Plagiarism has always been a problem. Sometimes people steal other peoples’ words and ideas. More often they just take shortcuts, ignoring established procedures for acknowledgements and just hoping that if they do end up getting caught, they can just plead ignorance and apologize.
But the scope and dimensions of the problems are inherently more troubling in a digital age. In fact, they are so different that it is even possible that the definition of plagiarism might soon change. That is the underlying question lurking behind a fascinating piece which appeared this past summer in Salon called, “Cut, Paste, Plagiarize.” Author Michael Barthel, a graduate student at the University of Washington, used a recent plagiarism scandal concerning CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, as a springboard to compare old ethics versus new ethics. “Everything on the Internet gets stolen,” he writes meaning not that it’s really theft, but rather that it’s part of what many are now calling a “remix culture.” Barthel is not necessarily celebrating this shift, but he is describing something that seems almost irreversible. “The Web, and the generation who grew up with it,” he observes, “think about plagiarism very differently than do the keepers of journalistic ethics.”
That was exactly the point made by a young “Generation Y” columnist for the Christian Science Monitor in 2010. In her piece about “Old-School Versus New-School Attitudes on Plagiarism,” Sara Libby describes the indifferent reaction of 17-year-old German novelist to accusations that she copied an entire passages of someone else’s work in her debut novel. Helene Hegemann, the young novelist, simply commented that, ““There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” According to Libby, that’s a by-product of younger people like her (and you) growing up in the age of web 2.0, crowd-sourcing, and Wikipedia.