Until Monday, the list of British people plagiarized by U.S. senators stood at one — Neil Kinnock, the former Labour Party leader whose 1987 speech to his party was copied without attribution by then-Sen. Joe Biden during that year's Democratic presidential primaries. Biden withdrew from the race shortly afterwards.
This week, I joined Kinnock on that short list. BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczyinski reported that two paragraphs from my article on mandatory sentencing laws appeared verbatim in a Washington Times op-ed authored by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. The news came as Paul had been accused of swiping bits of speeches and books from various sources, including Wikipedia. Paul, apparently "shaken" by the new accusations, has since restructured his office.
The news spread widely, from MSNBC to The New York Times. Friends and family from here and in the U.K. have been texting, tweeting, and emailing. "Wow," one asked. "How do you feel?" Well, good question. I suppose I ought to feel angry. My work was stolen by an elected official and putative presidential candidate with a far higher profile than mine, who passed it off as his own instead of acknowledging its lowly creator.
But I don't. In fact, I'm not all that bothered by Sen. Paul's use of my article. Worse things have happened. The first piece of paid journalism work I ever completed, a feature on male grooming for a British tabloid, was published without my byline and instead credited to a Big Brother contestant. Having a U.S. senator's name above my work is hardly a comparable indignity.
I'm indifferent to being plagiarized because today's media environment has changed what it means to have ownership of a piece of writing. Once your words are published online, they become part of the currency of the internet. They can be freely woven into others' articles, quoted at length, or tweeted without context. None of us can afford to be that sensitive about how others use or abuse our work.
That's not to say plagiarism isn't a real offense. There's a big difference between fair use of content and claiming others' work as your own. It's possible to aggregate without stealing. But the road we're on bends away from authorship and toward content that is ever more free. There's a generation coming that considers the concept of intellectual property a puzzling anachronism. Plagiarism in U.S. colleges has long been on the rise, and commentators have wrung their hands about this cheating, amoral generation since 2008.
I'm a Millennial — just — and I know plagiarism is wrong. Most of us do. But just look at how today's copycats are treated. In 1987, Biden was hounded into dropping out of the presidential race. Paul has been able to shrug off these allegations as the work of "hacks and haters." Today, even disgraced counterfeiters can be given lucrative book deals. The culture is changing.
So I don't feel particularly slighted. Paul's error, in this instance at least, seems to be one of laziness rather than malfeasance. If he or his ghostwriter had simply used the details of what I'd written, rather than the sentence structure and wording, I wouldn't be writing this right now.
In fact, I'm rather flattered. Paul's plagiarizing has drawn attention to my original article, which outlines the need to reform federal mandatory sentencing laws. The issue of millions of Americans unfairly jailed for decades is far, far more important than a silly media dust-up over a couple of cribbed paragraphs. Sen. Paul can quote me on that. With attribution, of course.
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