Intellectual Property: Questions and Answers

Laura Gurak and Johndan Johnson-Eilola are guest editors for a Computers & Composition Special Issue on Computers, Composition, and Intellectual Property (Issue 15.2, August 1998); since many of the same issues will be addressed in both this CoverWeb and the forthcoming Computers and Composition, Kairos asked Johndan to consider a series of questions about intellectual property issues.

Kairos invites its readers to respond (via the Kairos CoverWeb Forum) to these questions and any other questions, comments, or concerns you may have regarding Copyright, Plagiarism, and Intellectual Property

"What is intellectual property? Who should own it?"
IP is (currently) a social and economic construct designed to maximize profit for capitalists. (Its precise nature changes shifts in technologies, economies, etc.) Whether or not something is considered a "valid" (legal) form of IP depends on whether or not one can extract surplus value from it in capitalist exchange. (There's no *intrinsic* value in IP; it has to be created and sustained continuously.) Corporations, for example, typically exercise much greater IP rights than factory workers or housekeepers. Consider the relatively recent--and still rare, I think--case of students' rights to their own work.
The question of "should" is difficult, because entering into an economic relationship--by agreeing to call it "property"--constructs a relationship that is easily absorbed by late capitalist interests. Although capitalists frequently portray IP law as protecting the individual "investments" (of effort, time, money) of specific inventors, in most cases IP is owned by corporations. I think it would be interesting to play out IP as an individual possession (one that cannot be sold, which is where IP law started--the right was not transferable). Would corporations collapse if they could not purchase IP (patents and copyrights) on an open market (and could only exercise rights owned by individual employees, or only non-exclusive rights)?
"What is the relationship of intellectual property to an intellectual economy?"
If we're going to use the word "economy" in a meaningful way, then IP is one of the elements in circulation in the economy. We could probably define IP as the non-tangible objects (contradictory terms) in economic circulation. (There's a rough dialectic here--economies are defined by structures and processes; economic objects are defined as what constitutes or circulates in the structures or processes.
"Where should Fair Use begin on the web, where everything is published by default?"
It should begin with the standard fair use exceptions (education, parody, critique, etc.) and examine the changes engendered by web access/publication. It's relatively easy with most server software to password-protect a site, allowing educators to limit access to a site (in much the same way that photocopying material limits access). But fair use is not merely about limiting access; sometimes, limitation is not even a condition of fair use--critical discussions of texts are allowed to reproduce items without consent (even though publishers are loathe to admit this--and in fact will deny it loudly in some cases).
"How should we be teaching about plagiarism differently in schools?"
By admitting that plagiarism is much more complicated than we normally make it sound (copying someone else's words) (most of us try to complicate that idea, but students still retain that limited definition; I'm not certain where they hear it. Avoiding plagiarism is an attempt to identify the boundaries of a discipline--what needs to be connected explicitly back up to other works, what can go without saying, what is novel or interesting. In some cases, it involves sharing responsibility for work with others. In other words, identifying plagiarism involves defining intellectual property.
"What's the overlap we should be teaching between plagiarism, fair use and copyright?"
All of these are interconnected and need to be taught as situated, localized networks. In some cases, authors are not given credit for their work (such as in ghostwriting speeches, etc.)--academics might consider this plagiarism, but many people do not as long as the speechwriter was paid and entered into contract to act as the ghostwriter. And even in many academic circles, graduate students are expected to list their major professors as co-authors on work (which, in English studies, might be constructed as a form of coercive plagiarism--with a professor claiming credit for work he/she didn't do; but in other areas this arrangement is seen as a way for professors to bear professional responsibility for the work of their mentees (which in turn encourages them to help students make that work as good as possible).
"What is copyrightable--a masthead look? a color?"
Technically? Both of these would be very difficult to copyright (since arrangement of material is harder to protect). In my opinion, they *should* be copyrightable. (Although color to me is questionable--but that also involves a definition of what is perceived as valuable property in our society. My opinion would surely conflict with some graphic artists--and I think they would in some sense be correct.)
"How have students' views changed on the issue of IP/plagiarism. Do they think certain practices are more acceptable now?"

It's not clear to me; I spend a lot of my time trying to get them to see the difficult but necessary relationships between tradition, community, and ownership. None of us creates anything whole out of the void--we all work with what we are given/take, and it's not possible to credit everyone. In teaching layout and design to upper-level students, I try to get them to understand (for example) that they should be emulating elements of the other designs they see.

At the same time, I try to get them to see that if a particular combination of elements is particularly "creative" (whatever that means), then copying that full assemblage would be irresponsible (ethically and professionally--it's not only profiting from someone else's work, it's also going to be recognizable to other people in the community as copying and will probably not be valued. There's a complicated relationship here, and I'm not sure I'm getting at it with students yet.
"Make a prediction about future of ip/copyright/plagiarism" (an open-ended prognostication prompt)

Content will become increasingly devalued, while the right to claim profit from moving information will become more important. (As in late capitalism, the greatest profits aren't extracted directly from capital, but from the *movement* of capital on and through various markets.) The ability to filter, abstract, and reconnect information in useful ways will also become more important than the ability to create information (a sort of meta-production/meta-information skill). Arguably, acadmics will be good at this sort of thing because much of what we do involves these very activities. But we tend to fall back on romantic views of the individual which reposition our work in the older economy.

Kairos invites you to respond to these questions and any other questions, comments, or concerns you may have regarding Copyright, Plagiarism, and Intellectual Property
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