Have you been following the Jonah Lehrer self-plagiarism flap?  Here’s a backgrounder.

At a superficial level this is an absurdity. Recycling an idea is good if it speeds up the spread of the idea. Plagiarism is an offense only if it harms the original creator.  If Jonah Lehrer is the original creator then whatever harm he is causing himself (i.e. none) he fully internalizes.  No exernalities here, move on. You get the sense that journalists are mindlessly misapplying a norm they apparently don’t fully understand.

But at a level deeper, Jonah Lehrer’s self-plagiarism is basically the same as plagiarism.  Because he recycled material he wrote for one publisher into new material written for a different publisher.  The original publisher had a role in the creative process.  They selected Jonah Lehrer as an author, they edited and ultimately approved his work.  They invested in it.  The new publisher probably has an implicit agreement with other publishers not to infringe on their creative output. Because Jonah Lehrer did not inform the new publisher of his self-plagiarism he led them to violate that agreement.

But let’s go the final level deeper.  When we recognize the equivalence what we really should conclude is that policing plagiarism is just as absurd as policing self-plagiarism.  Ideas are useless if they are not spread and the value of an idea is independent of who created it.  To put a halt to the spread of an idea just because of a dispute about somebody’s long-ago sunk cost is a pure social waste.