Links and Plain Old Plagiarism

Sometimes an opportunity or a trend just hits you over the head every which way.  You guessed it: time for a blog entry on the topic of plagiarism, or maybe we call it links, pingback, copy and borrowed. 

(As an aside: plagiarize is one of my favorite English words. I learned it as a teenager listening to Tom Lehrer songs and was mighty proud to know such a difficult word – the song in question is on YouTube.  If you don’t know Tom Lehrer – you must! Harvard mathematics professor fired for singing political songs back in the 50ies and 60ies; darkly funny, cynical and on the money with his social observations.)

To the point: I met with a serial entrepreneur last week. We were connected through an acquaintance. I had looked at his LinkedIn profile, looked at his newest venture and figured he’d be interesting enough to meet.  We met and turns out he’s a twenty something. I went back to his bio on LinkedIn and looked at the dates more carefully.  It seems this young man has achieved more since high school than most of us will in a live time. He told me that he didn’t want to waste his time with University he had too many ideas of what he wanted to do so he DID them. 

I visited his blog and found a profoundly funny and interesting infographic on getting things done (I’m a fan of that; getting things done I mean), some of the infographic. I do not agree with but that’s beside the point.  On a second visit to his blog, now with a bit more time on hand to read further I see that the infographic is linked to a different source. Totally legit, but still, I felt a tiny bit put off, because for that 12-or so hour span in-between I thought he was beyond brilliant – which I’m sure he is, but not THAT brilliant – as in coming up with THAT infographic.  I was wondering if I’m just too naïve, or if I missed the point somehow.  

I subscribe to the wildly popular Swiss Miss blog, not only because I know Tina (she designed the first Clock Wise Website back in the 90ies), but also because her blog is a collection of all things design – and her taste is towards the clutter-free, clean, minimal, fun and very sophisticated.  Through her blog posts I found another design blog that I liked enough to subscribe to it as well, only to find out that I looked at the same content every once in a while. Are there enough readers or subscribers for both to duplicate? It seems so.  Do they copy from each other, or do the same people submit their ideas to both. I guess the latter. 

It begs the question however, where does link end and plagiarize start? Is this a cultural phenomenon or a generational one?  Are we faster to read a visual image and to ‘link’ it to the publisher without paying attention much to its true origin?  Why do the links on Swiss Miss not bother me and why was I bothered with the infographic on the serial entrepreneur’s blog?

It’s all about trust and context.  Today’s hyperlinks are the footnotes of yesteryear.  The difference is that formats of delivery and context change from blog to blog.  With the overflow of information I choose a few blogs and newsletter to deliver information (of whatever kind) and with that I curate content and I do so by choosing trusted sources (see earlier blog entry on trust agents).  Swiss Miss is a trusted agent and her blog is set within the context of: “I show you the design world through my eyes”. Naturally that means she goes out and curates for me, the reader, and I know that I’m looking at other people’s work (be it jewelry, art, design elements or furniture). On the other hand the young serial entrepreneur is not a trust agent (yet) and so with I was missing context. 

But there is also the cultural versus the generational phenomenon.  Americans are much more at ease in passing along a great idea without much concern about, or burden of crediting the source.  A Swiss person would much more so be reluctant to pass an idea along without making sure it was clear that they really aren’t the brilliant ones to come up with the idea in the first place – this modesty also creates a buffer of “not my idea originally” when it falls flat. 

As for the generational difference: stuff gets shared and if possible for free, this holds true for my generation to a big degree, but even more so for a younger generation of millennia, irrespective of culture. Not only geographical boundaries are taken down by the World Wide Web (sic), but also intellectual property rights are fuzzy at best, and I’m not talking about the major film studios, record labels and publishers. Context is important and ‘knowing’ your source.    

The moral of the story:  make the context of your blog entries crystal clear, hyperlink diligently and only plagiarize when you’re sure the idea is beyond brilliant and you WANT to be credited for it (oh, and take some error and omissions insurance out).