Recently in Copyright/Plagiarism Category

Superman May Break Copyright Barrier

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As some of you may know, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 is fondly known as the "Mickey Mouse Law" because it preserves Disney's Mickey Mouse copyright for another 20 years. We'll see what happens to Mickey Mouse in 2018, but it turns out that Superman will beat him there first because the initial copyright is about to revert to the Shuster and Siegel families instead of DC Comics.

This story from Blastr describes the complex relationship though. The families will get some of the modern Superman, including his basic costume and basic superpowers and Krypton, but not the latter additions to the cannon (e.g. no Kryptonite, Supergirl, Lex Luthor). In fact, I'll be curious about the logo, because it did a get a little tweak between 1939 and the George Reeves era. The reversion will also only apply to the U.S.

The truth is that DC Comics will have plenty to work with, although they are rebooting Superman's costume (just in case), so Superman will live on to fight another day. However, it does point to a fascinating legal landscape that we are about the face. Sooner or later, even Mickey Mouse will start to come into public domain as will Superman, Spider-Man and other iconic characters.

Although it's clear that corporations will have the upper hand for a while since only small portions of each character will leak into the public domain, it will be interesting to see if they maintain the advantage. Fair Use already allows people to use these characters in a satiric way or as part of social commentary, but fans would love to see genuine new adventures in new combinations (maybe a Superman/Mickey Mouse crossover epic).

It's also extremely fascinating from a folkloric perspective. We think of modern "mythologies" as being unified narratives, but they are built up in pieces over time, just as ancient mythologies were. Now we will all get to appreciate the pieces of the legend. If Superman survives beyond this era, I am confident he won't really be the property of DC Comics anymore.

New Thoughts on Plagiarism

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Last week, I went to Schreyer's session on academic honesty and although I have been to a lot of plagiarism talks, I really got some good insights out of this.

Plagiarism Varies by Context. What's Yours?

We all know plagiarism when we see it, but a checklist from Faculty Perceptions of Plagiarism by Jean Liddell and Valerie Fong (2005) reminded me that definitions vary widely.


Should all student work be "original"? It depends on the assignment. A creative writing assignment should always be original, but how about a paper for Intro to Egyptian Archaeology? Unless the class attends a dig, students will have to rely exclusively on secondary sources and quotes. If a professor is lucky, a student may come up with an original comparative twist, but how likely is that? Of course, it is this unoriginality that allows paper mills to thrive.

Another twist is that some cultures feel that originality belongs only the "masters." Apprentices and students may be more expected to copy from the master first before embarking on an original work (I'm sure I heard that somewhere). That's actually how many crafts work - crafters copy other's designs, partly to learn new techniques, then may begin original designs after learning basic skills. The same may be true for quotes - is it better to rewrite another's thoughts? In my world, yes (because it's good writing practice), but others could consider that destroying a well-crafted thought.

Common Knowledge

Another parameter is defining common knowledge. Is it whatever appears on Wikipedia? Any factoid said by an instructor? Or, as some students claimed, the same fact in three sources? The answer is probably not, but how can students tell without a little instruction?

One of the benefits of learning academic writing is learning to track the trail of "everybody knows X" to its source. How do we know when someone was born? It's not from a Wikipedia article or even the biography quoted in Wikipedia, but likely from some document from that era (birth certificate, church records, family history, etc). Understanding our sources of knowledge is an important analytic skill.

But...out in everyday life, we rarely "cite" our information. How many course slides and best practice handouts have you seen listing facts without a bibliography? Do consumers care? Not if they're trying to fix something or pass a course. No wonder students think whatever they hear in class is "common knowledge".

The Collaboration Trap

I hate to be cynical, but if you really want to see plagiarism in action, just encourage students to work together. When done poorly, one student gives the answer to another. I often figure this out because either 1) the copier misunderstands the information and doesn't convey it quite right or 2) the "team" doesn't spot the errors, but instead replicates it across multiple assignments. Sigh.

For the record, I don't forbid collaboration because I don't want the study groups to break up. I merely require that students use their own words so that they at least "process" the information. But I am struck at how successful the academic loners remain in many contexts. No cheating and better formulated material in many cases. We all have to learn teamwork at some point, but I still think it needs careful thought.

Is Plagiarism de rigeur now?

Perhaps the most revolutionary thought is that students are being trained to think that academic dishonesty is part of the natural order. First, Engler, Landau and Epstein (Keeping up with the Jones (2008) note that students overestimate the rate of cheating. They also cite research that students who believe cheating is prevelant are more likely to cheat themselves.

Even more alarming is a thought from a sociology professor who asks if all our instructor warnings set up a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many ways, our culture considers instructors and students to be adversaries, and a student who cheats and gets away with it definitely scores a victory. As might be expected, I have heard that students who feel more connected to their instructor may be less likely to cheat, but it probably doesn't replace an instructor providing plagiarism guidance.

Change it up!

The above are all good reminders as I enter final project season, but it's also important to vary assignments. In fact, I like to avoid traditional research paper assignments as much as possible - who needs another rehash of a topic we all know already?

