Remixing Plagiarism: a #digped Discussion

This Friday, March 1 from 1:00 – 2:00pm Eastern (10:00 – 11:00am Pacific), Hybrid Pedagogy will host a Twitter discussion under the hashtag #digped focusing on the issue of ownership and plagiarism in the digital age, when reusing, remixing, and repurposing are common practices —  even creative ones. The conversation curated and archived via Storify.

Issues of ownership, intellectual property, and plagiarism are as old as the academy itself. But new media, and the permeability of text and image within them, create dilemmas not previously faced in our classrooms, research, and professional disciplines. Today, reuse, repurposing, even outright copying can serve artistic and creative purposes; but how these practices affect the original creators of content, how they can or should be viewed by the law, and how we — as producers and consumers of content — make determinations of ethical behavior are active questions in intellectual and pedagogical arenas.

In her article, “Of Icebergs and Ownership: A Common-Sense Approach to Intellectual Property”, Robin Wharton offers up a useful metaphor for ownership and plagiarism in the academy:

“If we visualize intellectual property as an iceberg, the law describes only the tip of the iceberg. Because the potential penalties for legal violations are so big and scary, and because liability for infringement has the potential to spread like a virus from students or instructors to the schools where they work, institutional discussions about intellectual property tend to focus largely on that one tiny part of the whole that everyone can see. But, to extend my maritime analogy just a bit further, navigating discursive waters safely requires that we steer around the whole iceberg, not just the tip.”

Elsewhere, Robin suggests that “we can reduce the utility and attraction of whole-text plagiarism as a strategy for classroom production and encourage students to understand their responsibilities as authors by requiring students to take ownership of their work in as many contexts as possible.” At the bottom of her argument, Robin is asking us to look first at ethical considerations by helping students establish their own ethos, and pushing them to conceive of themselves as authors, even experts, in their own right.

Responding to the idea of intellectual property in his article, “Online Learning: A User’s Guide to Forking Education”, Jesse Stommel suggests that:

“These two words are, for me, fundamentally at odds. We need to encourage sharing, remixing, and productive and creative forms of plagiarism. For example, how about an activity where the words of one student are asked to live coherently inside the words of another? Or an assignment that asks a student to intentionally mimic the voice, word-choice, and style of another writer? This is how children learn language, and we don’t police their plagiarisms.”

Jesse’s assertion is that some forms of plagiarism are acceptable learning strategies. In many creative disciplines, the act of imitation has been one of the foundational learning techniques of new artists and writers. Teachers of the fine arts may in fact ask a student to directly imitate — even copy — the style or works of a master in the craft. How might this practice affect a student’s interpretation of her own intellectual property?

Simon Morris, a British conceptual writer, advocates for imitating and copying as a form of artistic expression. His online bio states that, “His work is often inspired by the work of others – his engagement is poetic rather than logical. It may involve a purposeful misreading of the source material or even re-writing. The methodologies he utilises include destruction, rupture, erasure, nonsense, concealment and the irrational which allow him to create a fluid space of non-meaning. By working with non-meaning, the spectator is put to work in the construction of meaning.” In fact, one of Morris’ more recognized projects included a daily blog on which he re-wrote the entire text of On The Road, by Jack Kerouac.

What does this sort of imitation do creatively? What does it do to the original text? What does it do to the writer/copyist? Kenneth Goldsmith, author of Uncreative Writing, believes it a generative act: “Even when we do something as seemingly ‘uncreative’ as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices” (emphasis added). This is not necessarily to say that remixes, rewrites, and recontextualizations may or should go unattributed… But we must consider the artistic impact when they do, or when they don’t.

Our discussion on Friday will aim to question traditional ideas of ownership, while inquiring about the ethical effects of imitation, repurposing, and creative plagiarism.

Some questions in advance of our discussion:

  • What are the legal ramifications of creative reconstruction of existing works? What are the creative ramifications of legal concerns around plagiarism?
  • How can a student accept ownership of her own work when others may be encouraged to rewrite, edit, or reuse portions of that work?
  • What is the impact upon imitation — a common practice in many creative industries — when citation and attribution are requirements?
  • Who is the author in the digital age? Did Simon Morris become an author of On The Road simply by copying the text? Or is that an absurd supposition?
  • Where are the lines drawn between what we may do, what we should do, and that tip of the iceberg we believe we must avoid at all costs?

Add thoughts and questions below in advance of the conversation and join us on March 1 at 1:00pm EST (10:00am PST). For those unable to attend this week, Hybrid Pedagogy’s #digped occurs on the first Friday of every month. Our next #digped conversation will occur on Friday, April 5, 2013, same time, same place. If you have suggestions for future topics, feel free to add them to the comments below or tweet to @hybridped.

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