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Cory Doctorow on the Difference Between Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement

Synchronicity is a funny thing.

This morning, in deliberating what topic I should take up next on this blog, a question occurred to me: Why are so many advocates of unfettered file-sharing and/or online piracy also clearly outraged by acts of plagiarism?

As it happens, science fiction author/blogger Cory Doctorow provided a pretty solid answer to that question in an article of his own, a matter of hours before I began to contemplate asking it here.

I’ve read a good deal of Doctorow’s commentary on intellectual property-related subjects over the years, and while I don’t always agree with his conclusions, he’s clearly a very bright, very perceptive guy, and one who I think brings a strong sense of intellectual honesty to the table, even when he’s making points that I disagree with.

Doctorow’s brief article cites the controversy surrounding a cover version of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back by the Fox show Glee… with the controversy being that Glee’s ‘version’ is virtually identical to Jonathan Coulton’s cover of the same song, and Fox didn’t see it fit to credit Coulton in any way, shape or form.

No matter where you fall in the ongoing debate over copyright in the Internet Age, you have to agree it was a pretty shameful act on Fox’s part, and as Doctorow notes, it’s one that highlights the essential difference between the way plagiarism is viewed by the web-using public, and the way that online piracy is viewed by the same.

As Doctorow puts it:

Why does Fox’s sin stick in the internet’s craw? I think it’s because Fox hasn’t just wronged Coulton: they’ve wronged the public. We have been misled about the origin of a product we’re being asked to purchase.

This is different from, say, a fake designer handbag that’s offered as a cheap knockoff, where there’s no intent to fool the purchaser, who understands that a 99% discount on a Vuitton bag means that it’s really a “Vuitton” bag.

While I’m not sure I see the distinction between a knockoff Louis Vuitton bag and a plagiarized song as being quite as clear as Doctorow does, I think he’s hit the nail on the head as to how many members of the public distinguish between copyright infringement and plagiarism; in the former, the identity of the originator of the work is (usually at least) not obscured by the pirate, whereas the plagiarist truly claims the original work as his own.

I’m not about to change my position on whether copyright infringement is a bad thing, but thanks to Doctorow, I think I now understand why so many consumers and web users don’t bat an eye over content piracy, but will raise hell when plagiarism rears its ugly, counterfeited head.