Plagiarism, defamation and the power of hyperlinks

What do Fareed Zakaria, Jonah Lehrer and Gawker Media have in common? In different ways, the incidents that have thrust all three into the news recently help to show the power of the simple hyperlink, which Sir Tim Berners-Lee developed along with the rest of the web a little over two decades ago. Zakaria is the Newsweek editor and CNN talk-show host who was recently sanctioned for plagiarism, and Jonah Lehrer is the former New Yorker writer who was banished from the magazine for similar crimes. Gawker Media, meanwhile, shows us the flip side of those two coins: the New York-based blog network recently escaped from a hefty defamation lawsuit in part because it recognizes the power of the hyperlink.

Last month, the blog Newsbusters discovered that a large chunk of a piece that Zakaria wrote for Time magazine about gun control was almost identical to sections from a New Yorker piece on the same topic, written by Jill Lepore. Zakaria was subsequently suspended by both Time and CNN (although he has recently been reinstated after both entities said they found no evidence of further plagiarism). Lehrer, meanwhile — a high-profile author — was fired by resigned from the New Yorker after it was discovered that he had duplicated information from a number of sources.

Plagiarism is just inefficient hyperlinking

One of the themes that has been brought up repeatedly in stories about both Zakaria and Lehrer is the idea that they have been overworked as a result of media multi-tasking. Stories about the Lehrer incident, for example, note that he was writing books and had a packed public-speaking schedule while also trying to write a blog for the New Yorker, and Zakaria made the same link by saying he plans to cut down on his responsibilities — implying that this was to blame for him mixing up his notes from the New Yorker piece with his own writing (he also said he recently hired an assistant).

But I think CEO Aaron Levie put his finger on a big part of the problem in a tweet he posted recently, in which he said plagiarism “is just really inefficient hyperlinking.”


Although he probably just intended to be witty, I think Levie makes a good point. Plagiarism is defined as the attempt to “steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one’s own,” and it is the last part of that definition that is the most important one. It isn’t so much that a writer like Lehrer or Zakaria takes information from someone else and uses it in a column — plenty of writers do that, and as the media world has exploded thanks to social tools such as blogs and Twitter, this phenomenon has only become more commonplace. But neither of them gave credit to the source of the content they used, and that was the real crime.

This is exactly the same kind of argument that gets made about news aggregators or blogs that do a poor job of crediting the source of the content they are aggregating. As Jeff Jarvis has argued in a series of recent posts, since copying is rampant on the internet, we should be more focused on ways of giving credit to the source or creator of that content. And what better way to give credit than by linking prominently to its originator? This is just another reason why links are the lifeblood of the internet, as I argued in a recent post about the back-and-forth between bloggers and the traditional media over the latter never giving credit to the former.

Linking also provides a great defence

If either Zakaria or Lehrer had been more devoted to the idea of linking to sources, they might have spent more time making note of where the information they were using came from, so that they could include a link — in the same way that academics routinely cite footnotes to back up their claims. Would they still have tried to pass those sections off as their own? Perhaps. As my paidContent colleague Laura Owen has noted about Lehrer, some of his behavior was likely a result of the pressure to be a public intellectual. But if either one is sincere about how their plagiarism was an honest mistake, paying more attention to linking might help.

And if anyone needs evidence of how a consistent policy of linking to sources can be a positive thing, they should look no further than the Gawker case: the blog network was sued by a company for defamation, based on a piece that the tech blog Gizmodo wrote about its products. In a decision that acquitted the media company of this charge, the court said that part of the rationale for its ruling came from the use of links in the Gizmodo piece, which provided ample evidence of what the post was referring to. As the court decision put it:

“Having ready access to the same facts as the authors, readers were put in a position to draw their own conclusions about Redmond and his ventures and technologies… Statements are generally considered to be nonactionable opinion when the facts supporting the opinion are disclosed.”

David Weinberger, co-author of the seminal book The Cluetrain Manifesto and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, argued in a post about the journalistic principle of objectivity that “Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links.” In other words, when you have the ability to link to information that supports your conclusions, it’s easier to get away with being subjective, because readers are able to follow the links and decide for themselves whether you are credible.

I think the same principle applies to plagiarism: it is something that occurs when a medium doesn’t allow — or at least doesn’t encourage — links to original sources. The internet may make it more likely that someone copies content from another, but it also makes it easier to fix.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user skedonk