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Are Speakers and Writers Supposed To Never Reuse Their Own Material?

A piece in the NY Times about Fareed Zakaria’s reinstatement to Time and CNN after some apparently unintended plagiarism, included this mention:

Christine Haughney, Time and CNN Reinstate Journalist After Review - NYTimes.com

Earlier this year, Mr. Zakaria was criticized for giving a commencement speech at Harvard that was very similar to one he had given earlier at Duke.

I am baffled by this criticism. Imagine going to hear The Rolling Stones, and then complaining that you’d heard that ‘Satisfaction’ song before. Or that Chris Rock repeated a joke he had tried out last week.

Is there a presumption that a speaker dreams up a brand new talk every single time they speak? It’s not a performance of a piece?

I know I don’t do that. I explore themes over time, using quite similar tropes and allusions. My thinking evolves, and I build on and rework what I want to say. But I don’t start from scratch generally (although I did recently: see What Will Matter In The Future).

And I am a bit unclear on the morals of self-plagiarism. Plagiarism — like when Zakaria lifted material written by Jill Lepore of Harvard, slightly modified it, and passed it off as his own — that I understand as wrong. But reusing your own words — as Jonah Lehrer apparently did, by copying materials from one article to put into a second — seems to be something like making a drawing and then basing a painting on that drawing. 

But company A bought the first article and company B paid Lehrer for the second (I forget the details). So it really is a commercial issue, not a moral one. If I am asserting that both articles are ‘original’ meaning I wrote them and the companies mean it to be ‘unlike any other piece you have ever written’, the breakdown is on the meaning of originality.

At any rate, I find it amusing that the premises surrounding this controversy are grounded in the industrial or mercantile nature of public writing or speech, and how unlike the arts it seems. Would someone claim Picasso was plagiarizing himself because he had drawn women with three eyes before? Or Dali and his melty watches?

The emotionality around Lehrer’s self-plagiarism reminds me of the ‘crime’ or ‘immorality’ of adultery. Great outrage although nothing is actually taken away: it’s not like stealing a car, after all. There is no damage or loss, no dents in the paint job. Well, except on the emotional level, grounded in the cultural premises of monogamy and the value of sexual exclusivity. 

I think the same outrage comes when Yale pays Zakaria $75K for a talk and discovers he whispered the same sweet words into the ears of the folks at Columbia. It’s financial heartbreak, I guess.

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