There are lots of ideas out there for original assignments, but one I like is a class project to build a wiki around one book for a literature class (or a wiki around a specific topic in another class). It's a good team project in which each student's contribution can be clearly seen, and hopefully you can switch books/topics between semesters. Another is to meet with students to develop a project idea (preferably one that is interesting and doable). Students who are interested in the topic are more likely to do more work for it. This is also a stage where you can set expectations so students don't panic at the last minute. Finally, I think making a lit review a more overt assignment is interesting - that is what most beginning academic "papers" really are, and hopefully the lit changes often enough that the paper mills can't quite keep with it.


I've had some experiences in past semesters which have made me very cynical about plagiarism, but I'm hoping that this discussion will help me guide students towards being better researchers. We'll see.

Plagiarism Scandal, Version Web 2.0

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As many an instructor will bemoan, the Internet giveth a lot to plagiarizers in terms of paper mill sites, Wikipedia and just an abundance of online text students can make off with for term papers. But as I found it in a post from colleague Robin Smail, the Internet can also taketh away from copyright infringers.

When an article on historic apple pie recipes written by Monica Guido was picked up by another cooking magazine without her permission...Ms. Guido expressed her outrage to the editors.

The initial result was a proclamation that the Web was public domain anyway. So Ms. Guido expressed her outrage via her blog. Outrage was also expressed by her friend Nick Mamatas and from there the story spread through out the Internet (as Robin documents so well).

The result for Cooks Source has not been good. Their Facebook page has been host to several obnoxious comments regarding the scandal and a report that at least one advertiser has pulled out. This is not good for business. As they say karma can be a mean, nasty lady.


Robin's blog does do a good job at explaining the ramifications from a social media perspective. I think the interesting insight for me is that we are discovering a new way to evaluate "expertise" that will be beneficial in the long run.

Various information literacy seminars will include "source" as a way to evaluate the authenticity of information. Once upon a time a news story from the a professional publisher or media outlet would always triumph over an "amateur"...but that has really changed. Ironically, the Internet is gradually teaching us to evaluate information on its own merits.

On the face of it, Gode Cookery looks like a total amateur production (and it remains proudly Web 1.0), especially in comparison to a media-saavy enterprise who is trying to harness the power of Facebook. But I have always recommended it, and it has built up a reputation in the cooking world.

Part of it is the fact that it has been around since 1997 (that's like 39 years in TV time). A more important part though may be (gasp) the complete bibliography included at the end. Ms. Gaudio claims to be a mere amateur, but she knows enough to cite your sources and carefully document your sources. She is equally detailed when explaining how she converts 14th century haphazard recipes to a modern version, up to an including if you can find authentic 14th century apple varieties (not very easily).

This is exactly what I find exciting about the Internet. Yes, we can pass along photos and updates to each other, but the dedicated hobbyist can now meaningfully contribute to the community of practice and really make a difference. And it appears that discerning viewers really may be able to hone in on what's good on the Internet.

Buffy vs Edward: Another Masup with Fair Use

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One of the topics the Media Commons discussed in a vodcast about the Open Video conference was the changing perception of copyright in videos. Whereas about 5-10 years ago media specialists and instructional designers (myself included) were emphasizing caution when using material for Fair Use, these days many are advocating "taking back" Fair Use.

One video that came up as a good example of using Fair Use was Buffy vs. Edward, the dream mashup in which the Slayer (Buffy Summers) meets the vampire Edward from the Twilight in high school, then decides to well...slay him, partly because she's sick of his cliched romantic stalking. You go, girl!

Despite the fact that this video uses over 30 seconds of material from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight, this video still claims Fair Use exemption because it is "transformative." It is refreshing to see a mashup claim this in the credits, and it makes sense to claim Fair Use. It isn't really cutting into the profits (if anything, it might make you want to re-watch Buffy or Twilight), it's isn't using a huge proportion of material (in comparison to 6+ hours of Twilight footage and 7 seasons of Buffy). And it is criticism because it's making a comment on gender roles within vampire fiction.

So is any mashup safe? Well I have to say yes and no. First, the official definition of Fair Use doesn't really say anything originality as being a criteria. So I would not use that in factoring in my Fair Use analysis (plus you have to transform things much more than this to not raise copyright eyebrows).

What's probably more relevant is that the mash-up is explicitly making a parody/social commentary and the right to re-purpose content for these uses has been protected in U.S. courts. That's good news for us educators because many of our mashups assignments would be designed to do exactly that. But other mashups may be a little more ambiguous (say a simple story where the Disney version of Cinderella and Snow White throw a traditional non-feminist tea party).

And it's the ambiguous cases that have gotten people in trouble because once the take-down notice comes, you probably have to go to court to expand the use the parameters of Fair Use. There are some brave pioneers who have done that, but an instructor would have to decide if this is part of a student video assignment or not. Fortunately the TEACH Act gives instructors additional long as items are posted in the right password protected area.

