The rights and wrongs of copying

18th January, 2024

Should we worry that Rachel Reeves, who is likely to become the UK’s first female chancellor of the exchequer, will be a “cut-and-paste chancellor”? When my colleague Soumaya Keynes reviewed Reeves’s book, The Women Who Made Modern Economics, she stumbled upon a sentence that copied an uncredited source almost verbatim. It wasn’t hard to find several other examples of what most people would regard as plagiarism.

This is embarrassing for Reeves, but then again it would have also been embarrassing if she had instead been caught paying a stingy tip in a restaurant, or not returning a book to a library. Moments of carelessness or disregard for others are unbecoming. Although: he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.

I am more interested in what the kerfuffle teaches us about copying and creativity in an age of information abundance. Let’s start with this sentence: “Laurencina was the daughter of a Liverpool merchant, Lawrence Heyworth, whose own family had been weavers at Bacup in Lancashire.” This sentence appeared on a website, Rethinking Poverty, before migrating — with only a different spelling of Lawrencina — to Reeves’s book.

That’s awkward. Yet it is hardly the theft of a significant idea. The biographical detail about the father of the mother of the economist Beatrice Webb is trivial. It is exactly the kind of thing most researchers would happily learn from a single credible source. A wiser writer (or research assistant) would have simultaneously concealed the borrowing in the text and acknowledged it in the endnotes. But this quickstep is a defensive manoeuvre aimed at protecting the author’s reputation for integrity (a reputation which, in the case of Reeves, has rightly been tarnished). The Rethinking Poverty website would earn no traffic either way, and the reader simply does not care.

The whole game of intellectual ownership here has been so stylised that it is hard to discern the purpose, even if we all recognise the rules. For example, when the second paragraph of this column lifted 13 words verbatim from the King James Bible, was that plagiarism? Obviously not. But only because everyone knows that I was quoting from the Bible. If the copying is blatant enough, it is no longer plagiarism but homage.

It feels like there should be a simple rule that we could apply, for example, “don’t copy other people’s work”. But as Kirby Ferguson argues in his glorious video essay, “Everything is a Remix”, “copying is at the core of creativity and the core of learning”. Star Wars uses ideas from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and even Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, but it would be fatuous to suggest that either a creative or an economic sin had thereby been committed.

Our confusion about the rights and wrongs of copying is partly because there are so many different ingredients in our soup of intuitions. If I were to print 10,000 copies of Reeves’s book, sell them and keep the revenue, I would be committing one form of intellectual property theft, indirectly stealing money from her and her publisher. If instead I printed “by Tim Harford” on the cover, I would be committing a different form of mischief.

In cases of academic plagiarism, the concern is different again. Teachers are not worried about student plagiarism because they fear someone will be deprived of royalties, but because plagiarism undermines the education process: it tempts the student not to bother studying and makes it hard for the teacher to assess the student’s accomplishments.

For these reasons, it is hazardous to offer a blanket opinion about the rights and wrongs of copying, but let me unwisely do so anyway: I think we fuss too much about it. In the long run, student plagiarists are mostly harming themselves, and so we should discourage them from plagiarism for the same reason that we discourage them from binge drinking or unprotected sex: for their own good.

Copyright exists for a good reason, and it is not to maximise the income of anyone who owns the rights to an act of creation: it is to balance the incentive to create ideas against the right to enjoy or build on the ideas of others. As I’ve argued before, copyright protection is needlessly broad and long, favouring a tiny minority of wealthy creators at the expense of our broader creative culture.

As for the kind of authorial plagiarism of which Reeves is so plausibly accused, we fuss too much about that too. Isn’t it odd that a book can be shallow and derivative without plagiarising — and that a book can also contain plagiarism while being deep and original? It suggests that the kind of plagiarism you can detect with software or a keen eye on Wikipedia might not be the kind of imitation that really matters.

As Malcolm Gladwell argued nearly 20 years ago in The New Yorker, it is absurd to pretend that writing or any other creative act is an act of solitary inspiration, in which no other influences are present. Given that writers will always build on the words of other writers, it is also slightly silly to insist that what matters most is to plaster over the building blocks so they cannot be discerned behind a shallow facade of new phrases. (Gladwell was subsequently accused of plagiarism in later pieces for The New Yorker.)

It is both wise and polite to acknowledge your sources of inspiration, but neither foolishness nor rudeness is a hanging offence. I think a little less of Reeves now, but only a little. And as for the “cut and paste chancellor”? Spare us. Running the finances of the British state is a challenging job, which calls for many qualities. The ability to fake originality isn’t one of them.  

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 26 January 2023.

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