Where plagiarism comes from

The idea of property is a social construct and it varies both in places and in history. But is there a point where property is a given? In an interesting study at Yale Kristina Olson and Alex Shaw have been studying at what age children recognise that plagiarism is wrong?

By contrast, three- to four-year-olds did not rate characters who copied as any less likeable or any more bad than characters who came up with their own ideas. In a control condition, children of this age gave negative ratings to characters who stole physical property, thus showing that the the null result for stealing ideas wasn’t because the children didn’t understand the rating scale or weren’t paying attention.

Obviously it is important to try to understand where their values come from. But this is an interesting starting point in the discussion. Read more Olson, K., and Shaw, A. (2010). ‘No fair, copycat!’: what children’s response to plagiarism tells us about their understanding of ideas. Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.00993.x

Who took that? Finding images online

Since browsing began I have been collecting images I have found online. Everything from humor to teaching material has ended up being stored and transferred between computers. Since hard disks keep getting bigger this has never been a problem. Unfortunately there is a problem when I want to use the images I have found – legally. In many situations the photographer is unknown. Sometimes, but very rarely, the image filename includes a clue to the photographers identity.

For photographers the problem is related but different. It is important for them to be able to find out where and who is using their photographs without permission.

One solution many of us have been waiting for is image search engines. The idea is that you upload an image that is then searched for on the whole web. It’s google images but using an image as a search term. The closest example of this today is the search engine Tineye but it needs to be developed. It now has a limited database of about 1.2 billion images (Facebook, Photobucket and Flickr alone combine for over 18 billion images).

But Plagiarism Today reports some good news in this area. Corrigon is a new version of this image search. You upload images to Corrigon these are added to their database while the service then crawls the Web, looking for matching images.

What makes Corrigon unusual is that it doesn’t store the images, but rather, fingerprints them and compares the fingerprint against other matches it finds on the Web. This is very similar to what C-registry.us is doing with its matching technology. However, where C-Registry is more geared toward preventing works from becoming orphans, Corrigon is more about image search (though C-Registry has added image search)

So there is some slow progress in this area. Maybe someone at google will come along and develop a simple, elegant and easily available service as a complement to the basic search.

A variation to this problem is the mass of images I take myself. Here the problem is not that I am unable to use my own pictures but rather that I cannot find the one image I know I am looking for. It’s there somewhere but with so many thousands of images it may as well be lost forever. Don’t know how this could be resolved without a massive identifying and tagging effort on my part.

The concept of property (whose bike is it anyway?)

Property is not an absolute concept. The concept of what property means changes both in time and culture. Different groups and sub-groups value their own property and the property of others. Naturally this makes the definition of property difficult. Roman (Justinian) Law defined property as the right to use and abuse a thing, within the limits of the law (ius utendi et abutendi re sua, quatenus iuris ratio patitur).

That is a formalistic definition since it requires limitations to be set within the law. But if we replace the law with the limits set by society then the definition is more fluid but harder to limit.

In recent time the discussion of property has been discussed in relation to the legal, ethical and economic discussions on file sharing. A fundamental part of this discussion has been on the basic idea of digital property and whether copying digital products should be a wrongful act – this is not resolved yet with different subgroups still arguing their standpoints using law and technology to prove their point.

All this is good and well but today I got a more practical lesson in the meaning of property within different social sub-groups.

While browsing in a clothes shop my friends locked bike was stolen just outside the store. My less attractive unlocked bike was left behind. Fortunately we searched the area and found the bike. The thief had lifted the bike and hid it in a nearby ally – apparently planning to come back later to remove the lock.

Part of the experience of living in Göteborg is getting your bike stolen. Most of us have lost more than one. Some people argue that they have lost so many bikes that they actually deserve to “borrow” (a.k.a. steal) a bike when they need one. This means that there is an erosion of the concept of property in relation to bikes.

I know that this is a silly argument but the bike thing really pissed me off.

The fashion commons

Intellectual property and fashion – now there is a minefield. To those who are fashion oriented the look and feel of favorite labels goes beyond the property debate and enters into the realm of defining personality. People who wear Nike are…, Paul Smith is…, Billabong shorts are…

You get the idea. Never really thought too much about the connection between Creative Commons and fashion copyright but I read on the CC blog that the Berlin-based fashion label Pamoyo have decided to release the designs for their clothes under a CC BY-NC-SA license, allowing people to recreate Pamoyo’s styles at home as long as they don’t sell their creations. Similarly, someone can build upon one of Pamoyo’s existing designs – if they release the new design publicly they must do so under the same license, continuing the process of reuse and creativity.

