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A discussion on plagiarism is raging amongst Google Summer of Code mentors. The trigger was a student who copy & pasted his project proposal from the web, “stealing” bits of Wikipedia and other sources without attribution. Despite being very busy, I could not resist the interesting discussion across cultures and values when a mentor stated that he “totally fails to believe there is *any* culture in the world where copying someone else’s work is considered a valid method for demonstrating “expertise”. That doesn’t really have anything to do with values etc. — it’s just plain common sense.

Plagiarism is a natural survival strategy that has proven itself throughout evolution. find one animal species that does *not* copy superior behavior (when they can, of course).

Drive a car? pay royalties to the inventor of the safe tires: the worm from whom scientists have copied the structure resistant to wear and tear when rubbing with earth.

On the other hand, our western view of intellectual property is very recent (slightly more than a century old). Over a short time span it has proven to have some desirable qualities, but also some blatant defects.

Protecting artists and inventors fosters innovation. Granting years-long state-sanctioned monopolies to patent-holder prevents spreading innovation. A balance need to be stroke. This calls for cultural norms.

In some cultures the inventor is just considered as being the lucky one who has discovered the invention first. other than that, no protection is granted to them.

Open Source also has a culture, in which plagiarism as lack of attribution is considered very bad. On the other hand, plagiarism as code reuse with attribution is considered very good. Quite different from mainstream western culture where attribution is not enough – greedy patent trolls and media giants want your money.

What is right and what is wrong? There is no absolute. There is a here and there is there with different values that need to be bridged if we want people from there to come here.

Mike Melanson posted a link to this hilarious movie:

And Nicolas Robidoux summed it up: Plagiarism is bad. Reinventing the wheel is stupid.