Disclaimer: This article should not be relied on as legal advice. Readers are advised to learn more about legal aspects of copyright piracy by visiting the US Copyright Office website. University students should check their institution’s policies regarding academic integrity and downloading from the Internet.
If you’re a begin-at-the-beginning person, check out Part 1.
The Internet provides unprecedented opportunities for aspiring artists, writers, composers, singers, editors, photographers and videographers—and those who steal their creations.
But wait a second! This is the digital age. No one steals anything from the virtual bulletin board known as the World Wide Web. People voluntarily share their digital copies of books, articles, photos and music by posting them online. Many post their original creations. This practice is known as file sharing, a pleasant, even benevolent phrase.
Who can possibly be against file sharing? Libraries and radio stations freely share books and music, so how can websites that do the same be viewed as pirates or thieves? In short, people who don’t share are bad. Everyone agrees that sharing means doing good, for to share is to care.
Or is it? From the perspective of copyright owners who are simply trying to earn a living from the sale of their works, there’s little difference between you or me giving away or selling their property and flea markets or pawn shops that sell stolen goods. As for libraries, they are subject to copyright law, as explained by Georgia K. Harper in Copyright in the Library. Radio stations pay fees for the music they play.
To better understand the enormous effect the Web is having on the traditional creation and distribution of books, music and movies, let’s explore how file sharing has opened the door to parallel explosions of creativity and plagiarism while enabling millions of downloaders to violate Federal law by failing to compensate the professional writers and musicians whose livelihoods are being challenged as never before.
Copyright in the File Sharing Era
The arrival of the World Wide Web (WWW) in the early 1990s was accompanied by an eruption of public creativity that was previously restricted to private correspondence, photo albums and letters to editors of newspapers and magazines. The Web allowed anyone with online access to share their literary talents with a global audience. Digital cameras provided the same opportunity for amateur photographers and anyone with a camera-equipped mobile phone. The arrival of video services like YouTube provided unprecedented opportunities for unknown musicians, bands, comics, speakers and filmmakers. Some college lecturers gained a worldwide YouTube audience.
File sharing, as this practice came to be called by the Web community, was initially a free service made available to anyone online. In the early days of the Web, most file sharing was just that. Online people made their contributions freely available to anyone with Web access. Professional writers, photographers and music and filmmakers either charged for their products or did not post them online. But this did not necessarily keep their works off the Web, for anyone could copy and upload their personal copies of copyrighted articles, books, photos, recordings and movies.
By the early 1990s, online copyright piracy was well established. The demand for free access to copyrighted products soon became so great that some file sharing websites began selling ads to profit from their distribution of intellectual property that they did not create. Some of the larger sites even began selling subscriptions for access to their ever-increasing stockpiles of copyrighted works.
Today the smartphone in your pocket or purse provides access to everything from the latest weather radar image to a global library of information. You can also download free, pirated copies of countless songs, movies and books, including all nineteen of my best-selling books about electronics, which I originally wrote to support my family. Today they are freely and illegally available from thousands of web sites; some include advertising, others require a paid subscription and none pay me the royalties they owe.
Copyright pirates were around long before the Internet era, as affirmed by an ancient advertisement in the The New York Clipper (November 3, 1906) in the General Collections of the Library of Congress. The arrival of the Web provided an unprecedented mechanism for piracy to flourish.
Today’s Copyright Pirates
Why do enormous numbers of people download books, music and movies from piracy sites when the practice is widely known to violate Federal law? Some downloaders are collectors who might never have bought any of what they take. For them it’s a hobby, albeit a usually illegal one. Others download from pirate sites because they cannot afford to pay the asking price of a legitimate seller. This is apparently common practice in developing countries with little access to printed text books. A common response by illegal music downloaders is that they resent paying the full cost of an album when only one or two tracks are what they want. Then there are those who can afford to buy but simply refuse to do so.
While those who upload copyrighted books, songs and movies to the Web are known as pirates, what does this make the end users who download these works? Are they not also pirates? In “Why I pirate”, (ExtremeTech, January 18, 2012), Sebastian Anthony confesses his downloading, which he then attempts to rationalize:
That is why I pirate: Because digital games, movies, and music are overpriced and don’t kick enough money back to the original artist.
