Reappropriation and ownership in the digital age

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The most recent controversy to surface in the litblogosphere is Jonah Lehrer’s admission that he self-plagiarized several paragraphs of an article that appeared on The New Yorker blog “Frontal Cortex.” The paragraphs that Lehrer copied were originally published by The Wall Street Journal, which means Lehrer was self-plagiarizing material that The New Yorker did not own.

This lead to The New Yorker releasing an embarrassing editor’s note at the beginning of the article: “ The introductory paragraphs of this post appeared in similar form in an October, 2011, column by Jonah Lehrer for the Wall Street Journal. We regret the duplication of material.” Since then, Lehrer has admitted that he recycled material for this article and has apologized, calling his actions “stupid” and “lazy”. Yet, his self-plagiarism seems to go much deeper than the one post, as a freelance journalist has uncovered.

I’m not defending Lehrer’s actions wholesale because some of this is just lazy and stupid, as he admits. However, I think Lehrer’s actions reflect a societal disconnect between what we think creative originality is and what it has always been.

Putting aside the obvious issues of publication and editorial ownership (which, alone, makes his actions stupid), I wonder if Lehrer’s mistake can make us look again at what it means to “own” and use material as writers. It might be too simple to say that he plagiarized and that because of this, his credibility is shot. While I acknowledge that he deceived his editors and readers in this case, we can use this case to discuss the broader concepts of self-plagiarism, ownership, reappropriation, and legitimacy. This short post is an attempt to make sense of these concepts and to, hopefully, begin a conversation about writing and ownership.

Who Owns What?

I just started reading David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. The main objective of Shields’s book is to expose how new works of literature and art can rise to the surface in the 21st Century. Shields tackles this notion that writers are constantly blurring the lines between fact and fiction, and that narrative relies on this blurring:

The line between fact and fiction is fuzzier than most people find it convenient to admit. There is the commonsensical assertion that while the novelist is engaged on a work of the creative imagination, the duty of the journalist is to tell what really happened, as it happened. That distinction is easy to voice but hard to sustain in logic. For imagination and memory are Siamese twins, and you cannot cut them so cleanly apart. There’s a good case for arguing that any narrative account is a form of fiction. (p. 65)

Shields makes an important point about how fact and fiction start to come together when narrative takes over. Except, here’s the deal: Shields didn’t write this. It comes from Jonathan Raban’s book For Love & Money: Writing, Reading, Travelling, 1968 – 1987.

Shields deliberately plagiarized this passage. In fact, the whole book is plagiarized; it’s set up as a series of connected points of view on the future of narrative and art. Shields doesn’t just repeat what others have said and leave it at that: he turns these passages into his own narrative, a call to action to try something new.

Narrative set up in this way what Jonathan Lethem calls “the essential gift-aspect of the creative act.” It is reappropriation for a purpose: to reflect on the purpose of the art that came before, but to refine it and expand on it.

While some question this approach to narrative and art, I think it’s an essential part of the creative process. Poets like T. S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, and even William Shakespeare all reappropriated stuff in order to make it new and better. This idea that we “own” an idea or a concept can only take us so far.

Digital ownership and blogging

This idea of reappropriation is still being worked out on the internet. Many bloggers recycle articles by cross-posting or re-posting old materials on new sites. It’s sort of a self-regulated self-plagiarism. To be fair, most credible bloggers name the site in which they cross-posted their work, but it still becomes an issue.

Lehrer’s act of self-plagiarism may have been lazy, and it may have hurt his credibility. As bloggers, however, I think we need to decide whether or not reappropriation can fall into these categories of the “gift-aspect of the creative act.” As a result, I hope we will challenge the parameters of authorship and ownership as we begin to publish on new media.

Can bloggers legitimately reappropriate ideas and text in order to expand on ideas that came before? Or, does it represent lazy writing and thinking? In some cases, yes, it’s lazy. But stopping at that leaves out all of the future possibilities of writing in the digital age.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website,