What Google Taught Me About Plagiarism

Sparrow on Barbed Wire
“If you persist in staying silent at a time like this, help and deliverance will arrive…from someplace else; but you and your family will be wiped out.” Esther 4:14 (MSG)

A blog I’ve followed and valued for years recently plagiarized content from another source which I also happen to follow. As a writer, this made me sad and angry. While the non-confrontational part of me would prefer to unsubscribe in silent protest of their morally ambiguous writing tactics, my feistier side wanted to call them out on it.

How easy it would have been to leave an anonymous, skewering comment on their blog post, exposing them for all to see, as if it’s my right or responsibility to shame anyone publicly. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and all.

Aren’t there enough trolls lurking in the bowels of the internet, spewing venom and bad manners in ALL CAPS LOCK? What good would it do to sink to that level?

Still, the indiscretion tugged at my writer’s heart.

I understand how challenging it must be for full-time bloggers to constantly and consistently generate content for their readers (I admire them for their hard work!), and I also understand that sometimes mistakes get made. I’d like to believe that we all have good intentions, that each of us wants to do what’s right, but the world can be a complicated and shady place. When does indifference become negligence? And when does “looking the other way” make us complicit in wrongdoing?

“If you persist in staying silent at a time like this…” When Mordecai sent this message to Queen Esther, he was urging her to speak up and save the lives of her people — to thwart a plot to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire. A small act of plagiarism seems laughable by comparison (I know!), but aren’t those words haunting? If you persist in staying silent at a time like this

I decided to send an email to the blog in question, privately and respectfully, pointing out the error in hopes that they’d rectify the situation. To their credit, they replied promptly the next morning, acknowledged the “oversight,” and said it had been corrected. How nice! Hooray for professionalism and ethics! Except… they didn’t correct it. The blog post remains word-for-word the same. No clarification, no apology, no proper attribution. *Sigh*

In its early days, Google adopted an informal company motto — “Don’t Be Evil” — to act as a guiding principle in their business. Whether or not they’ve held to this standard is a matter of debate perhaps, but nonetheless, it’s a noble idea.

Do the right thing.

When it comes to creating and using content online, you don’t need to look far to see cracks in the ethical facade. Copyright isn’t sexy or fun, is it? We’re just pinning all the pretty things on Pinterest! What’s the harm in that?

The problem, of course, is that many people make a livelihood from their creative work. All of the beautiful content we see floating around on the internet is not magical, communal property! Someone — a writer, a photographer, a designer, a real person — has put time and energy into the creation. Some of those creators choose to share their work freely and allow it to be used or adapted with permission. (Hooray for Creative Commons and good for them!) But not every creator feels the same, and they’re well within their rights to expect fair treatment.

Intentional or not, plagiarism is a serious ethical breach, not to mention a potential copyright infringement.

Here’s what I’ve learned: If you want people to trust and value the content you’re creating, be honest and kind and respectful. Don’t be evil or lazy. Don’t “borrow” or share someone else’s work if you don’t have permission. If you aren’t sure, ask. Cite your sources. Give credit where credit is due. I promise, your readers won’t think less of you for quoting someone else if you’re willing and able to say something fresh and meaningful alongside it.

In the end, I did unsubscribe from that blog. Whether or not they care about losing one reader, whether or not they decide to make a correction or do better in the future, they lost my respect, which ultimately detracts from the good work they were trying to do in the first place.

Inspiration is everywhere, but let’s not ruin a good thing, ok? We can do better than evil — inadvertent or otherwise.

[ Photo credit: See-ming Lee ]

An Offering to the Betrayed World

We wrestle with words, stringing beads of experience onto the thread of story. We look at tree branches casting dappled sunlight across a yard and craft beautiful sentences on the nature of wonder. We find eternal moments in bedtime stories and turn skinned knees into words of prayer. It is lovely, edifying work, we think, to notice and remember these things.

But…when we see the news, hear of tragedies, deaths, disease, famine, war, we are haunted by the inconsequence of our words, our simple lives. We wonder if what we’re doing–catching stories, finding beauty among the mundane–is too small and selfish to be worthwhile. We question our passion for words and sentences. What good is a poem or a story, a photograph or a blog, when there are people dying in the world?

Why do writers write?

Perhaps there is no better reason than this:
 
 

1.
They take them out in the morning
to the stone courtyard
and put them against the wall

five men
two of them very young
the others middle-aged
nothing more
can be said about them

2.
when the platoon
level their guns
everything suddenly appears
in the garish light
of obviousness

the yellow wall
the cold blue
the black wire on the wall
instead of a horizon

that is the moment
when the five senses rebel
they would gladly escape
like rats from a sinking ship

before the bullet reaches its destination
the eye will perceive the flight of the projectile
the ear record the steely rustle

the nostrils will be filled with biting smoke
a petal of blood will brush the palate
the touch will shrink and then slacken
now they lie on the ground
covered up to their eyes with shadow
the platoon walks away
their buttonstraps
and steel helmets
are more alive
than those lying beside the wall

3.
I did not learn this today
I knew it before yesterday

so why have I been writing
unimportant poems on flowers
what did the five talk of
the night before the execution
of prophetic dreams
of an escapade in a brothel
of automobile parts
of a sea voyage
of how when he had spades
he ought not to have opened
of how vodka is best
after wine you get a headache
of girls
of fruits
of life
thus one can use in poetry
names of Greek shepherds
one can attempt to catch the colour of morning sky
write of love
and also
once again
in dead earnest
offer to the betrayed world
a rose

— “Five Men” by Zbigniew Herbert, translated by Czeslaw Milosz

Learning from the Masters

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“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.”  — Hart Crane

Babies are hard-wired for language acquisition, but they aren’t born speaking complete sentences. Similarly, even the most talented and passionate of storytellers doesn’t start out by writing a masterpiece. We learn first by observing, then by imitating.

If you want to be a writer, you must first be a reader. And if you want to be a good writer, you must read good books.

But where should you start? Time is short and the list of great books lengthy indeed.

Having grown tired of the number of “should reads” on my “someday” reading list and embarrassed to admit, as a self-professed bookworm and would-be English major, that I’d not read some of the most towering works of Western literature, I decided to tackle the problem head-on with the dogged determination of a list-loving schoolmarm.

For the past 11 months, I’ve been working my way through what has turned into a five-year, one-person classical book club. The experience has challenged my abilities as both a reader and a writer and, in the process, rekindled my belief in the beauty and power of words to transcend time and place.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share with you what I’ve been learning on this journey—why good books matter, how to read difficult books as an adult, and what dead authors can teach us about writing in the 21st Century. I’ll also be spotlighting some pieces of beautiful writing I’ve admired along the way — and which might inspire your own writing efforts as well.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” historian Will Durant wrote (paraphrasing Aristotle). “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Just as writers improve through the practice of writing, we also grow through reading and absorbing the great writing of others. I hope you’ll join me back here as we begin learning from the masters.

* * *

What books are on your should-read list? Do you have a favorite classic author? Is there a book you’ve avoided reading or struggled to make it through no matter how many people rave about it? (I’m wary of Moby Dick. It’s one of the top five most abandoned classics. I’m nervous to start it!)

[ Photo credit: Roberto Taddeo ]