Sunday, December 7, 2008

Blogging, Academics, Music: How much could plagiarism cost you? Did Coldplay do it?

parodyOnline, when another site or blogger publishes something a writer has written at his or her own blog or elsewhere and doesn't give that original writer credit, even presents the author as site staff (which is assumed when no name is associated) or gives her/his name as the author, we call it "stealing a post." Rarely do we call it plagiarism, the correct name for copying someone else's work and presenting it as your own.

While the word "steal" should tell anyone swiping a post is a serious offense, there seems to be this idea that online work is free and so it doesn't matter who wrote it first. Wrong!

So far the penalties for copying other people's work online without citing the source rarely carries big penalties unless the victim has the money for an attorney to press for reimbursement or the offender is blogging for a mainstream news source and can be fired or pressured to resign. Most often, however, the victim is an unpaid blogger who simply writes the offender, tells him or her to cease and desist from using the work without permission and without credit, and the the offender stops. If the offender doesn't stop, the victimized blogger may put the thief on blast, warning others that the offender steals work. It's sad when plagiarism on the web gets to that point.

What baffles me is why do supposedly educated people, and by educated I mean anyone who's at least received a high-school diploma from a reputable high school, take other people's work and ideas and present them as their own online. What's the payoff? Is it that hard to write your own work and to credit sources, and if you have nothing to say or show of yourself or at least an appealing way to present news about other people and their ideas, giving them credit of course, then why bother having a blog or website?

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by CopyscapeEventually it will come out that you plagiarize. All it takes is for the true author or one of the author's readers to do a little checking such as a search through Copyscape and you're caught. Perhaps plagiarism and not committing it is only important to serious writers who value thoughts, ideas, and original words. But if you don't value original ideas and words, then why write online? Become a reader only and stop pressuring yourself to create anything if it's such hard work to you.

While online plagiarism may escape penalty frequently, academic plagiarism as well as plagiarism on the job has consequences, expulsion from school, for instance, or job loss as well as a trashed reputation. Financial penalties, however, are unusual in cases of academic plagiarism. That's what makes this case in a post by Leslie Madsen Brooks intriguing. The plagiarist will have to lay down serious cash for her theft:
Matthew Coster was expelled from Central Connecticut State University in 2006 for committing plagiarism. . . Except he wasn't really a plagiarist. A state judge has ruled that Coster was actually the victim of another student, Cristina Duquette, who stole Coster's paper from a mailbox, edited it into what their professor decided was a better paper, and turned it in as her own.

Duquette, a 2008 graduate, must now pay Coster's $25,792.56 legal fees as well as $100 in damages, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education ... (LMB)
The thousands in attorney's fees is reasonable, but I think Duquette should have had to pay more in damages to Coster. Imagine the humiliation of Coster's being expelled from school for a deed he didn't commit.

Madsen, a college professor herself, continues the post and says she loves catching plagiarists in her classes. She has a provocative story about student assignments in technocultural classes as well.

I commented on her post, mentioning the old Beatles George Harrison's plagiarism case, "My Sweet Lord" vs. "He's So Fine,". "He's So Fine" is a song recorded by The Chiffons that was popular in the 60s.
In the U.S. federal court decision in the case, known as Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music,[2] Harrison was found to have unintentionally copied the earlier song. He was ordered to surrender the majority of royalties from "My Sweet Lord" and partial royalties from All Things Must Pass. Former manager Allen Klein, who earlier had supported Harrison's case, became the owner of Bright Tunes, after they parted ways. In the long run this worked against Klein, but it resulted in the case continuing for years in court.

The Chiffons would later record "My Sweet Lord" to capitalize on the publicity generated by the lawsuit. (Wikipedia)
When this happens in popular music, usually others hearing the song recognize the similarity and may have point it out to the author who accidentally swiped the song. In today's age of sampling old music for HipHop and other music forms, I wonder whether young people recognize that there's a price to pay for copying other people's work without giving credit. I think rappers had to pay fines when they first sampled without permission, but since then have learned to give credit where credit is due. You'll usually find those credits in liner notes.

