Friday, February 16, 2007
  Plagiarism and "The Ecstasy of Influence"
We were discussing plagiarism in the teaching staff meeting yesterday. It's a perennial subject, with a series of well remembered moans and gripes, as teachers battle with students. In the past we conducted a sort of Source Criticism by noticing changes of style, or unusually felicitous turns of phrase, and searching out half remembered passages from the textbooks on our shelves. Or in extreme and bothersome cases in the library. [I'll return to plagiarism as a student misdemeanor later... First I'll direct you to a fine, superbly written meditation The Ecstasy of Influence, by NY writer Jonathan Lethem, in Harper's.]

Art and life in a world of influence and dubbing

Lethem reminds us how Blues, Jazz and literature all exist through an "open source" style adapting and adopting by one artist of what others have done. Yet these artforms are merely well known examples where this phenomenon is overt and often recognised. They are examples of all art. If you enjoy reading and thinking, read the piece!

Gradually Lethem moves on to copyright, noting the early copyright battles over photography (another art that evidently only works by framing existing material in a new way):
Was the photographer stealing from the person or building whose photograph he shot, pirating something of private and certifiable value? Those early decisions went in favor of the pirates. Just as Walt Disney could take inspiration from Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr., the Brothers Grimm, or the existence of real mice, the photographer should be free to capture an image without compensating the source. The world that meets our eye through the lens of a camera was judged to be, with minor exceptions, a sort of public commons, where a cat may look at a king.
Introducing the delightful image that we are all born backwards into this world, experiencing the past through the present:
The world is a home littered with pop-culture products and their emblems. I also came of age swamped by parodies that stood for originals yet mysterious to me—I knew Monkees before Beatles, Belmondo before Bogart, and “remember” the movie Summer of '42 from a Mad magazine satire, though I've still never seen the film itself. I'm not alone in having been born backward into an incoherent realm of texts, products, and images, the commercial and cultural environment with which we've both supplemented and blotted out our natural world.
In such a world the iniquities of "copyright" are clear:
The idea that culture can be property—intellectual property—is used to justify everything from attempts to force the Girl Scouts to pay royalties for singing songs around campfires to the infringement suit brought by the estate of Margaret Mitchell against the publishers of Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone. Corporations like Celera Genomics have filed for patents for human genes, while the Recording Industry Association of America has sued music downloaders for copyright infringement, reaching out-of-court settlements for thousands of dollars with defendants as young as twelve.
Meanwhile back in the classroom

Students who - perhaps rightly in view of the experiences Lethem evokes - see reuse as thoroughly legitimate and teachers who strive to hold them to the rules of academic rigour, which include "proper citation", perhaps need to step back and ask why academics cite while artists remix.

Academics cite because the scholarly guild, like any guild worth the name, is built on community, tradition and authority. Citing sources is not as some non-Western students assume another example of Western individualism and private property running rampant across their lives, but rather the desire to document how one's ideas are built upon the work of others. It is precisely community that drives citation. Failure to record one's dept is not merely theft of ideas (from a member of the same guild!) but also lack of respect for the honour of another, and so dishonouring to the writer who fails to acknowledge that debt.

The three levels of citation:
  • page reference and quotation marks: for words that are being added to your remix
  • page reference: where particular ideas but not the other author's wording are being used
  • mention in a bibliography: for all works that were useful
are distinguished for more utilitarian reasons, the bibliography and page references allow another remixer (your reader) to benefit from your work, and so allow you to contribute to "scholarship" not merely through whatever small idea is "new" but also through your work in searching, sifting and evaluating the prior literature.

So, the academic sin of plagiarism remains a sin - even in the world that we enter backwards, where all our best thoughts and words are remixing the ideas and expressions of others - because it fails the rules of the scholarly guild and lacks respect for other members of the guild and fails to support them.

Plagiarism is individualistic theft, just as copyright is!

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