Archive for the 'intellectual property' Category

Got rights?

February 13, 2008

Despite being a mother of zero, today I’m blogging over at Freelance Parent. If “first North American Serial Rights” sounds like a phrase out of your nightmares, or if you’ve never thought about who owns your words, I suggest you head over.


DC government caught plagiarizing

May 9, 2007

District of Columbia mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration has been caught plagiarizing. Oops!

Victor A Reinoso, the deputy mayor for education, lifted phrases and ideas from other school districts when compiling a 31-page plan to improve the performance of students in DC schools, according to the Washington Post. The paper reported that 32 percent of the school plan was borrowed illegitimately.

Reinoso said in a statement:

“In my eagerness to compile a compendium of successful reform initiatives, plans and best practices, I didn’t properly attribute educational sources. . . . I am hopeful this oversight doesn’t diminish the public’s perception of the Administration’s intent and ability to successfully manage and reform the District’s Public School System.”

The most vocal critics of Reinoso’s actions claim that he should have tailored his recommendations to fit DC schools; among other differences, the DC system is less than half the size of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system from which many of the plagiarized passages originated.

My biggest worry with this is not that the plan “doesn’t fit” the DC school district. After all, more than 60% of the document was original. But if the people in charge of the schools can’t figure out the concept of academic honesty, how can students? Or rather, how can teachers, who can’t possibly be blamed for the actions of a city official, expect to have power to punish plagiarists if this sort of thing is running rampant at the administrative level? Are we, as I’ve suggested before, thinking we’re sliding down an ethical slope to a point where plagiarism is a fact of life–or is it a move toward the utopian free exchange of information?

I also can’t help but wonder if people would still be complaining that the plan was not unique to the District if Reinoso had properly attributed his sources. After all:

In Fenty’s document, with “DRAFT” stamped on each page, strategies to create reading and math classes for middle school students, recruit teachers and use “secret shoppers” to judge how parents are treated by school employees come directly from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg plan.

The administration’s proposal for a “data dashboard” with statistical indicators to enable “the public to see, at a glance, whether current improvement efforts are on track and to respond appropriately when problems arise” is lifted from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg document.

These sound great! The Charlotte-Mecklenburg plan, which took over 100 days and 500 parents, teachers, and consultants to compile, should be emulated. Of course, the full document probably has more details that should be tailored to fit the school system, but there’s nothing wrong with borrowing good ideas. And citing their sources.

The Internet murdered the term paper.

March 27, 2007

The term paper has been murdered by the Internet. Right? Jason Johnson in Sunday’s Washington Post wrote on this topic; explaining how he was rewarded at work for putting his name on someone else’s writing. “It was an open secret that my entire report, written “by Jason Johnson,” had been composed by others and that I had been merely an editor.”
“Essay Time.”
Flickr: Tim Riley.

“As kids today plagiarize more and more from the Internet,” Johnson writes, “the old-fashioned term paper — composed by sweating students on a typewriter as they sat elbow-deep in reference books — has no useful heir in the digital age.”

It is tempting to do away with research papers. Web sites like, which compare papers uploaded by subscribers to its vast database of journal articles, newspapers, web sites, and other research papers, cannot possibly catch every instance of plagiarism. What’s more, TurnItIn is hard to use (from my experiences training professors at this university to use it) and is only in use at the universities and colleges that have opted to pay for it. Clearly it has gotten so easy to plagiarize that there is almost no reason not to.

Colleges, of course, disagree: Patricia McGuire, President of Trinity University in Washington, called the column “a stunningly irresponsible case for tolerating plagiarism” on her blog.

The writer (did Jason Johnson actually write the column, or did he just cut and paste it from some sophomore’s dream of a world without plagiarism consequences, a world without the need to demonstrate any ability to write something longer than an instant message) manifested a remarkable disrespect for the ability to conceptualize and write a lucid text presenting the student’s own analysis of facts and opinions. The writer argues that we academics should simply give in to the prevalence of plagiarism and find methods other than term papers to assess student knowledge, reasoning and writing abilities (well, he pretty much dismissed writing abilities as relevant).

While spending the time to write a good research paper or essay will help hone a student’s writing skills, maybe those skills, for the average shmuck, aren’t relevant anymore. The modern student communicates through IM or short notes on friends’ Facebook or Myspace “walls.” The longest things most students have to write on a daily basis are e-mails to professors (and believe me, I have seen students write their professors or bosses using Internet abbreviations.)

I guess they’re not really quality.
Flickr:Lasagna Boy.

Who hasn’t seen blatant, painful grammar or spelling errors on store signs, flyers, advertisements? Try our “FRESH” Hot Dog’s. It makes a logophile like me cringe, but some—most?–people won’t even notice the error. The meaning behind the language parses just the same. In the corporate world, e-mails from administrative assistants, co-workers, even bosses are littered with more spelling errors. (Microsoft Word, which, of course, is used in almost every office across the country, is telling me right now that “logophile” should actually be spelled “loophole.”)