As I commented on Madsen's post, I had this thought on our becoming more lenient on plagiarism in the age of sampling and the Net.
I get the feeling that we're becoming more lenient on plagiarists, giving them excuses like ignorance and saying that in the age of the Internet we have become a society of samplers who don't know the importance of citing sources. I disagree. Technology makes it easier to check your sources so you can give credit where due when you know it was not your idea alone. And if you know something unique did not originate with you it doesn't hurt to acknowledge that even when you don't have the name of the original sources. (Comment at BlogHer)
I think technology should make it easier to catch plagiarists, but Julie J.C.H. Ryan at Prism Magazine seems to think electronic media makes plagiarism harder to detect.

Another author believes fears of committing plagiarism hinders fresh work. I can sort of see that in music and possibly fiction writing, but not with non-fiction prose. In fiction writing the fear is usually that your plot and idea are not unique. But there are only so many plots on the planet anyway. The key to writing good fiction is telling your version of the story in a way that makes it fresh.

In one of my college courses on film, for instance, an instructor pointed out how often movies are retelling an old theme. "ET," he said, "was the tale of a boy and his dog. Old Yeller retold with a alien. The movie Speed with Keanu Reeves is Bruce Willis's Die Hard on bus."

And if you've read more than three romance novels, you know you're reading the same story told differently. These are themes that lead to plots that writers should freshen, formula fiction and movies, which is why I think the guys who sued Dan Brown and accuses him of plagiarizing The DaVinci Code were off base. The so-called mystery Brown revealed was rehashed religious conspiracy theories I'd heard in my youth. He gets credit for making it seem new.

Nevertheless, while reusing themes is kosher, and it may be natural for students to attempt to fool instructors by plagiarizing work, I think any English teacher or language arts teacher who doesn't cover plagiarism and why it's wrong in his/her class at least once during the school year falls short of his/her teaching duties. We should teach our children to respect intellectual property and the value of credible communications. A worker is worthy of her wages (biblical verse paraphrase). For writers that wage should at least be credit for quotes, money for entire works and articles unless the writer gives permission for the publisher to use the work freely.

Other articles on attribution and plagiarism that I've viewed over the last year:I mentioned the old George Harrison plagiarism case, which involves unconscious plagiarism of music, something easier to do than to plagiarize prose, I think. Then, while looking up sources, I came across a recent accusation of music plagiarism.

Rock guitarist Joe Satriani is suing the Grammy-nominated group Coldplay for plagiarism, per the BBC. He says the group stole one of his riffs for the "Viva La Vida."
Viva La Vida is credited to the band's four members - singer Chris Martin, bass player Guy Berryman, guitarist Johnny Buckland and drummer Will Champion. (BBC)
The Ampersand reports on this story as well and ask readers to judge. It presents the following YouTube video in evidence, and I must say that Satriani's "If I Could Fly" sounds very similar to Coldplay's "Viva La Vida." Listen.



Similar to me, yes, but as I've said, I think it's easier to unconsciously plagiarize music. You hear it, remember it, but later may forget where you heard it. Once you incorporate a bar or two into your own work, you may honestly think you composed it yourself. We don't recall words verbatim the same way we may recall bars of music, and that's why I have trouble buying a "subconscious" plagiarism defense from a poet, blogger, or research paper author. The comments at Ampersand are worth a read.

Concerns about music and subconscious plagiarism prompted an eHow video from one musician, David Jackel. Similar to plagiarism tutorials for writers, he tells musicians how to avoid subconscious plagiarism.

NaBloPoMo
, day 7.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Thanks for sharing on my blog. It's great how God chooses to answer some questions or prayers. I like your blog. Very interesting stuff. Did Coldplay plagiarize? Probably. I'd never heard of the other group and they probably counted on that fact. Nice tune, though.