Ouch! ‘Free’ author Chris Anderson accused of ripping off passages from Wikipedia

image Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and a forthcoming book called Free: The Future of a Radical Price, allegedly ripped off passages from Wikipedia.

“We have discovered almost a dozen passages that are reproduced nearly verbatim from uncredited sources,” reports the Virginia Quarterly Review blog after working from an advance copy. 

Unfair guilt by association ahead?

image Fairly or unfairly, If the charges are true, will this set back the "long tail” philosophy as well as the “free” one?

And what about the fact that, as some have noted, Wikipedia was involved? Was Anderson---editor in chief of Wired---less respectful of Wikipedia than of more traditional sources? And will this affair reflect on him as a researcher, as some believe? Yet another issue, noted in the blog, is Wikipedia’s license under Creative Common’s Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 option.

Chris Anderson’s rather mainstream publisher, Hyperion, is a branch of Walt Disney. The parent company packaged and branded old fairy tales and is a major foe of fair use. Anderson initially intended to provide citations, but they were dropped later on. Even so, should the wording in so many places have been so so similar?

Anderson photo by James Duncan DavidsonThe good news, from an E view point, is that the Web made it much easier to spot the similarities. Someday will e-book publishers routine submit their wares to a plagiarism-detection engine similar to those used at many campuses?

Anderson’s response: ‘My screwups’

“Anderson,” says the Review’s Waldo Jaquith, “responded personally to a request for comments about how this unattributed text came to appear in his book, providing the following remarks by e-mail:

All those are my screwups after we decided not to run notes as planned, due to my inability to find a good citation format for web sources…

This all came about once we collapsed the notes into the copy. I had the original sources footnoted, but once we lost the footnotes at the 11th hour, I went through the document and redid all the attributions, in three groups:

  • Long passages of direct quotes (indent, with source)
  • Intellectual debts, phrases and other credit due (author credited inline, as with Michael Pollan)
  • In the case of source material without an individual author to credit (as in the case of Wikipedia), do a write-through.

Obviously in my rush at the end I missed a few of that last category, which is bad. As you’ll note, these are mostly on the margins of the book’s focus, mostly on historical asides, but that’s no excuse. I should have had a better process to make sure the write-through covered all the text that was not directly sourced.

I think what we’ll do is publish those notes after all, online as they should have been to begin with. That way the links are live and we don’t have to wrestle with how to freeze them in time, which is what threw me in the first place.

About David Rothman (6820 Articles)
David Rothman is the founder and publisher of the TeleRead e-book site and cofounder of He is also author of The Solomon Scandals novel and six tech-related books on topics ranging from the Internet to laptops. Passionate on digital divide issues, he is now pushing for the creation of a national digital library endowment.

4 Comments on Ouch! ‘Free’ author Chris Anderson accused of ripping off passages from Wikipedia

  1. David – FYI you’ve got a typo in the title of the book in the first paragraph – radical not racial.

  2. I have no reason to doubt that what Anderson described is what actually happened… plenty of authors and researchers use the same processes. Sounds like more of a production-crunch issue to me… obviously, they should be taking the time to do their jobs right, and not release work before it’s been properly vetted, but I wouldn’t assume purposeful neglect or plagiarism from this.

  3. HG and Steve:

    HG: Many thanks for the catch, fixed. I encourage readers to report typos—whether by email ( or comments.

    STEVE: I myself think you’re giving Anderson the benefit of the doubt. What about passage after passage of similar language? But this is very complicated. You could well be right–I’d need to know more facts.

    Here’s one example of the complexities. Maureen Dowd, another person accused of plagiarism, apparently inserted language suggested by a friend in a letter–the equivalent of an editor suggesting a change. She got a bum rap.


  4. His only sin was to get caugh and not slam 10 lawsuit never to be taken to court at anyone bold enough to mention the incidents.

    The colourfull(ie non academic) non fiction market is gennerally a huge tarpit of little white lies(most autobiographies are ghost written) and plenty of borrowing research(or buying it) from everywhere it’s posibly, leaning on wikipedia is definitely in the mild end witch is wry we dont see the all out lawyer defence lineup.

    Wikipedia itself contains enough plagerism that theyll never wholeheartedly stand out against it.

    This is where open source(here the two definitions of the term actually meets), differs a lot from free, the goal is not the price tag but for it to be accesible everywhere to everyone, a price tag of zero is just a byproduct of that goal, with free stuff you can take it non free if noone know it was there(a lot of newspaper revenue came from this fact) the “open culture” folks wont let that happen to their projects.

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