The Problem of Attribution Erosion

Attribution ErosionThink about your favorite joke. Who told it do you or where did you read it? Who told that person? Who originally came up with it (assuming it was just one person)?

Odds are you have no idea who originally thought of your favorite joke or how it was created at all. You have no idea if it evolved from an earlier joke, how any such evolution took place or who added what along the way.

That’s because jokes are an excellent example of the idea of attribution erosion.

The basic rule of attribution erosion is simple:

The More Times a Work Changes Hands, The More Likely Attribution is Going to Be Missing, Incorrect or Incomplete

This is pretty much a fact of life and not something that can be easily changed. Every copy or retelling of a work is imperfect and the more times something is copied, the more likely attribution will be destroyed.

While it’s a simple idea and fairly easy to grasp, the implications of attribution erosion for creators who want to be credited for their work are very important.

The Basics of Attribution Erosion

Attribution erosion is basically a way of stating that, every time a work is shared or changes hands, legally or illegally, it’s an opportunity for attribution and authorship to be lost, changed or forgotten.

It’s tempting to blame this on people being nefarious, either taking credit for the work or maliciously hacking off attribution for various reason.

However, usually attribution erosion is due to more mundane human flaws. Simply put, people forget where they read/saw/heard things, if attribution isn’t affixed to a work it might not get scooped up when the work is shared or there might not be a convenient way to state who the creator is.

People, generally, want to attribute where they get things from, but human and technological failings make that difficult and all it takes is one misstep for attribution to be lost forever.

To be clear, attribution erosion only applies to one lineage of a work, not the work in its entirety. For example, though copies of a Robert Frost poem might make rounds on Facebook without his name, there are many other copies of the same poem with the name attached, including in countless books. So while one lineage might suffer from attribution erosion, that doesn’t mean the author is unknown for all eternity.

A popular work can have millions or billions of lineages, different paths of sharing and spreading, and each one can raise different attribution erosion issues. For example, a song played on the radio often times is missing attribution completely or it isn’t heard but a physical CD can be passed around almost countless times and, as long s the label remains intact, attribution erosion is unlikely.

This means that, for artists and creators, the goal is to ensure that the majority of the lineages of sharing that your work goes through are resistant to attribution erosion, meaning that, even if your work is shared against your will, at least people will know it is yours.

Being Erosion Resistant

Different types of works have different attribution erosion challenges. For example, jokes typically lose their attribution almost immediately. Providing attribution is rare when retelling jokes and it’s rarely to the original author. A joke being shared orally may only survive one or two rounds before completely losing attribution.

Of course, this is true for most oral works. For example, though we attribute the Illiad and The Odyssey to Homer, both poems were oral works well before they were written and it’s widely believed that Homer is the first to transcribe them, not tell them. It’s likely that the works evolved over time as being retold and passed down, with the original authors (and original forms) long forgotten.

Physical objects, however, are much more resistant. A book, for example, has attribution on the cover, the copyright page and, in some cases, nearly every page of the book itself. It’s almost impossible to separate the attribution from the work and, if one did, the book would be almost useless.

As such, physical objects like books are almost (though not completely) immune to attribution erosion. Attribution erosion, in these cases, rarely happens by accident and are difficult even if one is trying to falsify or remove attribution.

Digitally, things get much more difficult, but the general rule is that: The easier it is to remove attribution, accidentally or intentionally, the more likely it will be removed and the more quickly its attribution will erode.

As such, as a creator wanting to avoid attribution erosion there are three rules to keep in mind:

  1. Physical Objects Are Best: Physical objects almost never lose their attribution, especially on accident.
  2. Affixed Attribution for Digital Works: Affixing the attribution to a work, such as a watermark on an image or an overlay on a video, makes it difficult to remove the credit, accidentally or intentionally.
  3. Well-Known Works Don’t Matter: Finally, works that are well-known, even if just within their niche, don’t suffer greatly when attribution rot catches up. Some names and works can be plagiarized or unattributed, but the real author will always be known.

But despite the things that you can do to reduce or prevent attribution erosion, it is a bit like regular erosion in that it is a force of nature. As long as mankind is imperfect, we will forget and lose attribution with frightening regularity.

Bottom Line

In the end, the most important thing to remember is the importance of keeping your attribution affixed as tightly as you can to your work. While it may not prevent plagiarists who go out of their way to remove such attribution, it will prevent honest people from forgetting or losing it.

The easier you make it to pass along attribution and the more difficult you make it to remove, the more likely it will be carried with your work, wherever it goes.

While plagiarism, for many creators, is a very real risk, for others the greater threat comes not from those who would intentionally steal credit, but from those who accidentally remove or forget it when sharing a work.

As such, it’s important to be aware of how attribution is affixed to your work and how you can make it stickier. Because, while you can’t completely eliminate attribution erosion, you can definitely slow it down.

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