Protected? Online Content, and its Abuse

399047242_b2952292f5photo by Brittney Bush Bollay

Years ago, while editing a free-press magazine, I found that the closely-guarded text of a mediocre article that the Publisher himself had submitted as his own (and rejected my suggestions to improve) was a verbatim reproduction of a local business' website copy. I confronted the Publisher, who told me I was overreacting, and that the site owner "would never know."

I resigned that month. (The magazine closed its doors shortly thereafter, due to mismanagement.)

So imagine my reaction when I read Waldo Jacquith's Virginia Quarterly Review blog post demonstrating that Wired editor Chris Anderson's latest book, Free, is full of paragraphs that appear to be lifted, verbatim and without attribution, from Wikipedia. [Though Jacquith is careful not to accuse Anderson explicitly of plagiarism, Edward Champion has no such scruples.] While the actions of my previous employer were inexcusable, this much more extreme indiscretion by a well-respected editor of a major magazine, whose book is being published by Hyperion, is far more alarming.

Jacquith's column sparked a heated debate among its readers, some praising Anderson's "admission of guilt" (essentially, "Oops! I had footnotes but the publishers didn't like how it looked and I didn't know the best way to properly cite in a different way, and then I forgot to change it,"), others leveled harsh criticism against Anderson, who really should know how to cite a source.

But at the heart of the matter, it seems, is the "confusion" that surrounds using content available online to substantiate and support an author's arguments. Some Anderson defenders commented that, as an encyclopedia, Wikipedia did not need to be cited (and I urge them to read The Creative Commons Deed--which covers Wikipedia content and states "You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor [but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work.]") Others, like Zito van Dijk, commented, "If a 'taking over of words' is very long and substantial, wouldn’t that mean that Chris Anderson does not quote, but takes part in the Wiki writing process? According to GFDL, this makes his book to be copyleft, and everyone has the right to copy it freely?"

Ahhh, the GNU Free Documentation License. Like the Creative Commons Attribute, or the Educational Community License, it is a legal guideline to enable public works to retain the original author's integrity. The thing that always worries me about Creative Commons and the like is that, to the layperson, these licenses may seem esoteric (and, consequently, not very important--like the "I have read and Agree to the Terms" checkbox, that minor inconvenience you check so that you can get to the good stuff). Thus arise situations like the now-notorious lawsuit against Virgin and CC, the result of someone online not understanding what it was, exactly, that the license was permitting.

Interestingly, I was just in the midst of playing with a couple of online tools that carry either Creative Commons or Educational Community licenses. The first of these tools is Ficly, the second incarnation of Ficlet, a sort of online writing group. On this site anyone can contribute writing samples, poems, etc., have them read by others, modified, and responded to. The second is Sophie, described by creators as a tool whose "goal is to open up the world of multimedia authoring to a wide range of people, institutions, and publishers. In so doing, Sophie redefines the notion of a book or academic paper to include both rich media and mechanisms for reader feedback and conversation."

Great resources both, each offers participants (or even audiences) the opportunity to receive a lot of information, engage in vibrant discussion or creation, truly collaborate. So who, at the end of the day, gets to walk away with "ownership?" Is there the potential for significantly increased licensing breaches as there are ever-proliferating ways to get the public at large involved in sharing ideas, words, video, photos, etc? And though I believe that anyone involved in publishing anything to the web should arm himself with knowledge about his rights regarding that content, I believe that most people don't really know what their rights are.

I think most of us learned about plagiarism in high school or college. But for those of us who are either older than the internet or who had only limited access to it during our time as students, there appears to be a massive gap in our collective understanding of what governs web content. In schools I hope that curriculums have been updated to address various online licenses that apply to work that they will encounter. For the rest of the populace, I think it's vital that anyone out using the web is able to access a comprehensive source, like CC's fantastic primer, before using sites like YouTube or copying a Flickr picture into a PowerPoint presentation. It's too easy to generate, borrow, modify, and distribute without really knowing the implication of these actions. A person can sign up and start posting content without ever realizing that they may have given permission for anyone to use their work, as long as they are given credit for having generated it. There are no doubt many people using others' work without attribution, blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are technically breaking the law. (Though, of course, there are many who do it knowingly, as this artist's experience attests. This blog has linked to her in the past, in an article about the dangers and benefits of Print-on-Demand.)

We need to hold high-profile individuals (especially, considering that their audience is much broader!) to the same standards that we hold the little people, and not accept a mere apology. Look at Jammie Thomas-Rasset, whose (ignorant or fully-informed) online lawbreaking has been made a serious example. Why shrug off Anderson's disregard for an equally binding law, and accept Hyperion's unwillingness to alter the book release date to correct the "mistakes" in the hard copy?

And for goodness sake--if you are going to use a source like Wikipedia as the foundation for an argument, CHECK YOUR FACTS. Don't do like Anderson, and paraphrase incorrect information. Ouch.

Addendum: Article in the Guardian that both reviews Anderson's book, addresses the phenomenon that allows Google to pay nothing for art, and touches (too lightly, I feel!) on Anderson's liberal unattributed-quoting.