Copyright and attribution

by Henry Farrell on December 15, 2004

Maynard Handley, in comments to my “recent post”: on plagiarism suggests that the recent kerfuffle over plagiarism can be traced back to the content mafia.

bq. Hypothesis: The current rash of stories on plagiarism is not simply a reflection of the fact that digital technology makes certain patterns easier to detect. Rather it is fanned and encouraged by the same media corporations that are behind perpetually lengthening copyright and the DMCA —- corporations whose larger goal is not simply to prevent you from copying a CD from your friend (and thereby avoiding paying them $15) but the construction of a system whereby everything non-material —- ideas, concepts, phrases on up, are owned.

He’s wrong, but in an interesting way – his hypothesis reflects a common confusion between copyright and attribution. Copyright is about the ability to control how your work is copied and disseminated – the granting of the right to make copies usually involves real money changing hands. Attribution is the (much weaker) requirement that any use that is made of your ideas or hard work acknowledges you in some sense as the author of those ideas. There’s no money involved – it’s an informal economy rather than a formal one. Academics usually don’t worry too much about copyright – they usually hand the copyright to their work over to publishers, and rarely receive much in the way of financial reward for it. They do, in contrast, care a lot about attribution, since this is the way that they make their reputation (and perhaps end up with cushy endowed professorships if they play their cards right). Academic publishers (which are a minor branch of the media industry) care very much indeed about copyright since this is their bread and butter, but don’t have much of an incentive to police attribution.

Not only are copyright and attribution different things, but they sometimes point in different directions. Academics would ideally like to see their work disseminated as widely as possible, as long as they retain attribution. They don’t make any money from it – the more readers, the better. Academic publishers, in contrast, clearly have an incentive to restrict reproduction of the work to those who are willing to pay for it.

In short, the informal economy of academic attribution is much more like the kind of alternative economy that, say, “Creative Commons”: is trying to create than it is like the copyright industry. Academics are usually happy when others rip, remix or even parody their work – as long as the remix artists acknowledge them by name. Similarly, the “Creative Commons”: licenses now include a requirement for attribution “as standard”: (it used to be optional, but 97-98% of Creative Commons users wanted it in their licenses, so that the CC crowd decided that it was easier to make it the default). The requirement that people not plagiarize (i.e. that they not use others’ work without attribution) presents no problems whatsoever for ‘free culture.’



BenA 12.15.04 at 7:17 pm

Couple thoughts about this…

1) Although I obviously can’t speak for him, I don’t think Maynard Handley was saying that plagiarism is the same issue as intellectual property, but rather that concerns about plagiarism are fanned by folks concerned about intellectual property. That may or may not be true, but the fact that they are not the same issue doesn’t entirely address the claim.

2) Concerns about plagiarism go beyond attribution. For example, one common type of plagiarism is inadequate paraphrase. And inadequate paraphrases, almost by definition, include a reference to the work being inadequately paraphrased (or else the crime would be something worse).


eudoxis 12.15.04 at 7:56 pm

He’s wrong, but in an interesting way – his hypothesis reflects a common confusion between copyright and attribution.

I read Maynard as saying that the recent exposure of attribution problems such as the trivial plagiarism described in the Chronicles article are intentionally exposed in an effort to distort a common view of copyright. Regardless, a lesson on copyright and attribution is timely.

I disagree with Maynard because I think the plagiarism problem as described is just the tip of the iceberg. Stealing of ideas and data are pervasive and much worse than described.

I also disagree with Henry who forgets that the humanities with their gentlemen’s agreements are only a small part of the larger university which includes the sciences, where ideas and their attribution do indeed present a formal economy.


Ben Hyde 12.15.04 at 9:55 pm

A system that is extremely good at detecting plagiarism is equivalent to a system that’s extremely good at detecting copyright violations.

Plagiarism is perceived as a matter of ethics. Copyright is perceived as a matter of commerce.

It is the job of PR to frame commercial goals in ethical garb.


Henry 12.15.04 at 10:59 pm

I’ve been reading a lot of innuendo and fact-free speculation – but does anyone have any evidence – even the slightest bit of real material evidence – that the copyright industry is actually pushing the anti-plagiarism agenda?


Jackmormon 12.15.04 at 11:16 pm

I wouldn’t put it as the copyright industry is actually pushing the anti-plagiarism agenda.

Instead, I would put it as the growing acceptability of violating copyright (or simply getting articles, movies, or music for free) as worsening the plagiarism problem.

It would seem logical to me that the increase the copyright-violation and all the press around it would have made plagiarism more visible and seem more like a structural problem. Academic discussions of intellectual property have been pretty sexy for more than five years now–you should see how excited my literary scholar friends have become about piracy of all sorts–and it kinda makes sense that this interest would filter down into a concern over plagiarism.

I’m going with correlation, not causation.


des von bladet 12.16.04 at 10:50 am

There’s also the
Berne convention
‘s take on this:

Independently of the author’s economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation.

This can actually have anti-business implications: I have heard of cases where an author has used these rights to block translations they didn’t like, produced by persons who had paid good money for the right to do so.

Of course, the fact there’s no evidence of the Conflation Conspiracy just shows how good those guys are.


Maynard Handley 12.16.04 at 8:07 pm

For the record I’d just like to chime in that the various commenters above pretty much express my point for me. I was not claiming that copyright violation and plagiarism are the same thing, but that we have a climate that obsesses about plagiarism because of commercial worries ovber copyright.

Henry says “but does anyone have any evidence – even the slightest bit of real material evidence – that the copyright industry is actually pushing the anti-plagiarism agenda?”
I don’t think you have to look as far as that, and I think jackmormon’s post gives an idea of what I am saying.
Having said that, I do expect that slowly you will see (in the usual PR/astroturf/silent whispering campaigns) that “concerns” about plagiarism will be bankrolled and kept in the public eye by the usual commercial suspects, in much the same way that, god forbid, the tobacco industry does not literally pay for movie producers to have their movies show smoking as cool, but somehow magically that just happens.


Henry 12.16.04 at 9:52 pm

Maynard, I think you’re wrong on the facts of it. Discussions of plagiarism haven’t seen a major shift in the last few years, and the major viable alternative (creativecommons) to the content industry is itself based on the principle of no plagiarism, because that’s what the punters want. Academics don’t obsess about plagiarism because of commercial worries over copyright – they obsess about plagiarism because their visible influence in the literature is key to their careers. The ‘climate’ has nothing to do with it. You don’t seem to have any evidence whatsoever of a causal connection, and there’s another explanation out there that explains perfectly well why people are worried about plagiarism w.o. any reference to the copyright mafia. Nor are possible reforms to address academic plagiarism going to have any substantial consequences for the copyright industry, so it’s not really in their interests to push it. It’s chalk and cheese.

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