Who Owns Our Words?

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For artists and writers, their creativity is their livelihood. The ideas that sprout from their heads are what put bread on the table and rent checks and mortgage payments in the mail. But even more crucially, artists and writers bring themselves into their creation, so when someone is plagiarized, it’s not just stealing money – it’s almost like stealing a very part of who they are.

And yet once someone’s words are now out in the world, how much do those words become public domain for anyone to use? In a world where we are not only consumers, but producers, where does borrowing end and plagiarism begin?

That’s a question that Malcolm Gladwell raises in an essay called “Something Borrowed.” The 2004 Broadway play “Frozen” is, in large part, about a psychiatrist who studies serial killers. And nearly 675 words were taken almost directly from a 1997 New Yorker article entitled “Damaged” that Gladwell himself had written. And he asks – is plagiarism the same thing as stealing?

As he says:

“Words belong to the person who wrote them. There are few simpler ethical notions than this one…[and] plagiarism has gone from being bad literary manners to something much closer to a crime. When, two years ago, Doris Kearns Goodwin was found to have lifted passages from other historians, she was asked to resign from the board of the Pulitzer Prize Committee. And why not? If she had robbed a bank, she would have been fired the next day.” (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 225-226)

But that idea–that plagiarism is simply stealing–assumes that we own the words we speak. Yet once we have written something down, or created a piece of music, or painted a picture, it now becomes open for anyone to enjoy, to learn from, and to be inspired by. Ideas are not like physical objects–they naturally get expanded upon, interpreted, and used in other forms. So how much do we “own” the words we speak?

The Importance of Proper Attribution

If we do “own” the words we speak, then we need to make sure that the right people get the credit they deserve. And the Rabbis of the Talmud were close to obsessed with giving proper attribution to ideas and quotes. That’s why so many Jewish texts start by saying, “Rabbi So-and-So said in the name of Rabbi Such-and-Such…” But why are the Rabbis so concerned with giving proper attribution?

Posted on November 17, 2011
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