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When A Journalist’s ‘Borrowing’ Crosses The Line

Even schoolchildren know that copying another’s work is wrong. But for professional journalists, just what it is that constitutes “copying” can apparently get a little murky.

News commentator Fareed Zakaria drew some unwanted attention recently because of two incidents related to other writers. Time magazine, for which he is editor-at-large, and CNN, for which he is a commentator, both suspended Zakaria after media reporters pointed out that several paragraphs in his recent Time column closely resembled work by Harvard University history professor Jill Lepore published in the New Yorker this April. The Washington Post, for which Zakaria writes a separate column, has decided not to publish him this month.

Time and CNN both reinstated Zakaria yesterday. In a statement reported last night by The New York Times, a Time spokeswoman said Zakaria’s offending column was “an unintentional error and an isolated incident.”

While Zakaria apologized for lifting from Lepore, calling it “a terrible mistake,” he was himself a victim of sloppy journalism by the very newspaper that has just put him on one-month hiatus. The Post reported earlier this week that in a 2008 book, “The Post-American World,” Zakaria used a quote from Intel founder Andy Grove that another author, Clyde V. Prestowitz, gathered while researching his 2006 book, “Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Power to the East.” The Post said Zakaria “finally acknowledged” Prestowitz in an updated and expanded version of “The Post-American World” published last year.

But Zakaria’s publisher, W.W. Norton, pointed out that the original edition of Zakaria’s book gave Prestowitz credit for the Grove quote in a footnote. Zakaria himself may have forgotten that he did this, because he initially defended not attributing the quote as “standard practice” for the type of book in question.

On Wednesday The Post issued an editor’s note correcting its story. “The Post should have examined copies of the books and should not have published the article,” the correction stated. “We regret the error and apologize to Fareed Zakaria.”

Plagiarism is not, itself, a crime, though it can be an element of another offense, such as fraud or copyright infringement. Legally, nearly all cases involving plagiarism are civil matters in which someone who believes his or her work has been plagiarized seeks compensation. This is not to suggest plagiarism alone doesn’t, or shouldn’t, have serious consequences; plagiarism is treated especially harshly in the academic world. Nowadays, information moves so widely and so fast that the lines between academic standards, journalistic ethics, civil law and criminal law are being blurred. But that doesn't mean the lines are not there.

Plagiarism.org offers a definition of plagiarism as presenting someone else's work or ideas as one's own. That's an expansive definition. Presenting someone else's work as though you were its creator fits anybody's definition of plagiarism. However, more than one person can share an idea, a belief or an opinion. It is the unique individual expression of that idea that is copyrighted.

Plagiarism.org is a site operated by iParadigms, Inc., a company that offers anti-plagiarism services commercially to schools and others. It is not surprising that it takes a broad view of what constitutes plagiarism. It also, ironically, takes a broad view of what constitutes "fair use" when it compiles its own large database of student papers, which it uses to find evidence of student plagiarism.

Helen Gurley Brown died this week. I have not seen her death certificate, nor spoken to her doctors or family members. I know this because it has been widely reported in the press. I don't think I am committing an act of plagiarism by reporting this statement, or the fact that she was an influential author and magazine editor. Of course, if I quote liberally from her New York Times obituary without attribution I will be committing plagiarism, and if I simply republish that obituary, I will certainly have committed copyright infringement.

If President Obama gives a speech, and I read a news article about that speech and then comment on what the president said, will I commit plagiarism if I quote from the speech? No. The president's speech is freely available for all of us, including the newspaper and me, to cite and quote.

Zakaria acknowledged he crossed a line when he quoted a passage from Lepore's article nearly verbatim. But if he had worded his own passage differently, without having personally read the book that Lepore was describing, would it have been plagiarism? He was not writing a book review. Would the context have mattered?

On the other hand, Prestowitz interviewed Grove and subsequently quoted him in a book. If Zakaria had then used the quote in his own work without mentioning Prestowitz or Prestowitz' book, it would have been unfair to readers and to Prestowitz. The first author’s original work deserves recognition, and readers, who otherwise would not know that Zakaria himself did not conduct the Grove interview, deserve to know and evaluate his sources.

In the rush of daily life, when writers race to meet deadlines and synthesize stories and commentaries from a multitude of sources, it's easy to abuse someone else's work unintentionally. It may happen in this column from time to time, though never in ways that would damage another writer economically. If we use a direct quote, we try to always include a hyperlink to the source, for example - but it's possible to forget, or to insert a link that later stops working.

Plagiarism is a very strong word. It should not get thrown around for hyper-technical faults in citation, nor should it be applied with an overly broad brush.

But it's still an important concept. Time, CNN, The Washington Post and other outlets are right to publicly disavow it. If left unchecked, we would soon have no way to know where any information came from, or which news sources we should trust.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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