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'Free' plagiarism charge frames Internet content debate
On Tuesday afternoon, Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine and author of the 2006 bestseller "The Long Tail," received an e-mail warning that his new book, "Free: The Future of a Radical Price," was to be challenged.
On the blog of the Virginia Quarterly Review, a leading literary journal, Waldo Jaquith was about to post the results of an examination into the book, which Hyperion will publish next month. Jaquith had found several passages in the book that appeared to closely match Wikipedia entries without crediting the online encyclopedia as the source. Anderson e-mailed right back.
Minutes later the story -- along with a mea culpa from Anderson -- was online under the headline, "Chris Anderson's 'Free' Contains Apparent Plagiarism."
The ease with which content speeds to consumers over the Internet is just one of the issues Anderson touches on in "Free." Throughout the book, he explores "the paradox of Free," in which "people are making lots of money and charging nothing."
The irony that some of the book's contents might have been lifted for free from Wikipedia was not lost on media watchers: Gawker, Fast Company and the Associated Press quickly picked up the story of the pilfered material.
Those common passages -- which include definitions for "There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch," "Learning Curve" and "Usury" -- appear without attribution in the text.
This omission, Anderson says, was not deliberate. It was a mistake.
Typically, the passages Anderson took from Wikipedia would be accompanied by a footnote or end note in standard citation format. For Web pages, citations include a date and time -- a time stamp -- indicating exactly when the Web page was accessed. Anderson disagreed with his publisher about the citation format to use in the notes.
"I made the decision to nuke the notes because we couldn't come up with a compromise citation form," Anderson said by phone Wednesday afternoon. "I thought time stamps looked silly in books and my publisher insisted on time stamps. I made the decision to nuke the notes entirely -- and then to integrate the attribution into the text, which I -- " he took a breath, "then screwed up."
In an effort to take the information from Wikipedia and remix it in his own language -- a process Anderson calls a "write-through" -- several passages were left unaltered, and without any credit to Wikipedia. For Anderson, the worst part is that it was Wikipedia that was shortchanged, because the site has been the target of frequent criticism about its accuracy as a source.
"I feel especially terrible," he said. "I'm not one of those who thinks you shouldn't cite Wikipedia. I think you should cite Wikipedia."
The debate over Wikipedia offers a fascinating window onto the various ways the Internet is changing how we compile and access information. This is the larger issue at the heart of Anderson's writing: "The Long Tail" was an exploration of niche culture, the Internet's tendency to encourage a glorious cacophony of fragmentation, while "Free" looks at what Anderson calls "freeconomics," an open-source model in which data is the common currency.
Wikipedia is open-source at its most accessible -- updated and edited by anyone who volunteers to help. At its worst, it might say that Billy Idol can "fly like Superman without the gay cape," an edit that Mark Frauenfelder -- author, founder of the website BoingBoing and editor in chief of Make magazine -- saw briefly on the site this year.
For this reason, Frauenfelder is cautious about Wikipedia's reliability. "I have used it, and I do use it, but I wouldn't use it as my single source for anything," he said.
But Anderson sees the site in far more positive terms. "I did a good bit of reading on 'free lunch,' " he said, "and Wikipedia was the best synthesis of the subject that I found."
It's in matching the fluidity of Wikipedia with the static fixity of a book, however, that Anderson has gotten into trouble, which says something about the digital-analog divide. "If I go to a book and it says the source, this page, was looked at two years ago, I don't know whether that's an authoritative citation or not," Anderson noted, explaining his reluctance to use time stamps. "You're snapshotting something that's inherently in flux. It's one of the postmodern problems of our age -- how do we combine fluid media with static media?"
Still, the fluid media of the Internet has proven itself to be unexpectedly sticky. The news about Anderson's book broke on a website, and the Internet is where much of the discussion about it is taking place. Anderson is participating in the conversation, contributing to comments threads, challenging his detractors -- and being challenged by them in turn.
And yet, while that is certainly compelling, it feels like a diversion from the book's main message: the economic force of accessing things -- music, words, content -- for free.
"Free is a big deal," Anderson said. "It's an economic force that is all around us yet poorly understood." His book identifies several instances in which giving something away allows another aspect of a business to be monetized.
Frauenfelder offers an example. If his words are available for free, "the way I can survive is to use that in my favor -- so people download my book, know who I am and are willing to pay for a live presentation somewhere, which is something that can't be copied."
Another thing that can be copied is a blog post, which, Anderson acknowledges, is a reason for concern.
"My attribution failures aside, this is an important book," he said.
"Of course I'm concerned that this will overshadow it. Wouldn't you be?"