Since the price of the legitimate product isn’t fairly shared with the original artist, at least in Anthony’s view, he justifies taking the product without paying anything to anybody. Of course this includes the hapless artist, who may have invested considerable time and money producing what Anthony feels free to take.
I’m well aware of people like Anthony, for they have hijacked many thousands of copies of my books. Based on my experience I’ve come to believe that there are two additional reasons pirates take what is not theirs. First, there is a general, well-documented decline in morality and integrity in the US and other countries. It’s portrayed in movies and books, and it’s often encountered in everyday life. It’s dramatically illustrated by the significant increase in cheating by high school and college students documented in a depressing array of integrity studies listed in the “Facts and Stats” page of an anti-plagiarism web site sponsored by WriteCheck. There was even a major scandal in which teachers and administrators were deeply involved in cheating, as reported in this magazine by David A. Tomar.
The decline in integrity is clearly associated with a troubling increase in plagiarism by both students and professionals and widespread pirating that is considered okay “because everyone does it.” But this resembles the refrain that “everyone has smoked pot” when everyone has not. So let’s move past anecdotal pop culture and examine the facts in ”Copy Culture in the US and Germany,” a 2011 report by Joe Karaganis and Lennart Renkema for the American Assembly of Columbia University. A key finding of their report is that forty-six percent of all 2,303 US respondents from age eighteen to sixty-five “…copied video/music files, DVDs, or CDs or downloaded them for free.” The fact that fifty-four percent did not is tempered by the finding that the number of downloaders jumped to seventy percent when only the 18–29 age bracket was considered. This clearly marks a sharp generational increase in pirating and may also reflect the overall decline in academic integrity of the growing number of students who are apparently plagiarizing their way to degrees. The good news is that those who illegally download thousands of songs are a small fraction of downloaders.
Much of this activity is casual and small scale.
In both countries only fourteen percent of adults have acquired most or all of a digital music or video collection this way. Only two-to-three percent got most or all of a large collection this way (>1,000 songs or >100 movies / TV shows).
More good news is that thirty percent of the youngest group of respondents do not pirate. They must include my students over the years at the non-denominational, Christian-sponsored University of the Nations and in the church college-and-career class I taught for many years. Most of those young people advocate a Christian worldview in which the needle of their moral compass points toward integrity.
A second additional reason for pirating is based on my purely anecdotal observation that some of the takers may be motivated by psychological issues ranging from kleptomania to narcissistic personality disorder. These downloaders
are digital shoplifters; they are kindred spirits with those who feel they are above the law and are therefore entitled to speed, double park, pocket an unwatched candy bar and steal or plagiarize books, songs and movies.
Doing Battle with the Pirates
There have been a number of high visibility cases in which controversial Internet entrepreneurs and pirate sites have been put out of business, at least temporarily, by law enforcement agencies in various countries. The Kim Dotcom case is one example. Another is the saga of The Pirate Bay, whose famous logo is shown nearby. (While copyright to the logo is apparently owned by The Pirate Bay (TPB), Wikimedia Commons, which hosts the logo, asserts that TPB, “…specifically requests that this work be used and copied for any purpose….”)
In spite of increasing resistance to online copyright piracy by the international community, it’s unlikely that the practice can ever be ended. That’s certainly the conclusion of Paul Tassi in “You Will Never Kill Piracy, and Piracy Will Never Kill You” (Forbes, February 3, 2012). Among Tassi’s observations is this:
As technology continues to evolve, the battle between pirates and copyright holders is going to escalate, and pirates are always, always going to be one step ahead. To be clear, this is in no way meant to be a “pro-piracy” piece, it is merely attempting to show the inescapable realities of piracy that media companies refuse to acknowledge.
Abuses of copyright law, overly restrictive interpretations of fair use by some courts and proposed new copyright legislation especially inflame the pirate community. A bizarre case in point that will give pirates new ammunition was described by Glyn Moody of arstechnica in “Copyright strikes again, with photographers and publishers hit particularly hard.” This story is one of several that describe a UK law that will require photographers to acquire a license to photograph “designer furniture” and other copyrighted objects. If followed to the letter, this peculiar law might restrict photographs and videos of public officials and celebrities who happen to be seated on designer furniture or even photos of the photographer’s own furniture.
