Fareed Zakaria Would Have Been Totally in the Clear—Had He Been an Early American Newspaperman

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Before anyone could plagiarize, we had to invent it.

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Americans learned of the Boston Tea Party because colonial newspapers copied verbatim and ran unattributed the account of an "An Impartial Observer." And that was totally okay! (Wikimedia Commons)

In the past week, ESPN and Fareed Zakaria have both copied someone else's work and used it nearly verbatim. They're guilty of plagiarism -- which, in the world of journalism, might lead only to a suspension, but which, in the world of academia, constitutes academic dishonesty and can get you thrown out of school. (Accordingly, the Yale Daily News reports Zakaria might lose his trusteeship at Yale.)

And rightly so. Everyone agrees: Plagiarism is bad.

But it hasn't always been that way. According to historian Todd Andrlik, plagiarism initially strengthened American communities. In fact, it may have made the American Revolution possible. He writes at the Huffington Post:

Without professional writing staffs of journalists or correspondents, eighteenth-century newspaper printers relied heavily on an intercolonial newspaper exchange system to fill their pages. Printers often copied entire paragraphs or columns directly from other newspapers and frequently without attribution. As a result, identical news reports often appeared in multiple papers throughout America. This news-swapping technique, and resulting plagiarism, helped spread the ideas of liberty and uphold the colonists' resistance to British Parliament.

Which is fascinating by itself: a vast syndicated content network (as we'd now call it) among the colonies' 20-odd papers. Except the key thing here is that this practice wasn't plagiarism. (Or it's only plagiarism as we'd now call it.) Cut to historian Joseph Adelman:

It wasn't [plaigiarism] and it couldn't have been, because it hadn't been invented yet. (Neither, by the way, had "journalism" itself, nor for that matter objectivity.) Treating the practices of the eighteenth century as if they were aware of twenty-first-century norms does a disservice to the concept of plagiarism and to our understanding of how people acted in the past.

Plaigiarism's a crime now. But it hasn't always been, and "plagiarism" by any other name, in any other era, might not actually be plagarism. 

This is another example of how the way we treat ideas changes over time, in response to economics and scarcity and technology. Before we can even talk about culture, we have to have a way of talking about it and understanding it -- and that way is shaped and invented and experimented with, same as anything else.

And plagiarism, by the way, wasn't even always a crime in an academic context. Andrlik (who has a book on early American newspapers coming out in November) adds that "the first two histories of the American Revolution," William Gordon's in 1788 and David Ramsay's in 1789, both liberally borrowed from a certain London record, the Annual Register. And the Annual Register, a political and literary concern... "heavily relied on newspapers and magazines from the previous year for its content."

Before everything was a block quote, everything was a remix.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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