I. Thinking About Plagiarism
The recent accusation of plagiarism against the respected editor and columnist Fareed Zakaria shocked me twice. First, that someone whose writings I so admired, even if often in disagreement, could succumb to this crime against authors and readers. And then again, when I realized that a minor offense he had previously committed was also deemed by journalists plagiarism. Zakaria had quoted someone (accurately) without indicating who solicited that quote, as if he had conducted the interview rather than Jeffrey Goldberg (link). Thinking about his case and reading further about plagiarism made me reconsider the issue within Jewish law.
I wrote about plagiarism in the past (link) and some commenters pointed out holes in my presentation, offenses that I failed to consider. Let me try again, hopefully this time with a greater understanding of the issues.
Any accounting for plagiarism within Jewish law has to reckon with the blatant plagiarism of copyists and commentators. While even a novice yeshiva student is familiar with the frequent attributions of ideas within Jewish texts, the more advanced will recognize occurrences of blatant copying without attribution. How can plagiarism be forbidden when great rabbis of the past committed it?
Additionally, copying verbatim is only one form of plagiarism. Utilizing someone else’s witty phrase, insights or organization of ideas without attribution are other forms. Do these also breach any specific halakhic rule? Taking someone else’s work and building on it, perhaps even greatly improving it, is also plagiarism but requires clarification within Jewish law. Even if copyright is halakhically binding (discussed here), plagiarism often avoids the legal infraction. Are you allowed plagiarize from a book in the public domain?
II. A Brief History of Plagiarism
Wikipedia states that the concept of plagiarism began in the 18th century but Thomas Mallon shows that it was first invoked in the 17th. In his Stolen Words: The Classic Book on Plagiarism (pp. 3-11), Thomas Mallon places the inception of the concept of plagiarism somewhat earlier. The invention of the printing press created the professional writer, whose financial security required uniqueness and originality. Prior to then, imitation was the hallmark of good writing. But when a writer struggles for survival, every imitator steals food from his table.
The printing press changed society quickly but not overnight. As Mallon tells it, imitation still dominated in the sixteenth century but lone voices protested the stolen success of Shakespeare and others. The seventeenth century saw a growing concern for originality but confusion over what was and was not allowed. In the eighteenth century, the opposition to plagiarism hardened, culminating in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary defining it as “theft.”
While Mallon does not systematically cover recent developments, they seem to me significant. Professional societies have formalized and specialized the definitions of plagiarism, leading to different standards depending on the context. Important for the beginning of our discussion, the journalistic product is built on trust and therefore requires transparency of sources. Fareed Zakaria’s readers trust him and therefore may place greater trust in a quote if he personally elicited it. Or they may trust Jeffrey Goldberg more. Based on the consideration of trust, journalism’s standards for plagiarism are different than literary standards, which are in turn different from those of the visual arts, where imitation is more acceptable.
III. Plagiarism and Jewish Law
In my previous post on this subject (link), I listed three possible reasons to forbid plagiarism:
If plagiarism was previously halakhically acceptable, what changed to prohibit it? Presumably, the changing societal assumptions in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries created a new reality with halakhic implications. Let us look at the three reasons and assess the impact of this change.
The first two reasons to prohibit plagiarism are offenses against the original author while the third is a wrong to the reading public. If author generally permit copying from their work without attribution, then we can understand why doing so is not a prohibited show of ingratitude. While certainly the gesture is still an act of piety, the object of respect can always forgive the obligation (except for a king).
Similarly, the application of theft to plagiarism assumes that a writer is a creator who retains rights over his product. However, in a time when authors were not considered creators, they presumably did not reserve rights over their writings.
I am not entirely comfortable with this line of reasoning, because Judaism has long honored the originator of a creative Torah thought. While a writer may not have been considered a creator, the innovator of a Torah insight was. If so, why the haphazard attribution of novel Torah thoughts? Perhaps attitudes differed between cultures and writers.
The third reason is an offense against the readers, who would be misled that the author was more creative and talented than he really is. However, readers in a society in which originality is not assumed of writers would not draw conclusions about an author. They would recognize that his ideas may be entirely derivative.
IV. Societal Assumptions
The upshot of all this is that societal assumptions about authorship matter to Jewish law. If originality is prized and assumed, a plagiarist commits multiple violations. In earlier times, when it was not, plagiarism may have been entirely permitted, even if not ideal. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the earliest source I found for my earlier post was the Magen Avraham by R. Avraham Gombiner of the 17th century, who lived when general society began to accept concepts of authorship and plagiarism.
Additionally, the varying gradations of plagiarism also depend on societal assumptions. Today, even insular Jewish communities are so impacted by modern concepts of originality and ownership that plagiarism is forbidden everywhere. For example, quoting sources that you saw in a book but might not otherwise have discovered is certainly a misrepresentation of your own scholarship. And since many authors today publish books almost entirely devoid of insight, consisting instead of careful arrangement of earlier sources, they presumably want their teaching of that information to be properly acknowledged.
In conclusion, was Fareed Zakaria’s transgression forbidden by Jewish law? I think it might have been. His readers, or at least those aware of current journalistic standards, assumed that he conducted that interview. His failure to correct that misperception, as well as his display of ingratitude to Jeffrey Goldberg who expected acknowledgement, constitute violations of Jewish law. I suspect that theft does not apply but leave that for further consideration.