21 Feb 2012

Plagiarism versus the new online reality

Memiwanzi recently touches on the origin of the word plagiarism but in this one case, the meaning is far more interesting than the etymology to me.

Ah plagiarism and its related demon, intellectual property rights. With the digital age, "plagiarism" becomes terribly confusing morally and intellectually, if not effectively meaningless. Some intellectual issues follow:

1. Define "copy". Copying can be whole or in part, so at what point can the act of copying be sensibly called "plagiarism"? How can such a fuzzy delineation be made methodical and fair?

2. Define "author". On the net, what does "author" really mean if, say, someone remixes a preexisting song? What if the derivative work of another gains more social value than the original work of an original author? And then should one be paid for derivative works too? How derivative is "too derivative" though?

3. Define the basic moral issue with "plagiarism". Is plagiarism an issue about recognition of authorship, financial compensation, social appreciation, a combination of the above, or something else? Or is this more broadly about the fair compensation of any contributor (anonymous or otherwise, online or off) by means of any "currency" (based on financial value or some other value) according to the overall "value" of the contribution (evaluated by any kind of value or group of values)?

4. A new participatory economy? How might the pre-digital-age free-market model adapt to the new reality of open information exchange where "copying" is a gradient concept, "value" includes non-financial metrics, and where collective contribution and exchange blur the lines of an agent with her environment?

To resolve this pesky issue of plagiarism, we need a new digital economy that:
A) upholds the netizen's inherent right to copy and paste information.
B) recognizes doubly that mere copying adds no participatory value to the system.
C) sufficiently rewards contribution according to its measure of originality and overall social worth.
D) destroys any meaningful gain (in time and money) from stealing another person's work.

Cage Innoye has many interesting insights on just such an economy at his blog Diverse Philosophy. Whatever their exact details may be, competent solutions demand less laws and a more developed value theory.


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