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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Copy-paste culture

    “”PLAGARIST!”” This was the latest salvo penned by the Clinton propaganda machine, denouncing several portions of Sen. Barack Obama’s stump speech Saturday as eerily similar to those made by former Masssachusetts Governor Kerry Healey two years ago.

    Never mind that the words were ad-libbed and never written as his own, never mind that the governor had absolutely no problem with the use of his words, never mind that the few sentences were completely ancillary to the broader speech; according to the Clinton camp, “”He’s breaking his promises and his rhetoric isn’t his own.””

    Of course, as Sen. Hillary Clinton should know, this sort of plagiarism is a rich tradition in politics. As a former Goldwater girl, she should be especially in tune with this custom. Barry Goldwater is often associated with his famous declaration: “”I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”” These are powerful words; it’s too bad they weren’t his. His speechwriters said that the words came from Thomas Paine, who wrote that, “”Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.”” But it’s not impossible that Paine took his cue from the orator Cicero, who declared that, “”I must remind you, Lords, Senators, that extreme patriotism in the defense of liberty is no crime, and let me respectfully remind you that pusillanimity in the pursuit of justice is no virtue in a Roman.”” It seems as though her staff is continuing this tradition, although rather than Cicero they take phrases, such as, “”Yes, she can!”” and, “”Fired up and ready to go,”” from a more modern orator, one Barack Obama.

    On the surface, the “”controversy”” seems devoid of meaning, a sort of sideshow exhibit to keep the mouths of the pundits wagging for a few more days. For college students, though, the accusation has far greater meaning. According to the Los Angeles Times, a full 30 percent of college students have plagiarized some of their work. Even those who don’t still must not only go through professorial diatribes decrying this culture of copy-paste, but through the prying eyes of programs such as Turnitin.com. A columnist at Texas Tech’s student newspaper the Daily Toreador illustrated the problem a few weeks ago when he plagiarized wide sections for a piece on … plagiarism. Of course, these holier-than-thou professors are hardly free from the phenomenon. In 2004, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a damning exposé on plagiarism in academia, providing a wide sampling of flagrant plagiarism that few students would even consider attempting.

    Most of us accept the principle that “”plagiarism is bad,”” but deeper down we find cognitive dissonance, based on the free use of ideas that surround us. The predominant musical genre of our generation (hip-hop) is based largely on the use of samples, which is essentially the copying of another artist’s work and using it in a completely new way. A good portion of our entertainment comes from “”mash-up”” videos on YouTube that use copy-paste methodology to form amusing juxtapositions. Online profiles that are especially witty are copied en masse by others. Collaborative, or “”open source”” construction, ranging from program design to Wikipedia entries, is redefining how everything is created.

    The problem ultimately comes down to a distinction between plagiarism and collage, a distinction between calling someone else’s ideas your own and respecting the ideas of others while at the same time using them in a unique manner. While citing everything we ever think defeats the purpose, refusing to recognize intellectual property rights ultimately denies the essential idea of individual creation. What is a student with a paper, a politician with a speech, a professor with a thesis, a businessman with a presentation to do?

    If you remember (copy) one thing from this column, may it be this simple dictum of Socrates: Know thyself. Only you, the creator, ultimately know the answer to these questions. You know when you copy, and you know when you use. Never copy, and never worry; not even Turnitin.com can debase a clean conscience.

    The status quo remains, however, and students will still have to juggle a litany of citation formats and cockamamie checking programs. By remembering Socrates’ basic principle, we will all save ourselves a lot of trouble.

    Evan Lisull copied this entire column from Wikipedia. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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