16 November 2004

Gladwell on copying

I read Malcolm Gladwell's recent article in The New Yorker on copyright and ownership called "Something Borrowed." It echoes many of this discussions I've seen recently around the Internet but that I hadn't read. Open-source, DRM, file-sharing--I'm immersed in it, yet I don't have a complete opinion or complete grounding on the subject.

There's a small lesson unrelated to the content of the article: I read Gladwell because he's a trusted source and has the credentials to offer level insight. Cryptographic systems such as those using signed public keys [Wikipedia] mimic the cachet of being published in The New Yorker (and its flaws). If you trust the signature, you trust the message. Aspects of Google's PageRank algorithm mimic my personal valuation of an article by Malcolm Gladwell. If I have read books or articles or have linked to Gladwell before, it's likely that his work will be relevant to me again. This shows that some of the best ideas in software are copied from our actions in the real-world.

Which brings us back to the article.

British playwright Bryony Lavery wrote a play called Frozen [Amazon] that was based in part on Dorothy Lewis's book Guilty by Reason of Insanity [Amazon] and Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker profile of Lewis titled "Damaged." Lewis eventually noticed the similarities and asked Gladwell to help her in her lawsuit. He eventually started feeling guilty about it as he began to question, and research, what should actually define plagiarism. He felt that, for the few sentences that were taken in their entirety (~675 words), the borrowing was fragmentary and flattering:

Almost as soon as I’d sent the letter, though, I began to have second thoughts. The truth was that, although I said I’d been robbed, I didn’t feel that way. Nor did I feel particularly angry. One of the first things I had said to a friend after hearing about the echoes of my article in “Frozen” was that this was the only way I was ever going to get to Broadway—and I was only half joking. On some level, I considered Lavery’s borrowing to be a compliment. A savvier writer would have changed all those references to Lewis, and rewritten the quotes from me, so that their origin was no longer recognizable. But how would I have been better off if Lavery had disguised the source of her inspiration?

He felt that fragments of his article re-purposed as dialog in a play was sufficiently different enough to be non-thievery. I got a copy of the script for “Frozen.” ... instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause. It's unfortunate that he emphasizes a value-judgment between magazine articles and plays--the relevance is not that one is grander than the other but that they are distinct.

Gladwell then recounts his discussions with various music afficionados as they enumerate the many similarities between distinct or not-so-distinct songs. At what point does a motif become a phrase? When do phrases become a melody? At what point is the unique statement created?

The final dishonesty of the plagiarism fundamentalists is to encourage us to pretend that these chains of influence and evolution do not exist, and that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and an eternal life.
[ posted by sstrader on 16 November 2004 at 5:52:44 PM in Culture & Society ]