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Intellectual "Property" and Plagiarism

Monday, April 22, 2013

Intellectual "Property" and Plagiarism

The following is a paper I wrote for an AP Language course that I feel, at least at this moment, summarizes my views on citations and plagiarism in general. *Note: there will be an afterword explaining my use of citations in other blog posts*    **sorry about the formatting...**

     Plagiarism is an interesting thing to attempt to define much less justify in an academic context. Heck, even academicians have trouble defining what plagiarism is in a non-connotative manner. Allow me to explain; the definition of plagiarism that is widely spouted (but not 100% agreed upon) is as follows: “The practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own” The connotation associated with this definition via socialization is inherently negative because it presupposes intellectual property and theft thereof as something “bad” or “evil”. I, on the other hand, would like to propose a better definition that will in turn help to break down the negative connotation associated with the plagiarisation of writings and hopefully prove to you that plagiarism is not inherently a bad thing, in fact, it can be a good thing! As such, and for the sake of consistency, this entire essay will be plagiarized (as well as ignoring heading conventions). I figured I should tell you up front so there will be no confusion.[1]           

     In today’s globalist and materialistic world, the right of an individual to own an idea (ie. Copyright and the likes) is held sacred. Ideas are viewed as the product of the self and as such should remain that way. However, this view of property, specifically ideas, is flawed for a number of reasons. First, the antecedent is that an individual in isolation comes up with an original idea themselves and as such, they are able to control it. However, ideas are much like goods (in respect to original creation) in that they are the product of society and human progress. Much like a farm is the product not of the self but of all those who came before (ie. Took the land, dredged the swamps, chopped the trees, etc), an idea is not the sole product of the self, it is a concept born out of societal conditions and preconditions. Knowledge and ideas are collective, and the notion of “intellectual property” for “original ideas” makes no sense in a world where humans are dependent upon one another. Second, the notion of intellectual property necessitates a middle-person, a mediator, which regulates the production and distribution of information. Not only is this harmful to the creation of ideas, but more importantly, it is untenable in our modern world. In the world where any Alex Jones or Michael Moore with a computer can post something, assuming that there should be a mediator to check for intellectual “theft” is insane. There can be no person monitoring all information sharing and if there were, that would open up a whole different set of problems! But speaking of “theft”, the entire concept of “theft” presupposes a quantity that can be taken which, in the context of ideas, is false. Allow me to compare a dollar bill to the idea for the labor theory of value. Let’s say you have a dollar and I come up and take that dollar, you now have no dollar. On the contrary, say you yell “I came up with the labor theory of value which says that…[insert boring Marxist explanation here]” and I then say “I came up with the labor theory of value which says that…[insert boring Marxist explanation here]”…where does that leave you? In the exact same place. You have the same idea, the same words will come out of your mouth and yet the worldwide exposer to the labor theory of value increases. Heck, even some Austrian economists (the hardcore anarcho-capitalists) agree that intellectual property is a façade. If a group of people who believe in the unwavering right to property says that this form is fake, I think that’s saying something. Thus, if the notion of intellectual property itself is flawed, how can the definition originally presented function? The answer is that it cannot. The definition inherently relies on a notion of intellectual property which cannot and should not exist ergo we need to look for a new definition. So what is that definition you may ask? I feel that the definition of plagiarism should be: The reappropriation of ideas ( literature, art, etc.) in the name of society. Apart from this definition bypassing the flaws of the prior one, it has its own net benefits, namely that it promotes plagiarism as a legitimate activity that can be good.

