Copyright/Plagiarism: April 2008 Archives

When Fair Use Becomes Bad Writing

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The plagiarism news wire came up with a new twist on plagiarism I had not considered before - the use of reference works in historical fiction. Any novel writer who wants to be taken seriously by historians must of course do a certain amount of historical research...because you know it's a bad Civil War novel if the battle of Gettysburg takes place in 1885. On the other hand, you don't really foot notes in your historical novel. Imagine the following piece of fiction with citations.

As Jim Bob swatted away another mosquito on the morning of July 1, 18631 while marching with General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia2 towards Gettysburg through the scenic Adams County3 orchards of Pennsylvania...he knew it was going another hot day...

In other words - full citation is not really a key concern of novelists. The serious historical novels may have a bibliography at the end, but few "romance" novels will have any such resource. In some sense, novels must have a built in "fair use" clause to include whatever research a novelist chooses to use - without or without citation

But what happens when a novel lifts entire passages from a reference book as one romance novelist has been accused of doing. That is, how far can you go in using academic research?

In this case, it's not a clear case of "cut-and-paste" plagiarism (which would definitely be wrong), but would rather would be a case of "inappropriate paraphrase" - that is rewording the material so little that the "essense" of the original remains. Is this OK?

Actually it may be more OK than you would think. Dan Brown (author of the Da Vinci Code) won a lawsuit against Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of Holy Blood which originally proposed the thesis that Jesus and Mary Magdeline may have conceived a child and still had modern descendants. All Dan Brown did was take an interesting premise and add a modern day thriller twist.

And it's a good thing he did win or else we would never be able to enjoy a bad UFO's in Roswell novel ever again. Truly, I doubt there could be an economic crime here - few people mistake novels for historical research. Even if Brown did not directly acknowledge his sources, I do honestly think that Holy Blodd could easily have leveraged the novel to increase their own sales. I think ANY book about Mary Magedeline could have seen an increase in sales.

But I can't let our novel authors off scott-free either. It's never a good sign that a reviewer or reader can determine your original source material. It either means you didn't do enough research or you're not a good enough writer to translate scholarly prose to compelling prose. I don't know about you, but I'm not feeling the gritty splendor of indigenous native American culture in the following passage

He [Shadow Bear?] nodded toward the closed entrance flap. "Outside, you will notice that further recognition is given the sun by the erection of the Lakota village with every tepee door facing the east."

The crime may not be plagiarism, but it sure is bad writing.

Electronic Reserves: An "Unglamourous" But Successful Service

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Electronic Reserves - a University Libraries Service in which instructors request library content for their courses to be digitized and made available online to students. A few of these documents may be streamed music or online images, but truthfully most are PDF files.

Around 2003, I worked with the Libraries and the Penn State ANGEL Programmers to conceptualize and implement a nifty ANGEL utility - an ANGEL Reserves tool which lets students jump straight from their ANGEL course to the correct course Reserves without a second login and course search.

This tool may not sound as exciting up front as some other technology options, but I am proud to say that this is one service that has stood that the test of time. Despite minimal marketing (at least from ITS), the tool is still being used in over 600 360+ courses in Spring 2008 (or 700+ courses/year) across 19 campuses. Electronic Reserves is also one of the tools I can guarantee that I will use in just about every course I teach.

Connecting Electronic Reserves to ANGEL solves a lot of problems for instructors. Not only can students go to just one location, but copies will be legal 99% of the time (for instance, I may be able to link to a pre-existing image from the CAMIO image database which Penn State has purchased access to). On the other hand, because ANGEL is password protected, there is potential for TEACH Act leeway for at least a semester. And Electronic Reserves saves file space on the ANGEL because files are really hosted at the Libraries. It's almost a .... mashup?

So although the ANGEL Electronic Reserves is a fairly small scale utility, it's one of the projects I am very proud to have been associated with. It looks like just another way to link to a PDF file, but really it introduced me to the world of the mashup, service integration and the single signon portal.

I just wonder what Electronic Reserves will be connecting to in another five years.

Lawrence Lessig - Elizabeth's Quirky View

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I lucky enough to attend Lawrence Lessig's Keynote address at the Penn State 2008 Symposium last week. If nothing else, it was worth it to see the mashup of George Bush and Tony Blair singing Endless Love to each other (I can verify that Fox News watchers also thought this was hilarious).

On a more serious note, it was a keynote that inspired me think - sometimes on a Lessig track, and sometimes on my own track.

So Many Orphaned Works

I was amazed to find out that 75% of the volumes scanned by Google are "orphaned works", that is under copyright, but out of print. That IS a lot of content under lock and key. You can read more about this line of thought at

Copyright Restrictions Can Both Inhibit and Liberate Creativity

Lessig made an excellent case on the need of allowing artists to incorporate past works - especially in terms of social criticism (see video above).

On the other hand...I know that NOT being able to use these works can ispire creators to greater heights of creativity. For instance, I wanted to demo a certain type of embroidery stitch, but couldn't get permission to copy an embroidery design (or even buy it off of Amazon). So I ended up creating a design on my own to highlight the stitch - which I might not have done otherwise.

Copyright is one reason we have so many duplicate photos of the same object or technical drawings of the same concept. It's often easier to make another version of your own then try to license it from someone else.

There are limits though. When Florence King (author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady) wanted to quote old song lyrics telling tales of "fallen women", her publisher informed that they could not guarantee licenses because some songs may have been recently re-recorded and under new restrictions. Her solution at the time was to create her own lyrics within that genre, but from a research point of view...this was not ideal.

Professionals and Amateurs - An Old Dichotomy

Whenever I hear references to technology and history - I'm usually both intrigued and worried. I'm glad to know someone is looking to the past, but is it always the right metaphor? For instance...

Lessig discussed the "new" tension between professional creators (those who can get paid to create) and amateur creators (those who do it without getting paid). He quoted Sousa as warning that phonographs would "professionalize" music (read-only culture) while today we are seeing a "return" of amateur musicians (read/write culture).

To me though it's not such a new dichotomy. It's said that even the Celts required years of training for their bards (professional musicians), so the distinction of popular vs professional has been around a long time (at least since ancient Egypt had slinky flute girls in the palace). Similarly, the rise of the record and the camera gave rise to the garage band and the hobby photographer. The read/write mix persists even through the 20th century. You could argue that having access to professional caliber examples is good for the art community (unless it suppresses the traditional arts).

What is changing is that the amateurs are now getting the same distribution channels as the professionals (see next section).

It's The Distribution System That Changed

I think the Internet revolution is really about distribution (I'm sure this is not an original thought, but the Internet is not facilitating a good citation search today). Because posting a file is so cheap - both amateurs and professionals can put their content on the Web in the same "channels".

Before the Internet, professionals and amateurs had different ways of distributing their opera magna (that would be the plural of opus magnum). In modern era, only professionals were "published" on a large scale and only by companies who could afford the duplication equipment. Further back in time, the only way to access a high-level professional artist was probably to visit the capital (and maybe you had to know a rich patron or someone in the palace).

Amateurs or popular works were usually distributed on a more local level. Maybe you attended a local concert or saw a hex sign painted by a local artisan. A non-elite would see these the most, but only those styles and genres for their particular region.

But today - something on the Internet could be either "amateur" or "professional" and this is something that has its pluses and minuses. Lessig noted the pluses for amateurs (and saavy professionals), but studios who are used to making profits by publishing are NOT seeing the benefits right now (hence the copyright crackdown).

Interestingly this merger of the channels has led to another common academic complaint - the need for students to develop the information literacy skills to distinguish the good stuff from the schlock. Sometimes it all connects in ways we never expected...