Intellectual Property:  Is The Concept Still Relevant?

Many users of technology question whether the concept of intellectual property is still valid in the electronic age.  Barlow, arguing in "The Economy of Ideas" that "soon most information will be generated collaboratively," predicts that thus "we can expect the importance of authorship to diminish" (CyberReader, 1996).

On the other hand, Janet Dailey, author of 93 romance novels, acknowledging that she had plagiarized from rival novelist Nora Roberts, felt compelled to issue a public apology to Roberts, explaining, "I recently learned that my essentially random and non-pervasive acts of copying are attributable to a psychological problem that I never even suspected I had."  Roberts, not appeased, chose to look for further evidence of plagiarism to bring "an end to this disturbing pattern of plagiarism in a way that best serves the interests and integrity of the writing community."  As for their previous friendship, Roberts concludes, "It would be difficult to be friends with someone who has stolen from you" (Luscombe, 1997).

Should the professor in the opening anecdote have assumed that his student's plagiarism was "attributable to a psychological problem"?  Can the purchase of a paper be described as "essentially random and non-pervasive?"  Should we even care about plagiarism in the age of electronic collaboration and instant access to millions of texts?

The student who purchased his papers for the course surely knew that his action was dishonest.  However, terms such as publishing and copyright do not even enter the thinking of many users of electronic media, especially novices.   For one thing, in electronic media the distinction between personal intellectual property and public domain may not be clear.  Though the Berne copyright convention (1989) stipulated that all documents are considered copyrighted upon their creation (see Templeton's 10 Big Copyright Myths), many people do not think of e-mail or webpages or materials downloaded from the Internet as copyrighted, and thus see no reason to attribute them.  Students frequently assume that anything on the Internet is public domain, theirs for the taking, and thus need not be cited.

Public domain is no longer easy to define.  In the controversial new book Lineland:  Mortality and Mercy on the Internet's Pynchon-L@Waste.Org Discussion List (1997), writers Siegel and Wexler quote extensively from an archived listserv, carefully observing fair use limitations on length of quotations.  Does the archived listserv dialogue (which comprises about a quarter of the book) fall within the realm of public domain?  Do listserv participants own the rights to their posts?  Did the book writers plagiarize?

Electronic media likewise blur the distinction between public and private writing.  Most of us have probably sent a private e-mail message and found out later that it had been forwarded (without our permission) to other readers, who may have forwarded it yet again to still other readers.

Certainly it has become increasingly difficult to define this concept of plagiarism when we no longer have an object, a book or a chart or a sheaf of papers, to claim as evidence of intellectual work.  Without a physical object, individuals may sense no need to attribute to a source.  Pixels on a screen have no permanence, and thus our notions of intellectual property no longer fit.

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