Copying, freedom of content, ripping/mashing/burning, vs. Plagiarism

I’m back from my homeland of Iowa, where I did the usual Thanksgiving things, along with the unusual. We celebrated Christmas with my side of the family (we actually opened gifts before the food) because this is the year we visit the “other” (eg, in-laws) side of the family.

And I also sat around and read stuff I normally wouldn’t have time to read, including Malcolm Gladwell’s “Something Borrowed” in The New Yorker, and, as an interesting companion piece, much of the November 2004 issue of WIRED magazine, which is about this cool CD I mentioned a week or two ago that comes with the November issue, along with issues associated with copyright, Creative Commons, the open source movement, and how all this stuff intersects with music. As long as I’m linking to this stuff here, I should of course link to this Collin Brooke post, which makes and then links to some other good commentary on all this. Good stuff for a class in the future, I suspect.

A couple of quick thoughts about all this before I forget:

In my own simplistic way of viewing these things, I think there’s a difference between “copyright violation,” “borrowing/stealing” without attribution, and plagiarism. “Copyright violation” is essentially a product of capitalism. People (or, more accurately, corporate entities, like record companies) get all worked up about this because there’s money at stake. I think both Gladwell and the stuff in WIRED problematize this effectively.

“Borrowing/stealing” seems somehow different and in-between copyright violations and plagiarism to me. As a couple of the blogs I mention above suggest, Gladwell “forgives” the playwright Bryony Lavery for lifting lines from his New Yorker article for her play, and this seems like an fitting response. I can understand that, though it’s worth pointing out that Gladwell, as a gainfully employed writer at a prestigious magazine, can probably afford to forgive Gladwell. Suppose, for example, that Lavery had “borrowed/stolen” a few lines from a piece of writing from a student in a playwriting workshop? I wonder if the “we all borrow/steal” crowd would feel “warm and fuzzy/this is just sharing/information always wants to be free” about all this under those circumstances?

I do think there is something to be said for the fact that Dorothy Lewis, the “real life” psychiatrist who is more or less the main character in Lavery’s play, feels “violated” by the whole thing. I mean, Gladwell had a few lines from one of hundreds of magazine articles “borrowed” from Lavery; Lewis had a version of her identity stolen and reworked by her. To me, she has more to complain about.

And then there’s plagiarism, which to me (since I am an academic) is very much a matter of academic rules. In my teaching, there are essentially two forms of plagiarism: accidental and purposeful. Accidental plagiarism is not getting the citation right in some fashion (forgetting to put something in quotes, forgetting a citation, citing only part of a quote/paraphrase, etc.). Purposeful plagiarism is when a writer presents a piece of work she didn’t write to an audience (generally a teacher) as if she did write it. This is the “bought paper” or the paper written for hire.

In my own teaching, I don’t worry a whole lot about the accidental variety of plagiarism (I find it easy to spot and I simply tell students they need to correct it), and I construct assignments that would be rather difficult to purposefully plagiarize. So I try to prevent plagiarism, but I don’t spend a whole lot of time with software like Turnitin tracking down possible violations.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I kind of disagree with something that Collin said: I don’t think we all plagiarize. On the other hand, I do think we all borrow/rip/mash/burn all the time. How could we not? As Collin talked about, we all obviously learn language (and just about everything else I can think of) by copying others. We all get ideas (like this post) by reading others, we all get notions of art, music, movies, anything, because we all live in the culture. Or, as I am fond of saying to my students, originality is highly over-rated because it is next to impossible to actually accomplish.

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