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
"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
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
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
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
Kairos CoverWeb Forum
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