BY AARON BARLOW
Questions of ‘intellectual property’—oh, how I hate that term—continue to plague us in this new digital age, and in ways never contemplated when patents and copyrights and trademarks and more were first protected by law in the English/American tradition three- and four-hundred years ago. We have built up assumptions of ‘ownership’ without ever really examining them (as a cultural whole—people have been studying this for generations, but with little impact) and, here in the US, we have moved without thinking far away from our Constitutional directive to Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Time of copyright was limited so that others could use what had previously been done for further progress, limited so that new work could continue apace.
Now, instead of seven years, we can be forced to wait a century to make use of what was written before. Not only that, but we’ve made the work of the mind into a thing, as though it can be bought and sold like a block of wood, its ownership passing from one generation to another as might a cherished heirloom, held closely and privately.
That our new laws go against the intent of the Constitution should be obvious to anyone—but that’s no matter. We’d rather guard than share.
This is a problem, but allowing people to skirt the law (not to mention related academic conventions of scholarship) for their own advancement doesn’t solve it.
Perhaps the most notable attempt to work around our laws of possession is that of Creative Commons, a system of alternative licensing that “helps you legally share your knowledge and creativity to build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world. We unlock the full potential of the internet to drive a new era of development, growth and productivity.” That, and the Open Access movement, which attempts to make more work more available, quickly and without restriction.
The other side of the coin is the responsibility of the user as opposed to the rights of the ‘creator.’ Copyright and patent laws have attempted to protect the latter by coming down hard on the former. More broadly, we have come to vilify ‘plagiarists’ and have set up guardians of ‘academic integrity’ within our colleges and universities.
The problem is that we haven’t come to any sort of consensus nationally on what any of this means.
Not even on college campuses can we agree what it means to break the covenant of academic integrity. Or even what that covenant—for all of the rules on paper—really is. I served for a year as an ‘Academic Integrity Officer’ and saw attitudes on the parts of professors that ran from viewing plagiarism or cheating as a ‘learning opportunity’ to wishing to see the culprits walk the plank. Few could adequately express the reasoning behind their beliefs; mostly, they reacted emotionally. Nor were students any less confused. Some saw what their teachers deemed ‘cheating’ as collaboration. Others really didn’t understand the conventions of reference they were contravening while still others knew exactly what they were doing and stonewalled any attempt to get them to take responsibility. From what I understand, my experience was no different from that of AIOs on other campuses.
The same problems bedevil us in the public sphere. Monica Crowley, Donald Trump’s pick as Director of Strategic Communications for the National Security Council, currently faces criticism as a serial plagiarist. She was first caught out in 1999, when an article she ‘wrote’ for The Wall Street Journal was shown to ‘come from’ an earlier Commentary article. Then, on January 7, 2017, Andrew Kaczynski exposed passages from her 2012 book What the (Bleep) Just Happened as plagiarized, presenting side-by-side passages from the book and their uncredited sources. Next, on January 9, 2017, Alex Caton and Grace Watkins presented evidence (also with side-by-side comparisons) that her 2000 doctoral dissertation for Columbia University also played fast-and-loose with conventions of citation and reference that amount to plagiarism.
According to Kaczynski, a transition spokesperson responded to his inquiry, saying that “Any attempt to discredit Monica is nothing more than a politically motivated attack that seeks to distract from the real issues facing this country.” In other words, her plagiarism doesn’t matter.
Some commenters have even tried to muddy the water by raising Joe Biden’s plagiarism in a speech in 1988. The two instances have little similarity (though I did not like what Biden did any more than I did when Melania Trump stole from Michelle Obama), the latter coming from a more relaxed tradition of speech and the former from more rigorous print and academic traditions (there’s no legal ramification for using another’s words in a speech not meant to be recorded; there is, for an item to be printed. And there are certainly academic ramifications for lack of citation).
What Crowley has done for almost twenty years is take credit, both in print and for academic certification, for the work of others. What Biden and Melania Trump did, while wrong and rather stupid, does not rise to the same level of fraud. The problem is that, while Biden and Trump were using the words of others to flatter themselves, Crowley was actually breaking a law and also fraudulently claiming academic work as her own. Whatever we think of our copyright laws (and I do find them overly restrictive), they need to be respected at least as long as they are on the books. And our entire tradition of scholarship, based as it always is on preceding work, requires spelling out the path that led to the current project in an exact and detailed manner.
In a journalistic or academic setting, Biden and Trump can be dismissed as irrelevant. Crowley cannot be. She has contravened established practice in at least three instances over the last twenty years, not having learned, apparently, from the exposure of the 1999 instance. If she is confirmed as an important player within the Trump administration, she is giving license for students to justify, to themselves at least, the sort of cheating that has helped lead her to a position near the top of our government.
Not only has she broken copyright law but she has weakened our entire tradition of rigorous academic exploration and achievement. Pointing this out may have, yes, a political component, but it is nonetheless needed. A plagiarist like Crowley should never be a pick for any sort of position of public trust.
We will never be able to develop a strong and useful vision of copyright or even define ‘intellectual property’ in an efficient manner as long as we reward people like Crowley. She needn’t be punished (though Columbia might want to think long and hard about rescinding her degree), but she certainly shouldn’t be ‘promoted.’