity and frequency.

The Bigger Picture

When it comes to plagiarism, Gross, who is a designer and artist by trade (though he works heavily with websites and technology), certainly comes from a different world than Kane, whose passion lies with technology. Though the two seem to agree that the first version of the article was not properly attributed, it’s also easy to see why there might be differing opinions. As I said above, different industries have different needs when it comes to originality and, as such, different demands when it comes to plagiarism.

In my experiences with the tech community, the understanding of plagiarism in the academic/journalism/creative sense is lacking in many of today’s entrepreneurs. Though Kane seems to have realized what was going on, I can think of many others that will find no fault with what TNW did in this case.

In many of my conversations with technologists and tech entrepreneurs, they were interested almost solely in the legal side of the coin, wanting to do as much with the content of others as the law will allow. Unfortunately, in matters of plagiarism and copyright, ethics often covers much more ground and, as this case shows, can be of equal importance.

However, many take the viewpoint that, if it’s not illegal, it’s not unethical. This is eerily similar to one of Kane’s comments that said “facts are facts”, hinting (accurately) that facts are not copyrightable. Therefore, according to the logic of many, they are fair game.

Copyright doesn’t cover facts, the actual work put into a piece, the idea behind it and many other components of an article. In fact, all copyright DOES cover is the expression of the idea. But if you were to take ideas, facts, work, from another without attribution in an academic environment, it would be a case of plagiarism and the same holds true in many other areas as well.

The Web industry, however, has sprung up so fast and evolved so quickly, that a solid standard of ethics around plagiarism has not formed. There’s a strong obsession with what the law says, but little invested in determining what is moral.

This has created a serious problem that, sadly, is not likely to go away any time soon.

Bottom Line

To be clear, this is not to say that most or all technologists have poor morals and ethics when it comes to plagiarism. If anything, the backlash on Hacker News, which is run by Y Combinator, shows that many take these issues very seriously.

It is, instead, to say that the Internet industry does have the same standards as other industries on these matters and, even worse, doesn’t truly have a unified stance at all. The Web has a history of pushing boundaries legally on what one can do with the work of another without much thought to the ethics, something that has to start changing and evolving.

In short, there’s been a great deal of focus on what one CAN do and not what one SHOULD do.

Regarding the Gross/TNW case, it seems as if this one is at least on track to be resolved amicably. The article on TNW has been modified to clearly indicate the quoted text and Kane admitted he handled the situation badly.

However, this won’t be the last case of its kind and if the Web hopes to avoid these types of situations becoming epidemic, it’s time to think about the moral and the law side-by-side rather than as separate entities.

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