ITHACA, N.Y., the Patent Office — You often read that plagiarism is a mortal sin for writers, but frankly, that’s a total crock. The deadly sins are pretty durable. Exact definitions may change over time, but you can be sure that whatever still qualifies as slothful in the year 2114 — puttering around the house in a hovering beanbag, say — will be frowned upon. Plagiarism, by contrast, is more like a moral panic. Here today, gone tomorrow.
As went sodomy and marijuana, so goeth plagiarism; its semantic neighborhood is gentrifying, so to speak. Future readers will find the idea of a writer being disgraced for plagiarism quaintly outrageous, much as we today find the idea of a writer being disgraced for obscenity. Sure, there will be a few originality fetishists left over from the old days, and they’ll have their little clubs and user groups or whatever. But they’ll be about as relevant to our great-grandchildren’s media landscape as people who eschew depravity and degradation are to ours. Innovators, meanwhile, don’t fight rear-guard battles. They wait for the smoke and bullets to subside, then offer a new business model.
That we’ve already hit and passed peak plagiarism became clear with the recent brouha-ho-hum over CNN host and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria’s borrowings. If you haven’t heard that two pseudonymous bloggers have for months now been releasing slideshow after slideshow showcasing Zakaria’s citation-free approach to verbal collage art, then you’re not alone. Hardly anyone has. And certainly no one cares.
“I feel delighted that he has borrowed heavily from my work,” says the scholar Fawaz Gerges, from whom Zakaria lifted three paragraphs virtually verbatim and without attribution. If anything, the wind is in Zakaria’s sails, for God helps those who help themselves, and this fellow helps himself to a lot. And even if the going gets rough and God begins to balk, CNN will hold fast.
For the “most trusted name in news” has made it crystal clear that it stands by its man and doesn’t give a damn how he assembles his best-selling product. And why should it? It’s as surprising as finding out that your Big Mac was actually neither “handcrafted” nor indeed “made for you®.” You kind of knew that already. You weren’t looking for uniqueness when you drove up to the window and spoke to the microphone in the first place. A certain déjà vu — a warm, sweet Proustian regurgitation, with no trace of acid reflux — is part of the product’s deep appeal. The most trusted names are trusted for a reason, after all.
Let us thus admit that the era of authorial branding and content aggregation has implications for how we read, write and think. It’s all going to be just a little less artisanal, people. There’s some outsourcing going on, and more of it to come. Now, the great thing about outsourcing is that the skills and values lost to humanity at large are fully recouped by individuals in the form of private lucre, because having paid faceless faraway people pennies to make you something valuable, you turn around and sell it to people near at hand for a lot. But you do have to pay the distant ones something. Same deal with plagiarism. It’s one thing for a writer not to acknowledge his debts explicitly and quite another to refuse to pay them entirely. If plagiarism is on a one-way road to respectability, we’ll need to monetize it. There’s no quicker road than a toll road.
So here’s what I propose: Instead of using plagiarism-detection software as some sort of post-hoc investigative tool, let’s make it an intrinsic component of digital publishing. Debts to other writers are automatically calculated and paid at the time of publication. Every writer in the guild has a PayPal-type account, which records credits and debits every time other writers crib your words or you crib from them, respectively. If you’re not in the guild, so to speak, the software combs through online public records for your mailing address and sends you a quarter or four bucks or whatever you’re owed through the post. Borderline cases are determined in an appeals forum, presided over by a bot.
The best part is that it’s minimally disruptive. Things would carry on much as they do today, except in an orderly, economically stimulating fashion and without a lot of shame and hysteria. There are default per word rates, which writers are free to adjust. Struggling freelancers will want to reset theirs close to zero and simply enjoy the vicarious thrill of seeing their work featured in more prominent venues under someone else’s byline. Established writers can charge more, of course, but they should seriously consider flash sales, all-you-can-take buffet bonanzas and other seasonal promotions that could stimulate speculative interest in their work from bulk harvesters such as Zakaria. In this respect, Professor Gerges — with his sunny, obliging, what’s-mine-is-yours-so-long-as-you’re-a-big-shot attitude — is way ahead of the game.
Because seriously, prestige writers and other retrograde narcissists who try to price their stuff out of plagiarists’ reach (Franzen at $50 a word, anyone? Didn’t think so!) will succeed only in pricing it out of relevance and, ultimately, readership. An individual voice is a wonderful thing for a writer to have, but it’s not like money or marbles, which can be hoarded under a mattress. Not in our sharing economy. Some big names are going to wither on the vine — what’s known in the biz as a market correction. Meanwhile, truly industry-savvy types will understand the importance of getting their little tics and stylistic signatures out there as ubiquitously as possible, regardless of attribution. That way when people stumble upon your actual signed work, it will seem irresistibly familiar.
The funds in these accounts serve simultaneously as real money (that writers can spend on burritos, diapers, cigarettes, what have you) and as a sort of professional score. Like your number of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, this Klout score tells fellow writers and laypeople alike how influential you are, whether you’re worth reading and listening to and hanging out with and cutting and pasting from. Far from spelling the end of serious literature by people such as James Wood and Ian McEwan, this system finally gives us an objective measure for assessing their worth, which is a function not of originality but thinkfluence.
For if literature itself is timeless, literary standards are not. “In Shakespeare’s day,” wrote the critic and philosopher Walter Ong in a 1967 essay, “what today would be considered plagiarism was taken to be only a demonstration of wide reading.” Four centuries later, we’ve come almost full circle. If “with the invention of typography, the sense of literary works as property increases slowly,” as Ong put it, then with the invention of the Internet, it diminishes rapidly. We are moving toward what I predict will be a total sublimation of plagiarism as traffic-savvy digital erudition.
The road back to respectability has already been paved by pornography, that other ephemeral scandal born of print. At the dawn of manuscript literature in modern English, Geoffrey Chaucer gave us an adulteress who greets a shut-eyed suitor by hanging her “hole” out the window so that “with his mouth he kissed her naked arse / Full savorly before he was aware of it.” In the late afternoon of the print era, by contrast, James Joyce “couldn’t publish ‘Dubliners’ in part because he used the word ‘bloody,’” as Kevin Birmingham put it in a recent book about the landmark 1933 obscenity trial of “Ulysses.” “The word ‘fuck’ offends for what it denotes, but it also offends as an assembly of four particular letters on a page,” he wrote. In the digital age, with smut a sort of domestic utility pulsing through the pipes of the home like water, gas and electricity, any writer hoping to offend needs to do a lot more than talk dirty. According to Birmingham, Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece had a lot to do with this seismic shift: “‘Ulysses’ removed all the barriers to art.”
Well, maybe all but one. You still couldn’t go around copying stuff from other writers. It would be left to a later generation to tear off that final shackle. And tear it off we will. All we need is a business model and a body of work to rally behind. I’ve taken care of the former. Who will assemble the latter? I know who I’m rooting for. Someone who knows that writing is a synergistic process of give and take and demands unfettered freedom in doing both. Someone more interested in what others have to say than what he has to say, who really gets the Barthian insight that a text is a tissue of quotations. Someone who understands vertical integration of media and how a story travels, from the metabolism perspective. Fareed Zakaria, I’m lovin’ it.