A. Our copyright
The word “plagiarism” is a heavy word, and when it gets in the news, it can even get rather ugly. I was very active in academic publications (over 400), where plagiarism was indeed a very serious topic. One of our very significant publications, at least to us, reported the positive relationship of vitamin D in the blood, to measured sunshine exposure, in children, the very first study in the world, as far as we know. In academia, investigators often think highly of any so-called “first study,” and we were very happy that the study was published, in a fine clinical research journal.
However, I was quite surprised, a decade or so later, to see a diagram in another journal, that exactly replicated this same relationship, using even the same graph we published. Every graphic dot we had earlier reported, was re-published, all under another author’s name (which I remember rather vividly)! I wrote a note to the primary author of our own paper, who had moved away from our institution, but to my surprise, she just blew it off, I guess because she had more important things to do than complain! I always thought it was strange to ignore this overt plagiarism, but I guess it’s all in the literature, and one could say that the truth is obvious anyway, who wrote what, at what times.
Let me just make sure we are on the same page, in terms of definition of plagiarism. “Plagiarize,” from Bing dictionary: take (the work or an idea of someone else) and pass it off as one’s own. As in “he was fined $6,000 for having plagiarized the song.” Synonyms: copy · pass off as one’s own · infringe the copyright of · pirate · steal · poach · borrow · appropriate · rip off · lift · crib · pinch · nick.
That should help us define the problem.
B. Public copyrights
If you were a celebrity, and always in the news, any plagiarism that is exposed can become a significant scandal. I remember the plagiarisms discovered in writings of the very famous Jane Goodall, who studied African apes for most of her life, and even President Obama. For a while it was prominent in the news, but in the context of world news, plagiarism scandals are soon forgotten. We can just Google the information, to find now forgotten stories that were quite clearly documented, but memories might not last too long. In fact, sometimes it seems like, in celebrity news, scandals could even cause, temporarily, more celebrity fame, more interesting news, and even greater book sales!
On a more somber note, occasionally you see pastors being charged with plagiarism. I think that, because they have to preach every Sunday, and pull materials from many sources, they might forget or overlook what portion of the talk is actually from another author, and what part of the talk is from themselves. And, when they put materials together to write a book or article, often based on previous talks, it’s easy, or convenient, or “sloppy” to forget to attribute the source. Of course, you could say that I’m just trying to be charitable. But it really is sad to see very effective preacher-authors who have to resign their ministries because of these mistakes. In fact, right here in Seattle, a well-known and excellent preacher had to do just that, and it caused great turmoil and division in his church.
Especially over the last few decades, people are more aware of this issue, and so even when hymns are sung at church, using projected songs on the screen, one cannot just use the writer’s hymn or song, without asking for some kind of (usually blanket) “permission.” In the “good old days,” we might have “just borrowed,” or I guess plagiarized the song, without actually thinking about its source, it’s original authorship. And of course, we recognize that there are many versions of even the Bible, which now have to be acknowledged before directly quoting from it! Again, who would have thought in the old days that you would have to seriously acknowledge the specific version of the Bible! So that we don’t “infringe on someone’s copyright.”
C. What copyrights?
All this is however in great contrast to the ease with which information is widely available on the Internet, say on Facebook and Instagram, from which pictures and information can be freely copied and sent all over the world, without necessarily anyone’s permission.
And many governments, especially those who are very restrictive, now readily copy your basic life information including photographs of you, whenever you pass official checkpoints, like at immigration and border outposts. Of course, nobody asks for your permission to do this, and it’s surprisingly well accepted. Copyright issues don’t seem to be relevant, somehow. Or maybe there is no choice anyway! Even hotels in many countries just glibly copy your passport information, in the back room behind the receptionist desk, without ever telling you. No-one ever breathes the word “copyright.” And you can be sure the governments behind these hotels keep a tab on all this!
D. Copyright stories
As I was writing my “Coffee with Uncle Reggie” books, I came to realize that some pictures that I took off the Internet, were strictly speaking, not supposed to be just reprinted. So, I had to use tools such as Google Safe Search or Pixa, in order to find pictures that allowed copies to be freely reprinted. In the past, when I wrote many scientific articles, I was well aware of the need for specific citations of other articles, which might number in the hundreds for a scientific article. But I didn’t really fully realize, at first, that Internet pictures, though widely available in public, also had (not totally clear) rules about copying them for publication! But now I know better, and my publisher makes sure to remind me!
Further, all this is really a reminder to us that when any original news is transmitted, there indeed might be also a problem of distortion of the original, just like in the famous trick of whispering a message in your ear, to transmit a message to a series of persons down the line. Thus, ideally, for serious information, it seems quite important to check out an original reference if possible. Any reproduction closer in time or sequence to the original is usually considered more reliable, and reduces any transmission error. This obviously is important especially in hand copied historical documents, such as scripture texts.
Jesus is acclaimed by many, especially the one third of the world who are Christians, as the greatest teacher ever; and even by the 25 percent of the world that are Islamic, as one of the world’s 5 greatest teachers. One of the hallmarks of his teaching was His frequent use of stories that related to common people of the day. People could readily understand his stories, and therefore the messages, often remembering even the details of his stories. An effective form of communicating for all cultures. And, ideally, stories can be re-told, or loosely speaking, even well plagiarized, again and again.
Just try telling a story to a child, with detailed descriptions of the characters and plot, and you will be surprised that usually the child can repeat the story, detail by detail, to you again. And, if you repeat the story but mess up the details, she might even correct you. A child can be a stickler for accuracy, just like a detective, or true scholar! Also, how many times have you yourself sat in a church, but forgot the message, yet remembered a story in some detail. That’s actually a very strong reason for my telling stories of real lives, since they might have direct implications for life, and even be better remembered.
And in today’s world, with the Internet, in theory, my articles and stories might be around for a while, traveling around and around, as others might send it anywhere, “virally,” which is a polite way of saying “plagiarized quickly.” A good virus, a good plagiary. And, who knows where the stories end up! So, go ahead and “plagiarize” my stories, tell them again and again, and I will be so pleased! Permission granted! With or without attribution of source! I will assume your good intentions, to encourage others, for which I thank you… Just be good to my Uncle Reggie Stories…