After broaching the topic of whether something that we all tend to agree is wrong (blackmail) should be illegal, I came across a comment on Pharyngula that, in the wake of the Avicenna plagiarism case, challenges another a popular belief, this time that plagiarism is wrong. Here is what commenter chimera said:
I don’t at all get what’s wrong with plagiarism unless you’re earning money or glory for someone else’s work. Our words, every single word, our thoughts, our statements are always just recombinations of other people’s words. It’s not like reporting on current events is high literature and you’re stealing someone else’s genius. Citing your sources is a courtesy. I believe in courtesy and also practice it and encourage others to do so when the occasion presents itself but that’s quite different from shunning and banning for copy and paste of news reports!
Rather than dismissing this view as obviously wrong, it might be worthwhile to use it to clarify exactly why plagiarism is wrong.
We could say that using someone else’s words without proper attribution violates an ethical principle but usually such principles are based on some actual harm that arises from violating it. We say something is wrong if it enables someone to gain a tangible benefit that is unearned or because it harms someone else.
For the first consideration of gaining an unearned benefit, let’s leave aside the case of Avicenna and FtB for the moment since the advertising on the site does generate revenue so the blogger does benefit (however slightly) from their writing, and consider the case of a blogger who does not accept advertising and thus makes no money from their writing. So that person does not benefit, at least directly and tangibly, from the act of plagiarism.
What about the other consideration of harm? What concrete harm accrues to the person who has been plagiarized? After all, the original author of the words has not suffered any direct harm either. Although plagiarism is often described as stealing someone’s words or ideas, the analogy is not quite exact since stealing an object or money results in one person losing something. Here the original author still retains their words and ideas.
So is this a case of no harm, no foul? In not, where is the harm?
I think that the benefit and harm here is indirect. The plagiarizer is presumably gaining an enhanced but unearned reputation that may enable them to be able in the future to earn money that they are not entitled to and even be in competition with the original author, while by not being cited, the latter loses publicity that might enable them to be more successful as a writer in the future.
That is the best benefit/harm argument against plagiarism that I can come up with at short notice that does not appeal to an abstract ethical principle. Although I am totally against plagiarism, the case against it in the narrow circumstances I described does seem a little weak. Perhaps this is another case (like with blackmail) where we decide it is wrong first on grounds that might not be totally rational, and then find reasons why it is so.
Anyone able to come up with stronger reasons to condemn plagiarism in the narrow case of an little known writer who is not paid for their writing?