July 17th, 2009

Living With Ghosts

Anti-Plagiarism Day

Today (July 17th) is anti-plagiarism day. Does that matter? To a lot of people, the plagiarism rules can look like a way for authors to be overprotective. The huge fuss over the Potter encyclopaedia showed that. Many people thought J K Rowling was being selfish or greedy about that: she has lots of money, the argument seemed to go, so she must be wrong. I've seen it argued, too, that anti-plagiarism rules in an academic context are exclusive and elitist, designed to protect the interests of a small group. That view argues that students are paying for their education so deserve to get the result, some what may.
I disagree with both. Academic plagiarism rules aren't about gate-keeping or elitism. They aren't about dissing over approaches to learning, either. Telling me what a book or article says and that you agree with it (and, ideally, a why which goes beyond 'because Professor X is an expert) isn't plagiarism, though it may be a weak essay in some ways. Handing in someone else's work as your own is plagiarism. It's cheating, for one thing -- it's unfair on fellow students. It can provide another way in which having money gives an advantage. It's discourteous, too -- too many students think their lecturers are too stupid to spot when an essay is out of line with other work from that student, or looks familiar in some other way. It's lazy. Studying for a degree involves work, it's meant to involve work, and paying a fee doesn't remove that commitment.(Handing in a plagiarised article as your own work to the academic who wrote it is just stupid. A student really did this to a colleague. And whined about unfairness when challenged.)
And then, there's the 'freedom' issue. It seems that some people think copyright is a nasty thing invented to protect the rich and exploit everyone else. This attitude was what fuelled the negativity towards J K Rowling. She was seen as being able to afford to let her work be sold on for someone else's benefit. But there is another point at work here. That case wasn't about ensuring she made more money. it was about protecting the right of an author -- any author -- to maintain control over their work. If she'd lost that case, so would every other writer who found themselves in that situation. It had nothing to do with relative wealth.
Copyright is an artefact of a change in the legal status of written works in the early modern period. Once upon a time, writers wrote for a fee (for a publisher or patron) and once that fee was paid, that was it, no more income from that work. That's a model that was just about sustainable in the 16th century, when many works were only circulated amongst a small group, when plays were considered to be owned by the company for which they had been written and so on. But as the use of printing became ever more common, and as books spread, this model became unsustainable -- it's essential feudal, it can't work in a capitalist state. Copyright developed as a way to protect the interests of creators and their publishers. That's still its purpose. That's why it's important that J K Rowling won that case. Possibly she could 'afford' not to have that income. But the vast majority of other writers couldn't, if it happened to them. Plagiarism is, quite simply, theft.
I wasn't paid for a great deal of my published work. Academic journals don't pay, some publishers don;t pay for books, either. But it's my work, my research, the product of my labour. My academic reputation is vested in it.
I've been plagiarised, years ago. I wrote an article for an online journal (on Hong Kong film). It never appeared there, but the website owner took my piece and sold it to a print journal under his name. I did nothing apart from be very sarcastic to him when I next saw him, because I couldn't afford legal action. (He didn't get the sarcasm, but he repeated the behaviour so often that he became known for it, and his various businesses, all HK film related, went under and he's banned.)
But: the bottom line for me is this. Taking something and passing it off as your own work isn't just silly or stupid. It's theft. It isn't flattering to have your work stolen. It isn't respectful. It's painful and upsetting and career-damaging. If you want a degree, work for it. You'll get more satisfaction that way, and more respect. If you write, write your own stories. Homages are fine, pastiches are funny, fan-fic is okay by me. But plagiarism is vile.
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