The Inevitability Of Plagiarism In The Age Of The Interwebzorz

The original Associated Press photograph of Barack Obama and Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster.(Associated Press.)

I have a lot of words posted on this blog. There’s no way that I’m going to count them all, but I’d imagine the total to be between ten and elebenty-to-the-power-of-thirdeen-hundred-twenting-billion. Anyway, it’s a lot of words.

Most of them are mine. I don’t mean to say that I invented them, although, in some cases, I did, just that I put them together in a way that (maybe) no one else had before. I have a little thing over there > that says this:

What that means is you are free to share anything you find on this site, provided that you give me credit and use it for non-commercial purposes (or cut me in on the profits). It doesn’t take much to give credit, just a link. The same goes for my drawings. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

I’ve had my stuff stolen before. It’s not a pleasant feeling. A while ago, I created a little avatar of a dinosaur to use on a website and I found someone on YouTube who had stolen my dinosaur and used it as their own. While it is flattering that someone would like my stuff enough to steal it and call it their own, I would think that if it really was yours, you wouldn’t use a low resolution version that looked like crap.

I told the YouTuber in question, very nicely I might add, that I wasn’t going to sue him or anything, but I’d appreciate it if he’d at least give me credit if he was planning to use my work. If not, please stop using my image. He never replied, but the next day, my little dinosaur was gone. Fair enough.

It’s not like I create everything on this blog from scratch. I use other people’s images and words sometimes. There are some images that are so viral, mainly meme-like specimens, that it’s impossible to track them back to the original owner, but whenever possible, I try to give credit where credit is due. There are a lot of people who don’t though.

Plagiarism is part of the reason why I enjoy writing the Well-Known Facts series. I hope that maybe some maroon will look something up, find my “facts,” think they’re real and use them. I would love it if I was cited as a source in some school paper somewhere:

Billy Bo Bob
Mr. Teacher
Biology I

“The largest living mammal is the plesapumaurus maximus which is actually the continent of Africa. It’s been sleeping for a long, long time.”

I would find that hilarious, because you shouldn’t believe everything you read. If you’re going to get science facts from a Goldfish on the internet, even one who is a trusted authority on science facts like me, you deserve what you get.

Plagiarism has always existed; it’s just a whole a lot easier now. When I was a kid, we didn’t have the internet. We had to find sources for plagiarism the hard way–at the library. Nowadays, everything and everyone is connected 24/7, and it’s right at your fingertips. In a system like that, it’s impossible not to have thievery. It’s just so damn easy. Do an image search, steal an image, post it. That’s all there is to it.

Most of the time, there aren’t even any consequences. A good chunk of everything on the internet is anonymous, so if you steal something, nobody even knows who to contact. When that guy stole my dinosaur, he could have very easily told me to blow and there would have been little I could do. It’s not like I had the image copyrighted or anything. The only proof I had that I was the one who created it was the original file, but hell, even that could be copied. Give me an image and I can copy it myself.

Then there are the gray areas. Is it still plagiarism if you take something of someone else’s and remake it as your own? For instance, the case of Shepherd Fairey’s Hope poster:

The original Associated Press photograph of Barack Obama and Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster. (From the Associated Press via The New York Times)

Fairey used the picture on the left as a basis for the poster on the right, but is it plagiarism? This is where the line get’s blurry. Fairey’s lawyer argued that, because Obama is a public figure, the image was fair use. The AP and Shepard Fairey settled out of court in January 2011, so we’ll never know how a court would have decided. Not everything is cut and dry.

There’s so much data on the internet it’s difficult to even find plagiarism in the first place. In my dinosaur example, it was just chance that I stumbled on my image being used by someone else. There could be people out there right now using my words and images, and I would have no way of knowing. There’s no effective way to police it. The internet mostly relies on the honor system. We take each other at our word that we wrote or drew or sang whatever product it is that we’re claiming is ours. But for every honest person out there, there are just as many, if not more, who are willing and ready to steal creativity and call it their own.

It’s a shame that there’s so much intellectual property theft on the internet, but really, it’s inevitable. It only takes a second to steal someone else’s hard work, whether it be words, images or anything else, and we rely on each other not to be dicks about it. When you frame it that way, it seems like a lousy system that’s just destined to fail.

But what’s the solution? I’m not sure there even is one. I guess we’ll all just have to be a bit more honorable. So, listen to Smokey the Plagiarism Bear when he says only YOU can prevent plagiarism! I’m not sure how the shovel comes into it, but use your best judgment. I’m counting on you.

(Tagline and image totally not stolen from The U.S. Forest Service.)