Who would have heard of Jill Lepore, Adam Winkler and a report on gun control carried in the New Yorker but for a Fareed Zakaria error of omission?
In less than a week, Zakaria – after failing to attribute a passage he used from Lepore’s piece – has become some kind of intellectual pariah for an error that was quite easy to make by almost anybody. Winkler and Lepore have become better known now, and the point he was trying to make – the need for gun control – has been lost in the feast of Zakaria-bashing. A Washington Post report tried to pin another bit of alleged plagiarism on Zakaria, only to retract later.
Zakaria did not steal Lepore’s quote. All he did was lift Lepore’s reference to yet another writer – Adam Winkler – on gun control. Zakaria, thinking he was quoting Winkler, made insignificant efforts to rewrite the passage attributed by Lepore to Winkler’s observations on the history of gun control laws in some US states. In short, he made one attribution correctly and not another.
He did not read the original Winkler story on the assumption that if New Yorker carried that report, it must have been summarised correctly by Lepore.
He did not “plagiarise” — a deadly word with loaded meaning when it may just have been a silly mistake for which Zakaria has apologised. It’s like using the word “foeticide” to label the act of abortion of female foetuses when it could quite easily also be called a “woman’s right to choose the sex of her child”.
This is not to completely exonerate Zakaria, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is an error almost anybody could have made. Attributing something to Lepore would have done nothing to enhance or diminish the import of what he was trying to say.
But the episode leaves me fuming about the tendency of Americans to make a moral issue out of anything. They elevate IPR — intellectual property rights —to stupid levels, where the intention is to allow someone to make a killing even on a trivial idea instead of protecting something superbly original and/or of great value to humankind — like a wonder drug for treating Aids.
I would like to make three points in this oblique defence of Zakaria and his error – as I have done elsewhere in the past (Read here).
One, copying and/or building on someone else’s idea – or articulation of an idea – is vital to human progress.
Two, giving too much weightage to IPR is self-defeating both for the inventor and the human race. A pirate sometimes makes something of value more easily accessible to a larger audience than stick-in-the-mud IPR.
Three, authors, musicians, and script-writers, in particular, should not be prickly about someone lifting their line or phrase – unless there is something egregious about the lifting. Very rarely do they really come up with something so extraordinarily original that they deserve kudos for it. They should, in fact, be secretly pleased that someone liked a passage or tune so much that they even tried to call it their own.