Friday, October 3, 2008

Is it Plagiarism or Normal Business Practice?

As loyal readers of EconoSpeak know, on Sept. 24 I posted a relatively substantial proposal that I headlined “Plan B: How to Restore Financial Markets Without a Bailout”. Three days later, I was surprised to see almost the same plan referred to in a New York Times column, but attached to the name of Andrew Feldstein, the director of a hedge fund. What struck me is that, not only were the two key general ideas—the public financial intermediary, the window to acquire distressed assets at market prices—the same, even the initial capitalization was pegged at an identical $300B. (Some of the details revealed in a followup Times blog were different and, honestly, not as good.) In my line of work, this is a prima facie case of plagiarism.

What this probably represents, however, is a difference in culture. In the academic world that I inhabit, there is a strong expectation that all borrowed words or ideas will be attributed to their source. Failure to do this constitutes an intellectual scandal; on the positive side, we try to impress our peers with a bottomless pile of citations. (This is called “scholarship”.)

The business world is different. There the rule is, if it ain’t nailed down you can take it. Having a bright idea and getting mentioned in the Times is worth real money. I can imagine that Feldstein’s fund may get an extra investor or two (or dissuade an existing investor from fleeing) by the halo effect of this publicity. I was dumb enough not to copyright my idea, so what do I expect?

Actually, while I like to have my ego stroked every now and then, and while I would come down hard on any student who submitted a paper that plagiarized, I don’t really care about attribution in this case. I would like this idea to be given a fair hearing, and someone with a hedge fund is likely to have a wider audience than me. In fact, I rather like the notion that an obscure economist can release an idea on some little corner of the web, it can bounce around for a while, and then reappear dressed up in real money.


Daro said...

Blogging can be like making salami in a pool of sharks. I imagine the same perverse lawyers eager to bankrupt the family of a kid who's downloaded an mp3 song by Styx wouldn't hesitate to suck in and spit out to clients 10 ideas and salient points a day from the intellectual community's commentary they trawl through the web space for.

Ben Leet said...

I sent my Congressman Pete Stark your plan and to some other blogs. I also like this idea by one John Hussman, Ph.D., in his Open Letter to Congress. 5) To assist homeowners, the bill should allow for a reduction of mortgage principal during foreclosure, but the mortgage lender should also receive a Property Appreciation Right (PAR) that gives the original lender a claim on future property appreciation up to that original mortgage amount. In other words, the homeowner receives a substantially lower mortgage balance and payment burden now, but the lender stands to be made whole over time through property appreciation rather than immediate burdens on the homeowner to make payments.

Daro said...

That's a brilliant twist on the idea, ben. I'm bitter it never occurred to me... said...

"Property rights" in the blizzard of commentary going on about all these plans have simply vanished.