What is the correct attribution on a swimsuit?

Storm Trooper Property Wars

George Lucas is the man behind the Star Wars films and as such he owns the rights to them. A lesser known fact is that Andrew Ainsworth was the costume designer behind the white stormtrooper helmets. So far so good each gets his due.

But who owns the designs for the stormtrooper costumes?

The British prop designer who created their famous white helmets and body armour is being sued by director George Lucas for £10m in a case starting at the high court tomorrow. Andrew Ainsworth was sued by the director’s company, Lucasfilm, after reproducing the outfits from the original moulds and selling them for up to £1,800 each. (The Force)

This would be fun in itself but the story gets even better:

Ainsworth is countersuing Lucasfilm for a share of the £6bn merchandising revenue generated since the first film in the series premiered in 1977.

So does the filmmaker own all aspects of the film? What rights do the set, costume, prop designers have? Naturally this could (and should?) all be resolved by contract but if there is no contract?

The fact that Ainsworth makes the helmets from the original moulds should not mean anything since the right to make copies does not follow the ownership of the moulds. However in the absence of a contract to resolve this question the fact that the designer was allowed (if he was?) to keep his moulds should weigh in his favor. What a lovely case – I can’t wait to hear what the courts decide.

More on this available at TimesOnline.

Boyle Book Cover Competition

Via an email list I found out that James Boyle, the new Chairman of the Board at Creative Commons and a founder of Science Commons, is holding a contest to design a cover for his new book, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. In the book, Boyle argues that more and more of material that used to be free to use without having to pay a fee or ask permission is becoming private property — at the expense of innovation, science, culture and politics.

Details, including specs and a link to some great source material for imagery, are available at the Worth1000 website. Both the book and the cover will be distributed under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial license.

Boyle is a great writer and enjoys exploring legal questions surrounding property in a way which makes it accessible and interesting to the reader. His book Shamans, Software and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society was a real eye opener for me. I am definitely going to get his new book.

When my PhD was almost finished I announced a similar competition for the design of the book cover and was lucky to get it widely publicized. The whole idea of the competition was actually quite resented and discussed on my blog. Professional designers felt I was cutting them out of the market by asking for free work. Interesting discussions ensued. The results of the competition were posted on my blog and the winner was chosen by popular vote and used on the cover of my PhD.

What is the lecture?

No one can tell you what the lecture is… sorry for the silly Matrix reference. The question here is on the issue of property and the lecture. The questions I hope to address are Who owns the lecture? Who controls the lecture? Who owns the lecture notes? What can the audience do? Who owns the audiences’ notes?

Some early background: In November 2006 I wrote the post Do you hand out your handouts which was concerned with students demanding (not asking) to have handouts in advance. This is also part of a larger issue of the impact of becoming dependent on technology in teaching (see post Teaching with powerpoint).

What triggered these reflections was the news that University of Florida professor Michael Moulton was claiming the right to prevent his students from selling their lecture notes. His claim was based upon the concept that the students notes were actually derivative works from his own notes and therefore the lecturer could use copyright to prevent the students from selling their notes. This is the basic story read more details at Wired.

Standing and talking i.e. giving a lecture is not copyrightable per se, this is actually a good thing as most lectures tend to be the explanation of the works of many others (not all mentioned). A lecture on basic copyright law will include ideas and direct quotes from the law, courts and often other jurists. The nature of the lecture is to educate the audience on a certain issue and therefore cannot be only the ideas and opinions of the lecturer. This use of the ideas and texts of others is neither copyright infringement or plagiarism.

The lecture becomes copyrightable when it is a derivative work of the lecture notes. In other words a lecture given without notes is not copyrightable, nor is a lecture given from notes taken from the public domain. If the non-copyrightable lecture is filmed or recorded then the copyright goes to the person recording (the director).

The “right” of the lecturer to refuse the audience to record is actually not a question of copyright but more a question of labor law. For example, if I were to refuse to let my students record me the question would be one of my refusal to carry out my job as a lecturer. The ensuing discussion between my employer and me would be a re-negotiation of my contract to take into account the audiences’ desire to record my work. Many lecturers I have spoken to are not aware of this position and some react very strongly to being recorded while they work. The audience taking notes is a developed fair use but again the lecturer could theoretically refuse to talk if someone were holding a pen (as with a recording device) but it is doubtful that the academic employer would support this position.

