Good enough to steal

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Tags: writing, plagiarism, hiring, recruiters, weaselry

Recently, I wrote a simple plagiarism detector as a fun programming exercise. Then, merely a few days later, some company gave me cause to use it.

This company, it seems, was looking to hire a programmer. So they posted a job ad that was more or less word-for-word copied from a job ad that I had written for the company where I work. The duplication, being so extensive, was hard to miss. (The offending company, to its credit, promptly removed the copied ad from its web site when we let them know about it.)

I had originally written the text used in that ad back in December 2010, when we were starting another round of hiring. I had hoped that when the right kind of programmers read it, they would discern that we were programmers just like them, programmers who cared for their craft enough and who cared for their team enough to take hiring other programmers seriously. I didn’t want our ads to seem anything like those spat out by people just mouthing the words that everyone else was mouthing to “get talent.” So I worked on getting the words right, thinking the investment would somehow help us stand apart, if just a bit, when hiring.

But I had failed to consider that authenticity in job ads can be faked by just copying what seems authentic. So, a few days ago, when Googling for statistically unlikely phrases from the text I had written, I was actually surprised to discover that a number of companies and recruiters were now using my words, more or less unchanged, to signal how “authentic” they were.

At first, I was annoyed. But, upon reflection, I realized that the plagiarism was telling me that I had written something worth stealing. That’s a good thing, right?

After all, in a society where all too many people are willing to claim your words as their own, which is worse: to write something and have it stolen or to write something and have it not?

P.S. For the pedants who would point out that nothing was actually “stolen” here, please understand that steal has a well-established sense that means basically to plagiarize, as in T.S. Eliot’s quip that “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.”