While piracy will always be with us, recent developments may have set back its role in illegal music sharing. Back in 2000, Napster was an MP3 music sharing service with tens of millions of registered users around the world. College students with free access to high-speed university computer networks became major Napster users, a development covered by Kevin Anderson of BBC Online in “Napster use is clogging university networks” (September 26, 2000):
Napster allows users to search for music stored on other Napster users’ computers and then to download a digital copy on to their own computers through the net….
Some universities have blocked their students’ access to the service to avoid legal hassles due to Napster’s battle in court with the music industry and to lessen the load on their computer networks.
A recent survey of fifty universities found that a third had banned their students from using the Napster service.
Napster lost a copyright infringement suit filed by several recording companies and went out of business in 2001. By then its tens of millions of registrants had developed a sense of entitlement to free music, so they simply migrated to a host of other online music piracy sites. After all, could music sharing really be illegal if “everyone does it?”
Today the streaming business model may finally be reducing music piracy. Streaming makes copyright a non-issue by requiring listeners to pay for movies and music by subscription or to listen for free in exchange for having to also listen to ads. The streaming companies, at least the legitimate ones, distribute only music and movies for which they have acquired a license. They pay the rights holder a fee based on the number of listens or views.
Spotify’s Impact on Music Piracy
Spotify is one of the fastest growing fee or advertising-based online music streaming services. John Seabrook wrote about the company in “Revenue Streams: Is Spotify the music industry’s friend or its foe?” (The New Yorker, November 24, 2014). Seabrook also described the ironic background of the firm’s leadership:
[Spotify C.E.O. Daniel] Ek was one of the pirate band. Before starting the company, he had briefly been the C.E.O. of uTorrent, which made money in part by monetizing pirated music and movies on BitTorrent, a major file-sharing protocol. Later, the Napster co-founder Sean Parker, for years Public Enemy No. 1 to record-company executives, joined forces with Ek. Who would have imagined, as one label head put it recently, that “your enemy could become your friend?”
Spotify’s copyright policy is the opposite of the pirate underworld from which sprang Ek and Parker. Statements respecting Spotify’s respect for copyright are sprinkled throughout its Web pages. There is even a policy statement about Spotify’s mission to combat piracy:
Spotify’s impact on piracy.
Spotify was designed from the ground up to combat piracy. Founded in Sweden, the home of The Pirate Bay, we believed that if we could build a service which was better than piracy, then we could convince people to stop illegal file-sharing, and start consuming music legally again.
A key part of this has been in ensuring that Spotify has a free tier. By offering this free tier, Spotify is able to compete with piracy on cost and bring music consumers into the legal framework. From there, Spotify does a very effective job at converting those users into Premium subscribers.
This theory that “given a free and legal alternative, people will pirate less” has been proven over the last five years with significant reductions in piracy across the territories where Spotify is established.
While streaming may have reduced piracy, it has greatly reduced the royalties paid most artists, writers and studios that produce music for the major recording labels. Spotify claims that they pay: “…an average ‘per stream’ payout to rights holders of between $0.006 and $0.0084.” The key words are “rights holders”, which are usually the major recording labels, including Sony, Universal Music, Warner Music and EMI. From the average streaming payout of 0.72 cents per stream, these companies take their share before paying royalties to their artists based on their contracts, most or even all of which were signed when music was sold on CDs or by iTunes. While some artists have been amply rewarded by the new world of streaming, most are receiving far less than when their music was sold on CDs. The only positive point is that at least they receive more from Spotify than from the pirate downloaders who pay nothing.
Some artists whose music is widely pirated have moved to Spotify to promote their music, with Ed Sheeran being among the best examples. Sheeran recently set a Spotify record with 860 million streams. The young musician has parlayed his Spotify popularity into significant income from ticket sales for his hugely popular public concerts.
I’m playing sold-out gigs in South America, I’ve sold out arenas in Korea and south-east Asia.