What can the audience do with their notes or recordings? If we presume that the lecture is based upon the copyrightable notes of the lecturer (as opposed to an ad hoc talk or a folk dance following a traditional pattern i.e. uncopyrightable) then any kind of reproduction of the notes/recording would be a violation of the copyright of the lecturer. The audience can however sell their copies or make copies for their friends within the limits of fair use but this would not allow them to make several copies or post the notes/recording on the Internet.

Therefore the lecture is a collection of rights and it intersects with different legal areas. Beyond that it is also a specific situation based upon the traditions and expectations of the audience and lecturer. The lecturer seems to have more power since he/she has chosen the subject, scheduled the event and does all the talking  but this is not necessarily the case. The lecture is a socially constructed affair which requires audience participation in specific forms (coming on time, sitting properly, silence, attention etc)

On top of all this comes the control via labor law and contracts. Wow, who said that giving a lecture was easy?

Do you own your library?

After having packed most of my books into boxes, physically transported them to their new home and placed them haphazardly in the bookshelves to await the slower and more pleasurable task of re-arranging my books I feel a strong sense of ownership, property and belonging. My books are part of who I am. Their physical appearance and their content are telltale clues to the identity of their owner.

I have previously written against the e-book but there is a specific issue which is important to point out. Cory Doctorow has written a short note entitled In the age of ebooks, you don’t own your library. The note points out the tendency of e-books to limit the rights previously held by the book reader. Today when buying files for the e-book reader the transaction is often termed as a license and may (this needs to be tested in the courts) limit the ways in which we can buy, sell, borrow and copy our books. In the worst case scenario licenses such as these will spell the end of borrowing books from friends and become another nail in the coffin of the second hand bookstore. Cory writes:

It’s funny that in the name of protecting “intellectual property,” big media companies are willing to do such violence to the idea of real property — arguing that since everything we own, from our t-shirts to our cars to our ebooks, embody someone’s copyright, patent and trademark, that we’re basically just tenant farmers, living on the land of our gracious masters who’ve seen fit to give us a lease on our homes.

The physical property we own will be dependent upon our behavior towards the content we require to fill it. Television requires the shows and we must pay the cable company, computers require software and we must license it, e-books will require us to subscribe to the rules of those who own the content.

Unless we stick to the old fashioned paper versions of course…

Against Intellectual Property

A new version of the book Against Intellectual Property by Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine is out now (download it here). The print version will be published by Cambridge University Press (around July 2008).

Reviews: Stephen Spear November 2007 review in the Focus

It is common to argue that intellectual property in the form of copyright and patent is necessary for the innovation and creation of ideas and inventions such as machines, drugs, computer software, books, music, literature and movies. In fact intellectual property is a government grant of a costly and dangerous private monopoly over ideas. We show through theory and example that intellectual monopoly is not necessary for innovation and as a practical matter is damaging to growth, prosperity and liberty.

Credits (pdf)
Chapter 1: Introduction (pdf)
An overview of the central theme: intellectual property is in fact intellectual monopoly and hinders rather than helps innovation and creation.
Chapter 2: Creation Under Competition (pdf)
Would the world be devoid of great or lesser works of art without copyright?
Chapter 3: Innovation Under Competition (pdf)
What would happen to innovation without patents?
Chapter 4: The Evil of Intellectual Monopoly (pdf)
Why are patents so bad anyway?
Chapter 5: The Devil in Disney (pdf)
What is the big deal with copyright?
Chapter 6: How Competition Works (pdf)
How would artists and innovators get paid without copyrights and patents?
Chapter 7: Defenses of Intellectual Monopoly (pdf)
What is the conventional wisdom and why it is wrong.
Chapter 8: Does Intellectual Monopoly Increase Innovation? (pdf)
This is the heart of the matter: there is no evidence that intellectual monopoly serves the purpose that both the U.S. Constitution and economic logic dictates. There is no evidence it “works” to increase creation and innovation.
Chapter 9: The Pharmaceutical Industry (pdf)
But what about life-saving drugs?
Chapter 10: The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly (pdf)
A look at various policy options.
References (pdf)