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Double click: Risky business

September 09, 2012

These are dangerous times for writers. Skulking behind every writer is a hidden evil, feeding words into Google search to check for text duplication. Authors, journalists, columnists, essayists, poets, bloggers — or anyone who has anything to do with formal writing — should be aware that they are just one step away from being criminalised. Even intellectual demi-gods are culpable.

As the sun does not set in virtual space, it is somewhat expected that duplication of words, speech and ideas will occur since every millisecond words are copiously being put down on paper, computer screens and hand held devices. But let’s not mistake this to be a case condoning plagiarism.

The fall and rise of Fareed Zakaria, a (former?) giant of the literary world, has opened the debate on the originality of ideas and words in this inexhaustibly creative world of today. But what really happened with Zakaria? If he did indeed copy another writer’s piece through a pre-meditated act, he should not have been re-instated by such august media houses like Time and CNN. Zakaria is not an indispensible asset to either of these organisations for them to forgive such a contemptuous deed. So did he really ‘steal’ the words or was he victimised?

In what has now become an over analysed incident in newsrooms, it is known that Mr Zakaria was caught having plagiarised a passage from a column in the New Yorker for his piece in Time magazine. He did not hedge off (or lie under oath) but admitted his sin following which he was suspended for a month by his employers, Time and CNN. While the journalistic community and Zakaria’s fans were still trying to digest this shattering news, Zakaria was surprisingly re-instated, with the Time issuing a statement that it was, “an unintentional error and an isolated incident for which he has apologised.”

In the literary, academic and journalistic spheres, plagiarism is a filthy word. For self respecting writers, once convicted of this evil deed there is no place to hide. It is equally difficult, however, for writers to keep themselves safe from this perilous pit. Especially for writers whose works require research, there is always the threat of succumbing to ‘copy/paste’ which is much the same as being a borderline kleptomaniac.

Seasoned writers, however, know how to keep from thieving words even if it isn’t always easy when one is speed reading a minimum of five different pieces opened in simultaneous tabs on one’s computer. There comes a moment of obfuscation when you cannot recall whether the words typed on your document file are yours or picked from someone else’s inspiration. But good writers know how to avoid that pitfall. Since Zakaria is a very seasoned writer, it is puzzling how he came to be so careless. There is definitely a mystery there.

Severe critics would probably even question the exercise of reading other pieces to form one’s idea. But that’s partly how columnists or opinion and leader writers formulate their comments. It is their job to know what others are thinking before putting their assessment before their readers. Is that infringement of intellectual copyright? New York Times columnist, David Carr says, “It all comes down to execution. If I attribute the reporting of others and manage to steer clear of proprietary intellectual property while making a cogent argument, then I can live to write another day.”

It is a dance that journalists have learnt to do in this digitally equipped world where information is available at the tap of a finger. Done correctly, it can lead them towards applause or else make them trip and fall flat on their faces. If, for example, I had failed to give Mr Carr due credit for his quote, I would definitely not have lived to write another day if I was found out. And found out I would have been. Like loan sharks constantly swimming for potential victims in the finance industry, there are lynch mob snoops always surfing the Net to twist free expression, trash alternate opinion and create scandals out of nothing.

With thousands of years of creativity having saturated the literate world, is it possible that new ideas still remain or an unsaid phrase exists? It is difficult to be original. I often seek ideas in my old work. Is that stealing from me? It is probable that these words in my column too might have been written already by someone else in perhaps China or Scandinavia.

Hollywood has coined a new term for re-churning ideas. ‘Re-boot’ is what they call re-makes these days — more and more of which are being produced — proof that creators are running out of ideas.

But coming back to Zakaria, he should have closed those tabs that were opened for research before putting words to screen. An apology does not remove the seed of doubt.