Plagiarism: copy/paste considered harmful to the source. Learn by copying effectively.

We learn by copying, we routinely copy nature and our fellow creatures and brag about it with great fanfare. Education systems around the world are institutionalised way of teaching people how to systematically copy someone or something. We buy books in order to copy what is written inside of them. I can go on, but I am just trying to understand something here. We copy without us even noticing it, anything that leaves a lasting impression on us might automatically be copied by our brains without us consciously trying. If we weren’t allowed to copy, learning would practically become impossible.

The act of copying starts to become reprehensible if it would seem to be giving an unfair advantage to an undeserving someone. There are acceptable ways of copying others, and the rest is unacceptable.

Considering the well published cases out there, one wonders where the society at large is going. If you sell fruits on a stall right in front of your house and people seem to be buying them, soon a neighbour will setup a stall in front of their doors and put up fruits for sale. This has been going on for a very long time and the society usually accepts it within some bounds. But we have evolved, become sophisticated at making the most of our ideas, denying that fact is myopic if not naive.

Open source developers and people who blog about programming actively encourage copying their work, they usually ask for some small contribution, attribution is a minimum. I am sure there are tens of thousands of commercial work which have open source material included in them, you usually see in software “About” window how the authors give credit where due. In some instances, when people copy snippets of program from blog posts or derive algorithms from techniques described on web sites, credit may not be prominently visible. What I often see is that somewhere, an acknowledgement is made available. Open source and technical blogging are amongst the most potent advocate of learn-by-copying, in fact the participants wish for network effect to lift their work to higher levels. In this way, you must copy to be part of the game, but as ever, it is really about give and take. So copying is part of the learning.

If you blog or that you write thoughts on any medium that is publicly accessible, there is a high chance that someone may copy you and not consider any form of attribution, because ego or possible financial advantages might be motivating them. In social media, ego also plays out in a somewhat subtle way, individuals with a bit of fame of their own may not want to acknowledge people who aren’t famous, possibly because they may not feel a strong kinship with less famous people. Plagiarism perpetrated by a famous person in this situation might be, if caught, denounced by the community at large, showing their indignation. Such form of copying isn’t also about learning, it may be seen as a form of immoral exploitation of less well-off people.

Copying is often a natural act, inherent to our nature or induced via Learning (capital ‘L’). Intentionally copying others, as you do when you lift material from someone else’s work, will lead to the sort of dispute we see happening now. For example, the person robbing someone else’s property is aware of the prejudice being caused to the subject. The many forms of plagiarism feel that way, that is why plagiarism has nothing to do with learning.

I set out to write my own thoughts here, but I also read a lot of people, so I’m sure I may be copying someone’s ideas in some ways, but I don’t intentionally try to copy material without attribution. It would be flat out wrong if I would copy/paste material from someone else’s medium without acknowledging the source, this is why I sometimes drop a draft If I come across prior work that resembles it too much. I remember a case when a (not brilliant) former colleague of mine asked my thoughts on a subject, then copied and pasted my entire response email content in their blog post without giving me any credit. The guy didn’t think much of it and actually walked around bragging about ‘his great idea’, given how he was presenting himself I knew he just a poor sod to be ignored. You routinely see more prominent bloggers sticking it up to folks who copy them without attribution, Marco Arment was effective doing this on Twitter a short while back. Those are instances where copying have nothing to do with learning.

PS: This post was initially inspired by the current Apple vs. Samsung legal dispute, with no intention to take sides. But, just as I was drafting this post, I saw in my twitter stream, several posts by Matt Gemmell, which seem to be a related case. I would normally withhold publishing this post for fear it’d be seen as link baiting, but I won’t mind because that wasn’t (and isn’t) my intention. I’ll wait a couple of ways before tweeting it, however.

I wish some thoughts leaders would tackle this theme, we have much to learn from discussing the issue.

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