Is Tim Harford, the author of the excellent Undercover Economist, serious? In this morning's Financial Times, he says that intellectual theft is okay provided one owns up to it. I am not quite sure if his argument is cynical, or just plain immoral.
Writing in the wake of this week's William Swanson and Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism scandals, Harford argues that most people aren't capable of interesting arguments and thus should "borrow" from other people. According to Harford, "without more elegant plagiarists, there would be no art."
This argument is both bogus and banal. Of course, any book or movie or piece can be placed within a tradition, even if -- as with Beethoven, Mahler or The Sex Pistols -- it is a reaction to that tradition. But most lasting art is original, it is not plagarised. It only makes sense after it has been authored. Art can't be predicted by clever sociologists of culture. It is not a thing that is cut-and-pasted.
I fear that Harford's piece is symbolic of the dangerous contemporary fashion for open-mindedness in the intellectual property realm. This is a consequence of IP radicals like Larry Lessig who are shamelessly trying to undermine traditional copyright law in favor of their utopian "creative commons."
Harford says that we should learn our plagiarism lessons from bloggers: "blogs are so liberally peppered with other people's work that bloggers have developed a code to acknowledge an intellectual debt: HT, the hat-tip."
But blogs, of course, are the reverse of art. They are just links to other people's links. In this blog, for example, all I am doing is repeating Harford's argument who is repeating Lessig's argument. This hall of electronic mirrors contains the acoustic of a endless Steve Reich loop. There is no originality here. It is one unending conversation about the same thing.
HT: Tim Harford