Did Zakaria plagiarise? Yes, he did.

Much has been written about the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism case, which led him to being suspended from Time and CNN. The oddest comments yet, however, come from Edward Jay Epstein in The Daily Beast. Epstein writes:

Plagiarism, from the Latin word plagiaries, or kidnapper, is an academic—and not legal—crime. It is defined in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.” And to “use (another’s production) without crediting the source.”…

But no, by no stretch of the imagination did Zakaria pass Winkler’s idea off as his own. He fully credits him as the source of the idea, stating in his opening sentence: “Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. So he’s borrowing but not plagiarizing it from Winkler.

The issue arose on the Internet because Zakaria was not the only user of Winkler’s idea. In the New Yorker in April, Jill Lepore also used the same idea from Winkler that “firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start.” She also credits him and his book as the ultimate source. So did others….

Epstein missed the part, apparently, about Zakaria copying Lepore’s prose verbatim. As Epstein himself says, plagiarism is about copying the ideas or words of another without attribution. If Zakaria had quoted Lepore (by name, and using quote marks or a blockquote as above) it would have been fine. What he did was not. He gave no indication that those words were Lepore’s, not his.

It is amazing that the Daily Beast, the outfit run by the respected Tina Brown and the current publisher of Newsweek, sees fit to publish an argument that undergraduates are regularly warned against.

It would have been equally unacceptable, if harder to prove, if Zakaria had first copied Lepore’s prose and then massaged it using a thesaurus to make it look different — something Epstein suggests would have been OK. Writers are supposed to do their own writing.

Finally, plagiarism is indeed a legal crime, if the material being copied is subject to copyright. Google “plagiarism lawsuit” for any number of examples. I am not aware of any case in academic circles that was pursued legally, but the possibility exists. And this was a journalistic case, not an academic one.

UPDATE 16 Aug 2012: Eric Zuesse argues that Zakaria probably did not plagiarise, but the truth is worse: he has an army of staffers who write his pieces for him. Indeed, this reminds me of Aroon Purie’s defence. It must be nice to be a professional writer who doesn’t actually have to write. Until, that is, something like this happens.

I wonder how it would work if opinion-makers were forced to give co-authorship to their research assistants (or whatever they are called). And failure to give appropriate authorship was viewed as seriously by Time, CNN and India Today as it is in academic circles. At the very least, some talented and unknown writers would actually get recognition.

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  1. > Finally, plagiarism is indeed a legal crime, if the material being copied is subject to copyright.

    In that case the legal crime is “copyright violation” not plagiarism. Plagiarism is indeed not a legal crime. For example, if I do not attribute the above statement to you, then this is plagiarism but easily comes under “fair-use” in copyright law. So it would not be a legal crime.

    Some acts are punishable offences for members of organisations under the rules that govern those organisations—in that sense they are “crimes” for members of those organisations even if they are not crimes for the broader public. Plagiarism is such an offence for many organisations in the academic community and for many organisations within the journalistic community.

    If an independent author sends a piece to a magazine and the editor finds that this piece plagiarises from other authors, then all that the editor can do is decide not to publish the piece. However, if the same piece comes from a writer who works for the magazine, there could be much stricter action — including firing the writer.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  August 17, 2012

      Well, yes, the legal term is copyright violation, but it is commonly referred to as a plagiarism lawsuit. The point being that if nobody else has a right on what you took (say, you borrowed from Shakespeare), you can’t be prosecuted for it even if it was blatant plagiarism.

      Fair use is not a law. It is a doctrine (at least in the US, not sure about India); there is no statute saying what is or is not fair use. What you said probably would be fair use but there are many grey areas.

      It is also true that, if you did not monetarily benefit from the copyright infringement, it would be hard to bring a lawsuit, even if the infringement is blatant.

  2. Hello Kapil/Rahul,

    Well, THAT sure didn’t last long!

    “Fareed Zakaria Cleared By Time, CNN In Plagiarism Investigation”! Please see:


    though there must be lots of sources. Apparently Time decided that the transgression was “an unintentional error”.

    I never thought I would see the day when I would rate “journalists” at about the same level as “politicians” but that day has arrived. The problem is that these guys need to produce something “original” every few days so as to keep themselves in the limelight. The real game is not be known as a “journalist” but rather to cross over into becoming a “celebrity”. That is when a person can command speaking fees of $75,000 per gig, as FZ apparently does. So they employ lots of galley slaves to produce “their” writings.

    I am reminded of the late Harry Cohn of Columbia, who was not exactly the smartest guy in Hollywood. Nevertheless, he “wrote” a weekly column, produced of course by a ghost writer. One week the regular ghost writer was away, and a substitute ghost writer was found to produce the column. When Cohn was shown the draft, he complained that it was not up to “his” usual standard!

    At least athletes and movie stars use the fig leaf of “XXX with YYY”. But the likes of FZ do not acknowledge their coauthors, which makes me think much the worse of them.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  August 19, 2012

      Vidyasagar — Zakaria is not the first high-profile columnist to be caught at this either. Maureen Dowd was caught lifting a paragraph from Josh Marshall in 2009, and her explanation was, frankly, bizarre. The NYT did not suspend her column while checking her other writings, as CNN and Time claim to have done for Zakaria.

      • Well, I suppose it is because people like Dowd, Zakaria etc. are under strict pressure to come up with “new” writings at regular intervals. But to me the most blatant case of plagiarism is that of Alan Dershowitz, who is a professor of law at Harvard. Apparently he plagiarized lots of stuff from someone called Joan Peters. This was pointed out by one Norman Finkelstein, who was at that time a young untenured Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University. Dershowitz ensured that Finkelstein did not get tenure, according to several Internet web sites. I might have some sympathy for “journalists” like Dowd or Zakaria because, let’s face it, what they write is hardly destined to be immortal. I am less sympathetic to a professor, and that too of law, for heaven’s sake.

        Aren’t we (you, me or Kapil) fortunate that we work in areas where plagiarism is neither easy to hide nor tolerated if detected? IEEE has a pretty strict “black list” policy against plagiarists, which means they cannot publish in any IEEE journal or conference. And unlike in Internet sites where everything is anonymous, the black-listed person cannot simply assume a new on-line identity to get around the ban.

        Best wishes to you and Kapil.


  3. Sorry, it was Depaul, not Northwestern.


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