Plagiarism, Attribution and Link Love

Imagine my surprise to suddenly be thrust by research from Our Bad Media, and a story in the Daily Beast, into the heart of a debate about plagiarism and the lack of attribution in Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article for my 1987 book Steve Jobs: The Journey is the Reward.

The detail provided at the site is compelling and impressive if one believes that plagiarism is some kind of crime.  I do not, certainly not in small passages such as the ones highlighted.  Others may see it differently but the doctrine of fair use seems to govern this.  My book is essentially the source book for every youthful story about the young princeling Steve Jobs. Every subsequent book, movie, many articles, and countless blog posts have lifted my material, sometimes with attribution most often without.  I’ve grown accustomed to reading new material about Steve and having a vague sense of deja read.  But does that mean I’ve been plagiarized?

I say no. I am far from outraged and indeed flattered that a writer of Gladwell’s caliber who I admire—with a distinctive and unique voice well worth reading—thought highly enough of my reporting and writing to use a small part of it in the heart of his own argument about the soul of innovation.   All working journalists know that this is a very slippery slope.  We all stand on the shoulders of others when we research our stories, and have to consider very carefully where legitimate background ends, and when credit is due.  In the past I’ve been criticized for only attributing material in footnotes, not in the body of a book, so perhaps I have a more nuanced view of this than others. 

I think the P word obscures the real issue here by unnecessarily freighting the discussion with negative connotations. In the digital long tail world of the Internet, I would argue that we should be talking about the A and L words: Attribution and Links.  This is where the issue lies for me. I am disappointed that The New Yorker neglected to attribute that material to my work, especially given its reputation for fact checking and authenticity. Giving credit requires only a handful of words, costs nothing, and takes no time. It is also at the heart of a significant debate within the educational community about authentic writing, as the Internet has made it exceptionally easy to cut and paste anyone else’s words. Ironically, another story at The Daily Beast about this brouhaha was even accompanied by a sponsored ad for software that promises to “Check Your Writing for Plagiarism”.

However it is the lack of the L word in the coverage of this that really dismays me, and perhaps demonstrates a way forward for all of us. The Daily Beast (nor of course The New Yorker) saw fit to link to the original source material of my fellow authors (Miles Wolff’s Lunch at the Five and Ten or John Sawyer’s article in the journal Explorations in Entrepreneurial History) or me.  I think this is the real crime here.  Is this laziness? Another example of how the Internet is changing everything so rapidly that civil society can’t keep up? A conscious editorial decision not to give authors a way to profit from their work while the poster’s publication profits from it?

Attribution and links should be the baseline for every writer, a generosity of spirit that is the very least we owe each and every one of us plying this unique and extraordinary profession, especially when others inspire us with their work.  But equally importantly, isn’t it exactly what we owe the community of readers who may want to read our original source material themselves? Isn’t that at the heart of the social contract we share, and can easily supply, in today’s Internet powered age?

I hope that out of all this we can move beyond the P word, into a better digital world, where attribution and links can help all writers reach more readers. I hope that Malcolm Gladwell and The New Yorker will use their bully pulpits to help forge this brave new world. All of us will benefit if this becomes the new gold standard for the digital age.