using others’ information

stylized photo of malcolm gladwell

There are defensible reasons for disliking Malcolm Gladwell (too glib!) and bad reasons for disliking him (too successful!). But this is the reason that irritates me the most:

Gladwell has used information from others without attribution, often in language that closely resembles the source. […] There is one possible escape clause for Gladwell here–something that could absolve him of any guilt or plagiarism charge. Many journalists–especially magazine writers–have for decades subscribed to the idea that the use of established facts does not require attribution. […] I’ve long been troubled by the use of unattributed material with the excuse that it’s already been disseminated and established. When does the need for attribution fall away? Where do we draw the line?

The example cited is about the specifics of an old public works project–a particular┬átunnel’s length and cost, its difficulty and progress. It’s taken from a hard-to-find book of economic history by John E. Sawyer, which was published in 1952. Gladwell could have and probably should have provided attribution to Sawyer–it’s hard to see what the downside would have been.

But it’s also hard to see the downside to what happened. Jack Sawyer has been dead for twenty years. Gladwell’s offense, if there is one, has been committed against our collective sensibilities, not against a person.

There are good reasons to consider plagiarism bad. Enforcing rules of fair play within the writing professions makes sense as an economic necessity. But proof of copying is not proof of deprivation. Adding a moral dimension to the prosecution of victimless crimes requires an unpleasant meanness of spirit.

I feel a bit sad whenever someone is drummed out of office for, say, a lifted graduation speech or some other misappropriation that isn’t the crux of their job. I’m sure that I, too, would be disappointed to learn that the greatness of words I admired was borrowed, and I would want to punish the speaker, to reclaim my misapplied esteem. But why? We can make all the words and esteem we want.

The idea that facts belong to someone is crazy. It’s a fiction we use to ensure that fact-creators keep creating facts. The usefulness of this game of make-believe is obvious enough to have been pithily expressed hundreds of years ago. Maybe it’s because it’s such an old story that so many people have started to believe it’s real.

Perhaps I’ve been radicalized by work–the nonsensical nature of database licensing agreements could drive anyone mad. Ignore, for a moment the impossibility of conjuring a coherent line between “a bunch of facts” and “a legally protected database”. There are other problems!

These licensing agreements invariably prohibit some uses of the knowledge contained in the database, and these prohibitions rarely make much sense. When read with eyes too inexperienced to know what not to see, the text often outlaws the very thing the database is meant to facilitate. When you ask the salesperson about this, they assure you that what the agreement says is not what it means. And they’re right. What it means is: make sure we can keep getting paid. You can let people have this information but not, you know, let them have it. Make sure you tell it to them in a way that ensures they will pretend not to know what they know.

I don’t begrudge this approach. What else can they do? These databases are expensive to create and maintain, and we should all be glad that someone is doing this work. It’s a fiction that we navigate and treat with respect. But it is pretty absurd.

When the process is complete–when the tunnel is done, its specifics related, its chronicler dead–we can drop the pretense. And we should. It’s disappointing to see those who esteem ideas arguing that they ought to be more scarce.

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