    Plagiarism is an interesting thing that can be good for a few reasons. First, plagiarism allows not only the writer, but also the reader to break out of the confines of academic assumptions. Second, plagiarism shifts the educational paradigm by allowing students to freely express ideas thus promoting a better form of critical education. Finally, plagiarism allows the breaking down of traditional academia and in turn promotes real life education about how research actually works.            Allow me to propose a scenario: an article is published titled Why the United States should increase its presence in space and you read it but then see the byline, “Col. James Thomas US Air Force”. What is the first thought that jumps into your head? For me it is the following: “well, this man has some ulterior motive to promote this, he’s wrought within the military industrial complex…” and, I would say it is safe to say, most thinking people would run something similar to that through their brainholes. Now suppose the exact same article, title, text, and all was published in an alternate world except that this byline said “Dr. Joe Koehle Prof. Physics at Harvard”. Now what do you think of? The common response would be, “ this is a man of science, he probably doesn’t have a profit/power motive”. Thus, attribution and citations do have a very large impact upon how we view information. The appeal to authority or rejection of ideas based solely on their first explainer actually cheapens the search for truth because it leads to polarization in the pursuit of knowledge. A prime example in the 20th century would be the philosopher Martin Heidegger who just so happened to be a National Socialist. Heidegger wrote extensively on the study of “being” (ontology) and the self but far too many people when confronted with the book Being and Time see the byline and think “OH NO, HE’S EVIL THEREFORE THE IDEAS ARE WRONG!” This actually cheapens the search for truth and knowledge because potentially accurate explanations of the world are shut out based solely on the individual. However, if one were to reappropriate Being and Time, it would promote new ways of looking at the ideas espoused therein. Allow me to give another example, say I present an article to Jordan (a friend of mine who is a climate change denier) that is titled “Anthropogenic Climate Change and its Impacts” with the byline “Al Gore”. He will dismiss it. However, if I present the exact same article with the byline “Mitt Romney”, he will not. Of note here, I am not saying a third party should attribute work to others, rather, I think an individual should be able to reappropriate work themselves.

    Next, consider the current education paradigm, that is, one where plagiarism is met with swift and brutal justice. If I were to plagiarize on another paper, I would be sent to the office, I would get a zero, and a whole host of fun stuff would happen. However, if we change the way we look at knowledge not as a ridged item to be owned, but something to be shared, the outcome would be vastly different. Furthermore, the claim that plagiarism is wrong is based on an emotional appeal, an appeal to morality undermines the credibility of academia for those who reject morality. It is seen as absurd since the only justification is an appeal to some all-powerful phantom moral standard. But apart from that, plagiarizing allows one to challenge the traditional model of “certificates” and “grades” etc. Suppose for example that I want to learn how to write a webpage, “cheating” would be the last thing I would think of. There’s no point because the end goal is my personal betterment. Conversely, say I am required to take a class like “Web Tech” where I get a score, something that will influence my life in some small way, based on how well I preform, now there is an inherent incentive to cheat. If the only goal is “to get a good grade” then that opens the door wide open. However(!), if one embraces plagiarism saying that “hey, this isn’t such a bad thing and isn’t an inherent part of life, rather, a reaction to the education system” then there is now an incentive to change, or at least an antithesis to, the modern education system.

     Finally, plagiarism allows one to challenge the traditional linear model of education by way of promoting real life education. Plagiarism, working within the definition I laid out above, helps students and scholars see what the world is actually like. If one teaches students that the world is made up of people who have independent ideas who publish their work separately and must always cite exactly correctly or else they are evil, that teach students a flawed view of reality. In actuality, collaboration, borrowing, heck, even “theft”, is common place and not “wrong”. Conversely, it actually heightens the gaining of knowledge because more worlds views are expressed. When one teaches students that plagiarism is inherently wrong and people in academia will look down on them (whether this is somewhat true or not is irrelevant), it also teaches them that academicians are constantly afraid of plagiarism themselves and thus and operate as their own distinct beings. However this is not correct. Humans are sociable, they share ideas, take them, mirror them. That is the evolutionary response to changing situations and trying to demonize it only serves to hurt academia in the long term. Thus, the old definition of plagiarism is not only antiquated and flawed, but teaches students an incorrect worldview that in turn promotes poor scholarship and lacks critical and real world education.

[1] Also of note, the things that I plagiarize, apart from straight definitions, are arguments from people that advocate the plagiarisation of their works so, you know, it’s doing them justice. They are our silent guardians, our dark knights.

So here you may be wondering how my endorsement of plagiarism jives with all my other posts that cite sources and the answer is, simply, it doesn't. However, a quotation from a well known philosophical duo that go by the initials D&G sums this point up nicely:

You have to keep enough of the organism for it to reform each dawn; and you have to keep small supplies of significance and subjectification, if only to turn them against their own systems when the circumstances demand it, when things, persons, even situations force you to; and you have to keep small rations of subjectivity in sufficient quantity to enable you to respond to the dominant reality. Mimic the strata. You don't reach the BwO [body without organs], and its plane of consistency, by wildly destratifying.


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