Far from “Free” of fault

In a post earlier today, I reflected on Chris Anderson’s description in his book “Free” of why Wikipedia has been such a successful method of gathering and distributing content for free. But there are less legitimate ways to distribute content at little or no cost, including piracy and plagiarism. “Free” discusses one of these options, and seems to practice the other.

“China is a country where piracy has won,” the book states. It describes two different pop stars, one Taiwanese and one Chinese, whose CDs sell briskly in China – albeit mainly in pirated copies for which the singers don’t get paid a single yuan. Making nothing on most of their CD sales, the singers instead earn a living by giving concerts. And, the book argues, the popularity of all those pirated CDs builds up a fan base that is willing to shell out money for concert tickets. The provocative conclusion: “Piracy is a form of zero-cost marketing.”

There is some truth to this. But the full truth is that the hard-working artists have made the best of a bad situation and managed to eke some advantage out of the wrongdoing of the pirates. This incidental benefit does not make the pirates’ actions any less wrong. Pirates are thieves. In his enthusiasm for the “free economy,” Anderson breezes over this central moral issue.

A more troubling moral issue, which has spoiled my enthusiasm for this book, is plagiarism.

Plagiarism is even worse than piracy. While pirates do at least spread the name of the creator whose work they are copying, plagiarists must hide the creator’s name. No one would ever say, “Plagiarism is a form of zero-cost marketing.”

Waldo Jaquith, Web Editor for The Virginia Quarterly Review, wrote an official VQR blog post  in which he alleges that the book contains least “several dozen suspect passages” that seem to have been copied from other sources, without attribution. (Ironically, Wikipedia was prominent among those sources.) He then goes on to illustrate seven of them, placing Anderson’s text and the apparent source side by side, with the identical words highlighted. It’s pretty damning.

He also printed Anderson’s reply, which included this key line: “All those are my screwups after we decided not to run notes as planned, due to my inability to find a good citation format for web sources…”

This is no excuse, and it just barely qualifies as an explanation.

One of my pet peeves is the current tendency for nonfiction books to be printed without footnotes or endnotes. (Just as annoying are hopelessly vague ones, along the lines of “Material in this chapter came from the following 20 sources.” Which material goes with which sources?) When I do read a book that has no notes, I tend to assume that when the author doesn’t cite someone else within the text, it means that the author himself is speaking. I’m kind of old-fashioned that way.

At worst, Anderson committed a writing sin that may have been made easier by the “Free”-era mentality that intellectual property belongs to everyone and no one, and that it’s no big deal to stamp your own name on it. At best, he tripped himself up by indulging in a no-note trend that needs to be resisted.

Either way, it’s disappointing.

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