Pilfered material, attribution fails, & copyright debate
The conversation and ultimately debate over what to label Jonah Lehrer’s actions in recycling his old material as “new” material for different publications has floated about since Jim Romenesko broke the story ten days ago. Is it adequate or fair or correct to label those actions as “self-plagiarism”? What about self-abuse? Recycling?
I particularly like the phrase “journalistic infidelity,” although I don’t consider Lehrer a journalist as much as an author, speaker, and essayist. (Much like John D’Agata.)
And while curiosity begs not the question of whether or not Lehrer is guilty, it does beg why Lehrer recycled in the first place.
The greater discussion, however, is one that Lehrer is merely a small part of. Over the last decade or so, virtually everything has moved in a digital direction that includes transitioning from print to online publishing. The internet has brought with it new reporting styles, new distribution channels, and an approach to marketing and advertising that did not exist pre-internet. The technology age has also brought with it the expanding array of intellectual property rights and a surge in prosecuting patent law.
Applying all of these ideas to journalism and magazine or blog writing and you end up with the dispute over linking to sources, attribution fails, and a grand see-saw about what’s ethical and what’s not.
- Do you link to other publications that scooped everyone else on a story?
- Do you give credit to blog sources, interviews that other journalists/writers landed, or individuals that provided inspiration for a story?
Traditionally, scooping the other news outlets on a story contributed to more readership and some level of “healthy competition.” As a journalist, delivering the best and most information to the public in the most timely manner trumped all. Of course, this has led to a 24-hour news cycle that never sleeps.
Now, however, outmaneuvering another publication is perhaps as important as giving credit where credit is due. The internet has made researching just about anything ridiculously easy (take it from someone that grew up with library card catalogs and a computer that required a 5.25 inch floppy disk to even boot up) and almost anyone can have a voice via blog, Twitter, Facebook page, etc. Everyone is their own publisher. Equally as easy, however, is pilfering content and claiming it as one’s own work—pictures, music, articles or any number of things.
The Creative Commons license, FAIR USE Act, Digital Millenium Copyright Act, and Maria Popova’s Curator’s Code are all responses to the changing landscape that is media and journalism. It would seem that a growing consensus supports attribution—even if it contradicts tradition.
Where Lehrer fits in this equation is only answerable with a question.
Perhaps it’s not so much the fact that Lehrer borrowed from himself, but rather the fact that he blatantly chose not to disclose this tidbit to his editors and to his readers. I can’t help but wonder if disclosure pre-publication might have changed the outcome for him.
And you know what? If you want to get paid to recycle your own work verbatim in other publications, there are two legal terms/phrases for that: syndication and additional publishing rights.