If the ability to create original writing was valued, the first generation of Internet plagiarizers would all be unemployed right now. (And let’s not forget that plagiarism wasn’t born with the ‘net. My grandfather plagiarized a term paper in dental school and copied pages verbatim from a book about the most obscure subject he could think of, the tsetse fly. Unfortunately, his professor’s specialization turned out to be the tsetse fly—without that unhappy coincidence, though, the man would have gotten away with it. He was a very good dentist until he retired, and he has never written another word on the tsetse fly as long as he’s lived.)

If nobody seems to care about good writing, why do we teach it? Having just spent the last four years of my life writing and studying writing, I feel like there must be a reason.

Some day, at your job, your supervisor will ask you to research a new technology, or a competitor, or a possible new contact. Once, that meant original work; even if the information was available, odds were it’d be on the other side of the country. But we are very close to the time when the answers to everything you might ever want to know on any subject will be a few keystrokes away. Perhaps Johnson is right, and the ability to “synthesize content from multiple sources, put structure around it and edit it into a coherent, single-voiced whole” is more crucial today than the ability to write original ideas. “Students who are able to create convincing amalgamations have gained a valuable business skill,” he writes. In addition, just like a regular research paper, a plagiarized papers will teach students how to research on the Internet, how to vet a source for accuracy, and how to work all the bells and whistles in Word. All important skills.

Not all plagiarized papers construe a “single-voiced whole.” Clever plagiarizers edit, but sloppy plagiarizers cut and paste–and get caught. But Johnson’s essay all but ignores the fact that plagiarism, sloppy or clever, caught or not, is morally wrong. If we are moving into an age where we must accept that term papers teach students how to edit rather than write, is this also a tacit acceptance of dishonesty? I hope not. I hope there is a way to accept that editing is a bigger part of modern academic work than writing without encouraging blatant plagiarism.

But there is still the issue of declining writing skills as editing skills are on the rise. Are we prepared to eat hot dog’s qwik-ly for the rest of our lives? Will Microsoft Word’s spellchecker and MSN messenger team up to destroy grammar? Will we, in the future, lol instead of laugh? Will we :) instead of smile? Will we care?

Let’s wait and see. U with me?
For a different take on the issue, see another piece from the WP: Wikiality in My Classroom.

On the Commodification of the Ecstasy of the By-Products of Action

March 13, 2007

(No, this is not another Splasher post.)

 If you haven’t read Jonathan Lethem’s amazing plagiarism, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” over at Harper’s, go do so. The idea that everything is a retelling is, in itself, not a new idea, but I don’t often think of works of art and literature as being better when they play off each other. Of course it’s true, and I realized that as soon as I really thought about it, but it’s not a concept that gets much play in today’s society, where Disney continues to convince us that it’s for the public good that they own Mickey until 2019.

Now Lethem has announced on his web site that he will give away, in two months’ time, a free option on the film rights to his novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, which is released today. The New York Times broke the story in their Arts, Briefly section and reported that Lethem said he’s “become fitful about some of the typical ways art is commodified.” There are two caveats to any aspiring filmmakers:

  1. I’d like the filmmaker to pay (something) for the purchase of the rights if they actually make a film: two percent of the budget, paid when the completed film gets a distribution deal. (I’ll wait until distribution to get paid so a filmmaker without many funds can work without having to spend their own money paying me).
  2. The filmmaker and I will make an agreement to release all ancillary rights to the film (and its source material, the novel), five years after the film’s debut. In other words, after a waiting period during which those rights would still be restricted, anyone who cared to could make any number of other kinds of artwork based on the novel’s story and characters, or the film’s: a play, a television series, a comic book, a theme park ride, an opera – or even a sequel film or novel featuring the same characters. For that matter, they can remake the film with another script and new actors. In my agreement with the filmmaker, those ancillary rights will be launched into the public domain.

I’m so amazed by this that I’m almost speechless. Way to walk the walk, Mr. Lethem. This is a man who makes his living from selling his intellectual property. He isn’t giving away something expendable. This is his life. This puts food on the table and pays the rent and he is giving it away for free. Yes, he may make some money off the film later, but he may not.

Also on Lethem’s web site is “The Promiscuous Materials Project,” similar in concept but for some of his short stories, and some song lyrics. Again, these stories are not expendable, early attempts. One story, “The Spray,” has been “the most requested story [Lethem has] published.” Interestingly, Lethem says the project was partially inspired by the idea that he could, using a Creative Commons-type license, allow more than one filmmaker to adapt the story. Indeed, despite the project being only a few months old, two filmmakers are working on “The Spray,” two other short stories are being turned into films and stage plays, and ten musicians have taken advantage of “The Promiscuous Songs,” the recordings of which are available on line.

I will be following this as the months go on to see how many directors and movie studios take Lethem up on his offer for You Don’t Love Me Yet. I’d also be interested to see if this also results in the book selling more copies. People have to read it to see if they want to film it.

I just love the idea of sharing and sampling sponsored by the creators. It’s a win-win situation: good for the original artists and good for everyone else.

 Now if only Disney would figure that out.