Sunday, July 22, 2012

Plagiarism, Copyright, and the Shifting Ethics of the Internet

Like many other bloggers this week, I have taken down all photos from my blog(s) that weren't photos I took or had express permission to use.  And here is why:

I knew before reading about this author's experience that the Internet is making copyright and plagiarism much more of a gray area than it used to be...not that the rules have changed but that it's sometimes harder for people to tell when they aren't following the rules.  Roni Loren's experience and post remind us what the rules are and, unfortunately, how we can be punished if we don't adhere to them.  Far too many people get away without punishment (just take a random look at Pinterest and Tumblr, where so many people post--or manipulate and then post--images and videos they don't own) on a daily basis.  It's fun and whimsical and even inspirational...but it's easy to forget that it's material that doesn't belong to us.  Even if we make note of where it came from, that's not the same thing as explicit permission.

Some might argue that the Internet is creating a post-ownership world...but that's usually coming from people who aren't the owners.  If an owner/creator CHOOSES to make his/her work freely available (and that's not the same as posting it on the web---they have to explicitly state that other people are free to use it for a, b, and c purposes)---if an owner/creator makes that choice, then by all means, that's a wonderfully generous act that will perhaps inspire others.  But that's still the owner's prerogative.  That doesn't negate the idea of ownership.

Some might argue that the photographer in Roni Loren's case was too harsh.  I get that.  The photographer could have been mollified by the removal of the material. my other life, I deal with plagiarism pretty regularly.  And I get that argument from students a lot.  "Does this have to be reported to the Dean? Can't I just fix it?" While the pushover in me wants to say yes, I cannot forget that, as often as not, people don't truly learn or change unless the stakes are high enough.  And, in my situation, such reports stay in-house--they don't get added to the student's transcript or follow the student to an employer.  The consequences are large enough to convey to the student that plagiarism is wrong not just because I personally say it's wrong but rather because there are public (potentially legal, financial, and social) ramifications. But they're mild enough that I hope it truly is a learning experience for the student without jeopardizing their entire academic career.

Ultimately, I applaud Roni Loren for speaking out about her costly experience and allowing other bloggers and writers to learn from it.


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