Can You Plagiarize Yourself? Conversations about Copyright

Wednesday, June 27, 2012
The issue of copyright has risen again in a controversy from The New Yorker blogger, Jonah Lehrer. The basic story is that Lehrer, who just moved his blogging to The New Yorker’s site, has been copying sentences, paragraphs and passages from previously published work and using them in new posts. Is this plagiarism?

Copyright and Rights

This accusation sent me to my dictionary. Plagiarism is “the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd edition. New York: Random House, 1983. P. 1479.)

How can this be plagiarism, when he is quoting himself and not another author? Let’s get our terms right. Lehrer misrepresented the rights available for his work. By definition (see above), he can’t plagiarize himself.

This Slate article about the controversy says, "On Tuesday morning, media watcher Jim Romenesko caught Jonah Lehrer stealing. The victim: Jonah Lehrer."

That is incorrect. Instead, the victim was The New Yorker, who thought they were buying an original article, and instead got a partial reprint.

Copyright is the legal protection of a creative work. The rights to use a creative work can legally be licensed, sold or assigned, and can be sub-divided in many ways. Some traditional rights are First North American serial rights (first time an article/story appears in a magazine), or book rights (often the territory for the rights may be restricted). In other words, the venue for the publication, the geographic location for the publication and almost anything else is negotiable. If both parties agree, it's a deal. If Jonah Lehrer told The New Yorker that his blog posts were part reprint and part original, there would have been no problem. Instead, he misrepresented his material and sold rights that he no longer had. But he did not plagiarize himself.

The General Conversation about Who Owns What

Photo copyright Darcy Pattison, 2012. All rights reserved.
Lake Ouachita, Arkansas. 2012.

This situation with Lehrer has sparked other conversations about copyrights. Kids and teachers freely copy music and text online. The addition of Creative Commons licenses makes it trickier.

But let’s be clear: the intent of the copyright laws are to protect the material created by authors, musicians, videographers, artists, etc.

This is necessary because without the ability to sell their work and make money, the level of creativity dies. Why should I work for three years on a novel that I just give away free? It makes no sense. Compensation for creative works is essential so we can live and eat and pay bills. The intent of copyright isn’t to deprive others of using something, it is to protect the possibility of creative people making a living from their creativity.

Depending on the source, researchers say that 1-5% of people actually create content online and the rest consume it. Those of us who create, spend our lives trying to be original, to entertain, to inform, to delight, to make money from what we do. You want to use our material because you choose not to create yourself, or you haven't developed the skills yet. We understand. It's taken us years of effort to get to the point where you actually want what we create.

So, please, don't copy. If you have a legitimate, non-commercial request, ask permission; I'll likely say yes. If you have a commercial request, please be ready to pay, just like you would expect from any other business.

Let me repeat: the intent of copyright is clear, to protect the rights of creative people, so we can make a living. Please, honor our copyrights.

Darcy Pattison blogs about how-to-write at Fiction Notes.


Margo Dill said...

Interesting post, Darcy--I hadn't heard about the NTY controversy, but I bet that guy never even thought about the whole "rights" issue, which is a whole other can of worms.

For everyone who has copyright questions, I am currently editing an issue for WOW! all about copyright laws/issues, and it will be in the July issue!

Thanks, again, Darcy.

Angela Mackintosh said...

It's funny that you mentioned this because we had a similar experience a while back. One of our blog tour hosts was upset because she found out the touring author had posted the same guest post elsewhere. She said, "She's an author who doesn't create original content for her blog tour stops and self-plagiarizes her own post word for word . . ." And I said, "Huh?" It was the first time I'd ever heard anyone use the term plagiarize about a person using her own work! Yes, that goes against the definition!

Anyway, the whole double post was something we don't allow on tours and an honest mistake from the author, but it blew my mind that this blogger was so dramatic about it. And it sounds like the people who called Lehrer a plagiarist are a bit over dramatic, too.

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