Sunday, November 13, 2005

Plagiarism is a natural wrong

That's the flip side of supposing a natural right to intellectual property. And another approach to the same conclusion. If the obvious wrongness of theft establishes a natural right to physical property, then the obvious wrongness of plagiarism equally establishes a natural right to intellectual property.

Actually plagiarism is worse than theft. Unlike physical property, owned intellectual property--as opposed to licensed or leased intellectual property--is only superficially alienable. We can fly you by plane half way around the world from your ancient farmland, pave it over and make it a Disney Land. But nothing we can do will make you cease to be the author of your creations.

The only thing so little alienable as authorship is life itself, putting plagiarism in a category with murder. While we think that dispossessing someone of land or personal property can sometimes be right and just, killing someone is never better than justifiable. Same with plagiarism. To whatever extent we might care to waive or suspend the sentence, plagiarism remains a crime.

So I think we ought to distinguish plagiarizing someone who is alive from plagiarizing someone who is dead. The latter is like the desecration of a corpse, which is rightly a lesser offense than murder. The same should go for plagiarizing someone from another world or culture. Note though that opportunities for such lesser offenses diminish as the world becomes more wired and developed. There are perhaps a few native Amazonian and Papuan love ballads you might plagiarize with minimal risk of harm, but most authors alive now would benefit from a share in at least the monetary earnings of their creations. The honorary degree they could care less about.

3 comments:

L said...

Hey, I like your blog. You have some interesting thoughts. But what is your definition plagiarism? If it's the normal one -- the wrongful appropriation or purloining, and publication as one's own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical, etc.) of another (oed.com) -- I'm going to have to disagree with you here. It's pretty easy to establish the claim that you wrote it first, and that's all it takes to reclaim your idea and gain back the admiration of the unwashed masses. It's still wrong, but it's not irreversible.

Murky Thoughts said...

It's true that being able to mitigate the crime to the victim is a difference between plagiarism and murder, but I'm not sure it makes the crime any less natural. Less dastardly, sure. But less natural? That's the great thing about making claims about human nature. They can never be disproved. There's no safer hobby.

Murky Thoughts said...

Point being (in case not obvious) that perhaps information doesn't "want to be free" and that there is something natural about IP rights. It's become fashionable to argue the opposite lately.