Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Quotable Quandry

This morning's news headline at New York Times caught my eye. Blogs and media companies (Including giants like the NYT) are beginning to face battles over their use of information gleaned from other sites. Long excerpts (with and without attribution and a linkback) are being challenged by the originators of the content. 

That seems fair enough. Every day at the Writing Center we teach students that to lift from a published source without quotation marks and attribution is plagiarism. Substituting your adjectives into the sentences doesn't make the piece yours and you continue down the path of academic dishonesty. It seems to me that there's a line there that's pretty clear to you as you cross it.

Some of the people reading this may not remember this, but there was a time when news was something tangible. At the risk of getting all codgery on you (Damned kids! Get off my lawn!) when I started in the layout and pressroom of my local paper, newspapers were still assembled by hand. Long strips of copy were run out and hot wax was drizzled along the back so that the layout people made with the exacto knives and blueline and created a news collage. It was then photographed, turned into a lithographic plate and eventually a tangible object printed on crappy paper with ink that would get all over your hands and clothes.

I've heard a rumor that such things still exist.

The content was written by people operating under the benign-but-firm governance of The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. I haven't cracked the spiral spine of that venerable document in ages, but every journalism student owned the same three books -- bibles of the inkstained religion: The AP Stylebook, Strunk & White, and All The President's Men. None of which were written in preparation for the transition of news media into a digital realm.

The trouble with copyright laws is that they are so vague at exactly the moment you want them to be as specific as possible. There are no wordcounts or rules for online sharing. There are no laws governing how much you can quote or how and how much to attribute to the originator of the piece. This morning's NYT story mentions that a Times blog quoted extensively from a Wall Street Journal article and the attribution was "Thanks in advance" with a link back to the original story. And this was ok.

Can you imagine the New York Times doing the same thing in a physical newspaper? The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch lifting a story from the New York Times almost entirely with some context inserted and at the end... "Thanks in advance to the New York Times"? Without payment exchanging hands? Just a "link" back to the source document?

The digital world operates by different rules. No doubt about it. Witness JK Rowling's recent suit over the transfer of a popular website that she had championed into the physical realm. It was OK on the web, but putting the same words between covers wasn't.

I'm not saying I disagree with Rowling. Far from it. But you have to feel for Van Der Ark and his publisher. The courts are unpredictable and the laws they are enforcing are a mishmash of 19th century sensibilities and 21st century ideologies. The United States Supreme Court needs to step in and restore order. (And could they please take a gander at DRM's while they're at it? Thanks. That would be great...) Tell all of us where we stand. Where are the lines? What passport must I show to cross them?

Copyright and patent laws were created to allow people with ideas to profit thereby. The world around us was created or at least accelerated in no small part owing to those very laws. Those who generate work should be able to make a living from it.

In the maelstrom of the web, stories are torn apart, ripped from their context and authors, endlessly reworded, quoted without attribution, highlighted, gleaned for information and taped together into a wikipastiche.

One thing is obvious: the plagiarism rules colleges such as mine teach to the students do not hold outside the confines of academia. Would that it were so.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).