Another Comment on the Hauser Scandal

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I'm one of the many academics astonished by the recent scandal in which serious accusations of research misconduct have been leveled against Marc Hauser of Harvard University. If you're not aware of the scandal, Hauser is essentially accused of misreporting behavior of Rhesus monkeys then intimidating the graduate students in his lab into following his interpretation.

I do give Harvard kudos for following up on an anonymous complaint from one of the students in the lab. In fact it appears, that all the graduate students will be cleared.

I think it's safe to say Hauser's reputation will not be the same, but what about the rest of it? If reports are accurate, this misconduct did not apply to one experiment, but represented a pattern which several students knew about. As another primate researcher Frans de Waal asks, "Another more sensitive issue is, how many people knew about the misconduct, or how many could have known about or suspected it? Advisors, students, postdocs, close colleagues? Was the scientist solely responsible, as the dean claims, or is there more to worry about?"

It's a legitimate question, but a part of me is surprised this doesn't happen more often. Who really would have both the knowledge and the standing to say something is misconduct were occurring. Really, the only other people most familiar with the data would likely be the graduate students, and it would be very difficult for them to say something. There's a reason the report is anonymous....

Or to put it another way, how many times have you been in a situation where a boss or co-worker has done something you find questionable - yet you said nothing. If you do say something, are you labeled as being argumentative? Not a team player? I know I've been on both sides on this one, and neither position leads to a good night's sleep. I'm glad Dr de Waal adds "the students who exposed the misconduct deserve praise" to his questions of responsibility. I bet it was a tough situation for all of them.

I don't know how to resolve a system for checking scientific data or even allowing for whistleblowers to feel safe. I do believe that an ethical climate starts from the top. Both in modelling behavior and for allowing people to provide feedback (it's one reason democracies are better than dictatorships). I've been in situations where people I am "leading" have told me what I'm doing wrong. It can be annoying, but it does have one benefit - at least I have a clue that I may need to rethink something critical before something really goes irretrievably wrong.

Hitler Defends Fair Use (Along with Disney)

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I'm know for being a little paranoid about violating copyright, but there is the Defend Fair Use side as exemplified by Lawrence Lessig and the Center for Social Media. But somehow, no one justifies the usefulness of allowing users to post parodies & remashes on YouTube quite like Adolf Hitler or Walt Disney. See the clips below:

P.S.: I really have to credit Robin2Go for pointing out the first video.

Defending Hitler Parodies

A Fair(y) Use Tale, Not Quite the Disney Version

UCLA Student Tutorial on Copyright & Plagiarism

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UCLA has a nice student tutorial on copyright, plagiarism and organizing research tasks at

Good information, but accessible. Plus you can see how Carlos and Eddie navigate the modern academic maze.

I like it so much I'm double posting!

Link Between Cut/Paste Plagarism & Student Clulessness

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Although most students realize that submitting someone else's paper as your own is plagiarism (and a major academic violation), a joint study from Swarthmore College and University of Michigan indicates they may not realize that cut and paste plagiarism is also a violation.

In a recent study conducted by Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob, students are given an essay writing assignment, but split into two groups. One is assigned a plagiarism tutorial which also covers cut and paste plagiarism while the other is not. Dee and Jacob report that assigning the tutorial "substantially reduced the liklihood of plagiarism."

Penn State has several plagiarism tutorials available including:

Team Papers, Copyright and Plagiarism

| | Comments (0) turns out that it's one thing for a desperate individual student to sell/create a term paper for a paper mill, but it's a whole other matter for one person to sell a group paper without approval from the other team members (especially when the team doesn't get a cut).

Although the mills have been immune from most legal challenges, the issues of papers for sale without authorization from all the authors may have some teeth. According to a recent U.S.A. Today article, one judge found a company liable. Of course, the company appealed and now it is in U.S. District Court.

The paper mills are preparing for trouble ahead though. (which sells custom papers) noted that "All custom essays and term papers completed by (the) company's writers will be double-checked with the newest anti-plagiarism software." And a corporate spokesperson for comments, "We avoid all those issues because we're totally free."...except for a pesky monthly membership fee to join and access the archive.

Smeal Honor Code Resources

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This is the time of year when I check and update the external links for Web sites such as the Plagiarism Prevention Resources. I had a few new URLs to input, but it appears that the Smeal College of Business has been very busyt preparing a whole new site on its "Honor Code" for its students.

There are actually two sites from Smeal on their Honor Code:

The second site at the Student Exchange has a lot of information about policy, but the first includes information about ethics in the business curriculum as well as videos from business leaders, faculty and students speaking about ethics. Interestingly, a major theme is how integrity relates to trust in building business relations and reputation. Another is the comfort level workers feel in working in an environment that values integrity.

Another feature of the Honor and Integrity site is the list of courses at Smeal ranging from first year seminars to the MBA level. The news in recent months and years has featured lots of business leaders doing unethical things. It's good to see that Smeal is doing its part to show that business and integrity are good partners.