I don’t think I’d be able to do that without Spotify.
For me, Spotify is not even a necessary evil. It helps me do what I want to do.
We believe fans should be able to listen to music wherever and whenever they want, and that artists have an absolute right to be paid for their work and protected from piracy.
Clearly both reputable streaming services and everyday piracy are continuing to cause major changes in the music industry. While Spotify, Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and other fee and subscription services may have reduced the pirating of songs and movies, plenty of their potential customers are still pirating. A quick online search revealed many pirate sites plus tutorial sites that provide detailed instruction on how to download music and videos from the pirate sites. One claimed 138,754 reads of its detailed pirating guidelines.
Plagiarism: Piracy’s Evil Twin
The plagiarist intentionally deceives by pretending to be the creator of the work of another. If the plagiarist didn’t hire a ghost writer to prepare the work or if he didn’t take it from the public domain, he is likely both a copyright thief and an imposter. These are certainly harsh terms, but they are very much in the spirit of the plagiarism prohibitions in the academic integrity clauses of many universities and professional societies in the Western World.
After all, what is the value of a degree to those who plagiarize their way through university? Will their integrity deficit follow them in their career? One can only hope that the physicians who care for our health did not plagiarize their way through medical school. The same applies to the engineers who design cars, trucks and planes and the pilots who fly us across the country at 34,000 feet.
University Plagiarism Policies
The Internet era has so simplified cheating and cut-and-paste plagiarism that universities have been forced to adopt strict plagiarism and integrity policies. Despite the rules and extensive publicity about integrity issues, many students still plagiarize and even hire ghost writers to prepare some or even all their writing assignments. This practice is not new, but it exploded with the arrival of the Web and was well established back in 2001 when Seth Stevenson wrote “Adventures in Cheating: A guide to buying term papers online”, a hilarious piece for Slate about a dozen or so free and paid papers he ordered so he could write about them.
Plagiarism’s Campus Underground
Stevenson’s article covered only the public side of ghost-written classroom assignments. When the underground side of this unsavory business was exposed in stunning detail by “Ed Dante” (a pseudonym for David A. Tomar) in “The Shadow Scholar” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12, 2010), the education establishment was shaken to its core. During a decade of writing thousands of papers for a fee, Tomar had become one of the most prolific ghosts. His reformation and exposé earned him interviews on national television shows, and he followed through with a memoir of his experience, The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat (Bloomsbury USA, 2012).
College and even high school educators and administrators who take their profession seriously simply must educate themselves about how ghost writing has invaded their campuses. They can begin by reading Tomar’s book and his articles in this magazine: “The Ghostwriting Business: Trade Standards, Practices, and Secrets” and “Detecting and Deterring Ghostwritten Papers: A Guide to Best Practices.”
One of Tomar’s key points is that the hundreds of term paper companies operate as authentic businesses. He’s right, for a quick online search of “term papers for sale” will reveal page after page of ghost-writing companies with nicely illustrated, slickly designed Web pages. Some of these companies even have active Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. (To avoid being added to a Google ad list, I used StartPage for this search.)
My brief tour of the ghost-writing business industry left several impressions. First, I had no idea that one could buy a doctoral dissertation for as little as $40 a page. Presumably these are not science and engineering dissertations, which are highly specialized, very technical and must be defended before a committee of expert scholars. Whatever the field, any college that allows a store-bought dissertation to sneak through their system and satisfy the requirements for a doctorate deserves to be exposed.
I also learned that ghost writing for college students is indeed an industry that apparently employs thousands of writers. While some of their writing is reasonably professional, some I reviewed is poorly organized and even includes typos.
Finally, these companies promise their customers that the fraud they are jointly perpetrating will meet the highest possible ethical standards. How? They guarantee that their papers will survive plagiarism-checking software, because their products are originally crafted and include no plagiarized content.
Just to be safe, these companies typically post disclaimers in which they explain that the papers they provide students for a fee are merely study guidelines or something similar. Others are very bold about the service they provide. A ghost company called Academic Composition even advises students to be prepared in case their professor asks questions about the ghost-written paper they are buying:
At the very least, you owe it to yourself to read over our work at least twice and make sure that you are thoroughly familiar with the content of your paper.
