The Role of Copyright in Fighting Plagiarism: Part 2

Image of AttributionIn the first part of this column, I took a look at a recent article and video by Nina Paley that made the claim that copyright was not necessary to stop plagiarism.

I analyzed Paley’s points and showed that, while it would be nice to live in a world where such a statement were true, that it simply isn’t. Such a statement is not ground in the law, in human nature nor in the realities of the Web.

Copyright and plagiarism certainly don’t enjoy a perfect relationship by any stretch, but it is a necessary one, at least until there are major legal, technology and/or societal changes.

That being said, Paley actually focused much of her column on a far stickier issue: Attribution. Specifically, the question of who should be attributed and why.

As she correctly points out, the question is not a straightforward one and certainly is a perilous one to ask, but it’s an issue that must be addressed if any discussion of plagiarism and copyright is to move forward.

Is Attribution an Author’s Right or the Public’s Right?

Paley, in a comment to the post, made her position on the question above very clear, saying that:

Attribution is not a “right” of authors; it’s a right of the public. The public deserves to know where a work came from, within reason anyway.

In the article itself, Paley likens attribution to helping neighbors out and says that:

Those who go out of their way to deceive and defraud their neighbors – i.e. plagiarists – are hated and shunned. Plagiarism doesn’t affect works – works don’t have feelings, and what is done to one copy has no effect on other copies.

In some ways, Paley is right. Attribution is very much a right of the public and she is even correct that works don’t have feelings and what happens on copy A does not affect copy B. However, she is overlooking a very central point, that plagiarism harms authors.

Authors are humans and they can be hurt financially and emotionally by plagiarism. I’ve met authors who have been unable to publish their poems because they was “too much doubt” of authorship due to excessive Internet plagiarism. I’ve met businesses that have been hurt by competitors plagiarizing their marketing copy. I’ve met artists of all types have watched as others have built careers of varying degrees on the back of their work and were unable to stop them, save with copyright law.

Even if one disagrees with copyright law completely and feels creators should use other business models exclusively, doing so requires that copies passed around bear attribution so that others know where to buy the T-shirts, whose concerts to attend, who to get consulting from, etc. Without attribution, others are able to enjoy absolutely all of the benefits of the financial investment, creativity and time of original authors without having contributed anything to the process and risked nothing but, at most, their reputation.

Plagiarism can and does cause real harm to authors, the same as it does to the public. Thus, the two rights are not mutually exclusive as there is good reason both authors and the public at large should detest plagiarism, namely how it injures them.

Saying that authors have no right to attribution implies that the lack of attribution does not harm them. However, there is little doubt in my mind that, in many cases, it definitely does.

However, this argument seems to stem from Paley’s view that plagiarists will always be caught by the “transparent system” that is the Web but, as we discussed previously, that system is far from perfect or even effective, making plagiarism a potentially serious injury to an original creator.

How Much is Too Much Attribution?

However, one area I find myself largely agreeing with Paley is on the issue of attribution itself and who deserves it. She uses the example of her short one-minute video where she provides credit for the video, song and vocals.

She points out, correctly, that if she gave credit to everyone who had a hand in the video, no matter how small, the credits would run far longer than the video. If you think movie credits are long now, imagine if they had to attribute everyone who worked on the software that edited the video, built every prop used in it, etc.

Much like with fair use, it can be tough, if not impossible to find where you draw the line between not enough attribution and too much and there are no easy answers. To make matters more complex, as Paley discusses, different communities have different standards for what requires attribution both in terms of who gets it and what kind of reuse requires it.

For example, academia has different standards than the legal profession. Likewise, poets view attribution differently than filmmakers. Learning the standards of attribution should be a part of learning a particular craft and is part of it that should be studied as part of it.

No matter what trade you’re in, part of your job is to learn how to be a good member of your community and work with others in your field. Attribution is part of that. It’s part of ensuring you don’t engage in practices that are unfair to your peers or harmful to your profession.

Bottom Line

So where does attribution fit in with copyright and plagiarism? It’s definitely one of the thornier issues. In most countries, though not the U.S., moral rights are there to guarantee the right of the author to be attributed but even then there is not always clarification as to when attribution is appropriate and how much is needed.

The U.S. penalizes the removal of copyright management information (CMI) in the DMCA, including attribution. However, this only applies in specific cases. Mostly though, as discussed in the first part, the issue is covered mainly through other laws as well as flexible awards that weigh in factors like plagiarism in determining damages.

That being said, when looking at and weighing these factors, courts typically try to determine the intent of the person comitting the act. Did they intend to plagiarize? Were they trying to take credit for the work or merely make a mistake? These issues can be tough and courts are far from perfect, but usually if one make a good faith effort to attribute their work, even if it isn’t adequate, they’re in for at worst an ethical scolding and not legal trouble (or additional legal trouble).

In short, these issues are thorny, but they should never stop anyone from doing their best. Trying and failing is always better than not trying at all when it comes to attribution.

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