Plagiarising the Whatever

A question from e-mail:

I would be interested in reading about your experiences with people who plagiarize your entries to the Whatever. I’ve been reading a few other bloggers who are dealing with the issue and I’d just like to see how this has been with you and your blog.

To be honest, I can’t think of a situation where I think someone’s plagiarised a Whatever entry. There have been a couple of times when people have cut-and-pasted an entire entry of mine into their own blogspace, most notably with the “Being Poor” entry, but even in those instances they’ve usually linked back either to me or to the place where they originally found the entry. That’s not plagiarism, because there’s no attempt to hide the fact they didn’t write it. It is a massive copyright violation — no interpretation of fair use includes a simple cut-and-paste of an entire entry — but generally speaking I find it difficult to care if some random dude does a cut-and-paste onto his personal site, particularly if he links back.

Also, here’s the thing: The couple of times where someone has cut-and-pasted something I wrote into their blog without attribution, someone has popped up in the comments and said “hey, John Scalzi wrote that. You should credit him.” And then — pop — up comes the attribution. No, those commenters are not me working through a sock puppet. It’s simply that enough people read my stuff online that people recognize what I’ve written, even if it’s on someone else’s site.

In a larger sense I don’t think there’s much incentive to plagiarize online, anyway. 99% of plagiarism as far as I can see comes primarily out of two desires: To make one’s self look smart to friends, and to get a good grade while avoiding actual work. Well, people generally aren’t being graded on their blogs and journals, and the blogosphere’s value system is such that you get almost as much credit for finding something smart and clever and sharing it with your friends as you would for writing something smart and clever. Most people are content to excerpt and link, and of course I am pleased when they do.

Off the Internet, it’s possible that kids are plagiarising my Whatever entries for school papers or whatever, but I don’t know how much of a good idea that is. My site is regularly spidered by Turnitin.com and other plagiarism-detection services, so anyone who copies something I write wholesale into their own paper stands a good chance of being caught if their professor uses any of these services. So kids: Don’t. Just don’t. Cite me and put the URL in a footnote. It keeps you from having to explain why you suddenly write like a 37-year-old shut-in living in rural America.

Students aren’t the only plagiarists, of course; sometimes pro writers and authors will nip in a few passesages from other favorite writers here and there, because of deadlines or stress or whatever excuse seems most convenient at the time. As far as I know, no one has yet attempted this with me. I am occasionally quoted by newspaper columnists (the Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn does this from time to time), but being quoted is nice and good, and I’m happy when it happens. But wholesale lifting of work? Nope. Not that I know about. If it were to happen, my first inclination would be to contact the writer and give them a chance to “correct” their lack of attribution rather than report them to their bosses. If they got all snotty about it, then there would be trouble. But generally speaking I’m not in a rush to end someone’s career because they did something that is stupid but probably harmless. Call me a softie.

As far as I know, I have not myself plagiarised anyone. But I have been drinking a lot of cough syrup recently. And I have deadlines. And I’m under a lot of strees. I could do it any time now. I apologize in advance for my possible future plagiarising misdeeds.