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Bending ethics with borrowed words

The Monitor's language columnist ponders her recent adventures in the world of public domain.

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No, Robert Frost never wrote that. What he did write I was able to round up, though, in 0.43 seconds with the help of Google. How did we live before the Web?

Of late I've been working on a (non-Monitor) editorial project in which we're drawing largely on materials in the public domain. And what a domain it is. Isn't it wonderful how much stuff there is out there? And isn't it awful?

It's striking how much material gets picked up from, typically, US government websites and simply republished, with no attribution, by various online publishers. I find pages and pages of the State Department's Background Notes on various countries, for instance, reproduced verbatim.

The problem here isn't legal or technical. The materials I'm referring to are largely in the public domain, produced by your tax dollars and mine. My issue has more to do with ethics.

What are the hallmarks of integrity in journalism, and publishing generally? Careful writers anchor their communications in time and place. Back in the days when schoolchildren were taught letter writing, they learned that one of the "parts of a letter" is the heading, which includes an address and a date. These two elements correspond closely to a news reporter's dateline, which signals where he or she gathered the information, and the folio line of a newspaper, which gives the date of publication.

The Web does this even better. An issue of a newspaper typically provides a single day as the "publication date." But an online article typically has a specific time, as well as date, of posting.

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