In the wake of “scandals” involving Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria, plagiarism has earned a moment in the spotlight. I use the word “scandal” in ironic quotes because a real scandal is like bankers in London fixing interest rates in a manner similar to a criminal cartel. Making up a Bob Dylan quote doesn’t really touch that. 

Nevertheless, these missteps can be serious but are often painted with too broad a brush. It’s very important to distinguish. Guys like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair made up stories out of whole cloth—fabulism. This is obviously wrong. What Jonah Lehrer did in making up quotes from Dylan is a much lesser offense. Stupid, wrong, and very weird considering how many Dylanologists are out there pouring over every word that strange, awesome motherf***er ever uttered, but in the end, not even approaching the level of a Glass or Blair. It’s the difference between homicide and aggravated assault.

Self-plagiarism, in my humble opinion, should barely be considered a faux pas. It’s like jaywalking Obviously, if you’re copying huge swaths of an article you wrote at the Wall Street Journal and handing them in to the New Yorker, your editor should be like, “Hey, Jonah, you douche, I’m paying you for new material.” But as a writer who hands out most of his work for free (or virtually free) here at RedEye, you can bet that I’ll re-appropriate certain ideas or phrases that I concocted in other formats. At worst, you’re just kind of lazy.

When it comes to Zakaria, let’s call that first offense larceny. The bits he stole from Jill LePore’s essay on gun control (that I totally recommended!) were mostly attributed quotes with similar phrasing bookending the person quoted. There are only so many ways to phrase certain things, especially if you’re listing facts or dates.

Also, keep in mind it’s not as though a bunch of writers have decided to plagiarize just now. There were simply fewer tools to catch the plagiarists of the past. With the advent of Google and other targeted search technology, it has become significantly easier to catch it. However, if I could be blunt for a moment, it’s totally obvious that every single writer EVER is nothing more than a skilled plagiarist. To deny this is to deny the fundamental nature of writing—especially non-fiction writing. The author amalgamates different sources into something new. Pieces of the whole come flying in from every direction: books, film, music, journalism, and the writer’s duty is little more than to dress up these new bits into the semblance of something original.

It’s so ironic that Lehrer got in trouble for making up Dylan quotes because Bob Dylan himself is a notorious plagiarist and fabulist. He’s made up so many stories about himself, you lose count, and it seems like every five years the guy has a plagiarism scandal. Of course, it’s different when you’re writing a song than when you’re writing an essay about gun control, but my point is that we often give ourselves too much credit for being original.

Additionally, in our modern hyper-connected information age, it’s becoming harder and harder not to plagiarize.

I think about this often because I turn out these blog posts four times a week, and I’m usually citing sources that are obviously not my original journalism, and, no offense to RedEye, but this blog is about my fourth priority behind new book projects, editing, and other writing minutiae. I often grow terribly paranoid that I’ve inadvertently lifted something. I spend half my day reading, either books or articles or columns or blogs from around the web, and it’s incredible the way certain facts or key turns of phrase can latch in your brain and then pop to the surface weeks, or months later. In fact, I fully admit I’ve caught myself at this on more than one occasion. I’ll be staring at something I’ve written, thinking, “Damnit, I think I heard that somewhere.”

I tell you that only to be totally honest, because, believe me, it’s an affront to my own ego that I could be less than original (I wrote about how much “The Daily Show” annoyed me for this reason). Just last week I wrote the Stupidest Column Ever, wherein I talked about the Fox News-Gabby Douglas-Jingoism bit. Later that day I was catching up on some “Colbert Report” episodes and watched the story come up. Yet I know most of the points Stephen Colbert made in that clip had already been disseminated and multiplied across the blogosphere because I’d read so many of them in preparation for my piece. The way media disseminates now, it’s getting incredibly difficult to discern who among us are having the original thoughts and who are just figuring out a way to switch the words around.

Anyway, here’s an experiment no writer will ever let you do but would prove totally instructive:

Take a writer you admire—let’s say for this random example, Slate’s movie critic Dana Stevens (because I really like Dana Stevens’s movie reviews). Follow Stevens around for a year recording every piece of media she ingests. Write down every book she reads, film she watches, song she listens to, article or blog or Facebook post or tweet she inhales. Then correlate it with the writing she does over that period. I’d bet any amount of money that you’d see, littered throughout her work, many of those influences reproduced with what amounted to shameless, bald-faced theft.

And I think you could do this with virtually any writer, but especially high-volume columnists, bloggers and non-fiction writers. Don’t count this as a defense of Zakaria, who deserves a little time-out for some laziness and certainly don’t count it as a defense of Lehrer, who proved himself a bit of a weirdo.

But there’s only one quote you really need to understand about so-called creative people:

“Mediocre artists borrow, great ones steal outright.”

-Stephen Markley