Is Plagiarism Wrong?

Agnes Callard at The Point: “…Academia has confused a convention with a moral rule, and this confusion is not unmotivated. We academics cannot make much money off the papers and books in which we express our ideas, and ideas cannot be copyrighted, so we have invented a moral law that offers us the “property rights” the legal system denies us.

Here is an analogy. Suppose that I legally own a tree on the edge of my property, but not the apples that fall into the road. I might create a set of norms that shame people who take those apples: if you want one of “my” road-apples, you must first bow down to me or kiss my ring. Otherwise I will call you a “thief,” and if you insist that the apple you have just picked up is your own, I will compound the charge with “liar.”

The academic’s problem is that all of their apples fall into the road. Academia is an honor-culture, in which recognition—in the form of citations—serves as a kind of ersatz currency. In ancient Greek, there is a word “pleonexia,” which means “grasping after more than your share.” Plagiarism norms encourage pleonectic overreach. One can see such overreach in the fact that those with perfect job-security—famous, tenured faculty—do not seem less given to touchiness about having “their” ideas surface in the work of another, unattributed. Quite the contrary. The higher one rises, the louder the call for obeisance: kiss my ring! Stigmatizing plagiarism serves those at the top.

But isn’t there some form of reward—respect, gratitude, admiration, eternal life in historical memory—that people are entitled to on the basis of their intellectual work?

No. If you are an academic and you want to feel waves upon waves of gratitude, I have a simple recommendation for you: do a half-decent job teaching undergraduates. You don’t need to—and probably shouldn’t—teach them “your” ideas; if you help them furnish their minds with some of the great ideas of the past few millennia, they will thank you in ways no citation can: gushing notes of heartfelt appreciation, trinkets to fill your office, email messages of remembrance a decade later. They will come to your funeral. They will tell their children about you.

More generally, if I may indulge in some moralism myself, I would insist that no one can be entitled to gratitude or remembrance or appreciation. Write something worth reading. Put your ideas out there, and hope that someone will make something of them. Give with an open hand, and stop thinking about the tokens with which you will be repaid. Be happy to be worth stealing from. The future owes you nothing….(More)”.