Ownership of Ideas: Intellectual Property and Academic (Dis)honesty: Part 1

Do you know about Crash Course? Happy Saturday morning to me! I’m sitting on the couch with my cat watching YouTube and it turns out, Crash Course has covered Intellectual Property in a mini-series!

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Crash Course is a project by John and Hank Green, aka the Vlogbrothers, who do pretty awesome work all around. In fact, they founded DFTBA Records, which stands for Don’t Forget to be Awesome! DFTBA works pretty closely with another organization I love, the Harry Potter Alliance, which is a great example of fan activism: a thing that happens when fans across the globe connect via the Internet and decide that they want to turn their attention outward, toward the public, toward social justice, toward human rights, instead of just appreciating whatever the focus of their fandom is. So for example, instead of writing Harry and Draco fanfic and posting it on Tumblr where it remains in a closed loop of fans who read, respond, and share, fan activists inspired by the Harry Potter series might get involved with trans* rights, voter registration, or organizing against child labor.

In ENG 131, we’ve been talking about intellectual property, and we watched the documentary film RIP: A Remix Manifesto, about remix/mashup culture and the future of copyright in the digital age. Gaylor, the film’s producer, presents these four truths as the “Remixer’s Manifesto”:

Screenshot of "A Remixer's Manifesto" from RIP: A Remix Manifesto

Let’s start with the first truth: culture always builds on the past. This one connects to our framing question: what is original? Is there one true source, is there anything uninfluenced by what came before (or around)? We’re getting into philosophy here: can we find the truth unsullied by external influence?

The second truth argues that the past always tries to control the future. As technology advances and tools for communication evolve, we will, for a time, view what is possible through a lens of what is familiar. Imagine looking outside through a window and not knowing how to make sense of what you see. This creates conflict: our past and our present (and our future) are not in alignment. When something holds power, and that power is challenged, there is resistance. The past will attempt to control the future by imposing its own value systems, or criteria for evaluation, and when the future fails to meet those criteria, it will be criticized. A great example of this is the literacy “crisis” ____ by mainstream media. Composition/rhetoric/writing scholars have found these criticisms to be unfounded: it’s not that students “can’t write,” but that they are engaging with media differently, much like what we read about in Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

The third truth, that our future is becoming less free, speaks to attitudes of the past being used to restrict or limit activities from the present and those that may exist in the future. We’re trying to…well, I know there’s an idiom for this, but I can’t seem to find it. We’re using old standards to measure new things. We’ve talked about the importance of context for understanding and defining literacy in ALP: at one point, being able to read and write on paper was a sufficient definition for literacy, but 21st century literacy looks different. It wouldn’t make sense to use the same definition for literacy over the next hundred years. If we did, we would be greatly limited. Imagine if schools only taught to that basic definition, ignoring the actual realities of everyday life?

The fourth truth states that to build free societies, you have to limit the control of the past. I think this is essentially asking for a revolution. Look at American history: have efforts to limit the control of the past generally been well-received? Likely not. Why do you think that change is feared?

This has a lot to do with power dynamics, and dominant groups exercising their control in an attempt to maintain their power. We are a capitalist, patriarchal society. Here’s what that means, in a nutshell:

  • Capitalism is a socio-economic system that values profit over people. In other words, everything can be monetized, and thus everything is considered property, even ideas and attention. Capitalism operates on a scarcity model: there can’t possibly be enough goods or resources for everyone, and thus there is a need to fight for and defend what you own. Money is power.
  • Patriarchy is a term for a society that is driven by masculine power and behaviors. Generally, this means that men retain power, and that masculine characteristics are considered superior: competition, aggression, violence. This doesn’t mean men are bad, but it does have significant consequences for people who are not men, as their power is limited. Many would argue that this system is in fact harmful to men as well.

Imagine what happens, then, when it is suggested that people share resources, that information isn’t property, that ideas aren’t original and cannot be claimed as such. What happens when people who make music, or art, ask their audience directly for support instead of going through record labels as middle-men who seek to make a substantial profit (how much CAN we make? how much COULD this be worth?)? What happens when people give permission for their work to be used by other people, when they encourage its use (see Creative Commons) and merely ask for credit? Think about how we defined new media: 

  • On demand
  • On any device
  • Interactive user feedback
  • Creative participation
  • Community formation around content
  • Democratization of the creation, publishing, distribution, and consumption of content
  • Bits
  • “Networkable” and “compressible”

New media is made for sharing. It’s made for collaboration. But this begs the question of ethics: how do we do it ethically, so as to honor all participants: the creators, the contributors, the users, the viewers? Are there “best practices” for working with others’ stuff outside of a pay-to-play, profit-motivated system? How does all of this translate to an academic setting?

Part 2 will pick up with connections between intellectual property, ownership of ideas, and academic policies regarding plagiarism.

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