“Your paper?” That’s the question faced so often today by high school teachers, college “teaching assistants” and professors (at least those professors who actually teach). Universities have responded to the tsunami of ghost-written assignments by developing tough academic integrity standards and codes. One can only wonder how such codes are viewed by students who are willing to cheat in the first place, especially those who routinely ignore FBI warnings about violating Federal law by pirating online music and books. But let’s examine one anyway.
Princeton University’s Plagiarism Policy
Princeton’s plagiarism policy begins with a soft approach by touting the benefits to one’s scholarship that can be gained by fully acknowledging one’s sources. The policy, which is copyrighted by the Trustees of Princeton University, then explains the serious consequences of plagiarism:
Plagiarism is a very serious charge at Princeton, which can result in disciplinary probation, suspension, or expulsion ….
The most important thing to know is this: if you fail to cite your sources, whether deliberately or inadvertently, you will still be found responsible for the act of plagiarism. Ignorance of academic regulations or the excuse of sloppy or rushed work does not constitute an acceptable defense against the charge of plagiarism.
The Princeton policy includes a requirement that other universities and societies might wish to consider:
In fact, you must type the following sentence and sign your name on each piece of work you submit: “This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations.”
Of course this policy means nothing to a student who is willing to cheat. But at least it provides Princeton with a no-nonsense method for disciplining or expelling a student who is caught turning in a plagiarized paper.
The development of anti-plagiarism policies has posed significant problems for some foreign students who have emerged from a tradition in which copying without attribution is both common and acceptable. When I edited The Citizen Scientist online magazine, I used Google to do plagiarism checks of submissions that were especially well written. During six years, only three examples of plagiarism were detected among the hundreds I edited, a much better record than some professional scientific journals. One plagiarist was a well-published writer who had been institutionalized. The other was a Pakistani contributor who copied his two submissions word-for-word from Wikipedia and submitted them under his byline with no references.
Princeton is very aware of this problem and includes some special advice for international students:
Students who have done their college preparation at schools in other countries may have learned research and paper-writing practices different from those at Princeton. For example, students from schools in East Asia may learn that copying directly from sources, without citation, is the proper way to write papers and do research. Students in France, preparing for the Baccalaureate examination, may be encouraged to memorize whole passages from secondary sources and copy them into papers and exam essays. Those cultural differences can sometimes lead to false assumptions about citation practices and expectations at Princeton….
A search of other university websites will disclose many strict plagiarism policies. A good example is Stanford University’s detailed copyright policy, which also makes very clear that students risk potential litigation by uploading or downloading music and other material protected by copyright. Similar corporate and institutional policies may also apply to graduates who enter the journalism, medical, scientific, and engineering professions. The Online Ethics Center of the National Academy of Sciences has posted links to plagiarism and ethics policies of various professional organizations, and professionals should become very familiar with such policies to avoid misunderstandings of the rules and what to do when a co-worker is obviously plagiarizing.
Plagiarism in the Professions
In spite of rules against it and the fact plagiarism might violate the Copyright Act, plagiarism continues to play an unseemly role in the professions, including journalism. Columbia Journalism Review tackled the problem head on in “Journalism has a plagiarism problem. But it’s not the one you’d expect,” a major article by David Uberti (CJR, November 18, 2014) that was subtitled: “Fareed Zakaria’s case highlights news organizations’ ethical gray areas.”
In addition to Zakaria, Uberti cited the case of Jayson Blair, a reporter for The New York Times who became a prolific fabricator and plagiarist. In “Correcting the Record; Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception” (The New York Times, May 11, 2003), Times reporters Dan Barry, David Barstow, Jonathan D. Glater, Adam Liptak and Jacques Steinberg disclosed in troubling detail the fabrication and plagiarism by Blair in at least thirty-six of seventy-three national news stories he wrote over a six-month period. The opening paragraph of their investigative report stated:
A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found. The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.
Their report provided an email address for readers to report more examples of Blair’s misconduct and concluded that:
Mr. Blair was just one of about 375 reporters at The Times; his tenure was brief. But the damage he has done to the newspaper and its employees will not completely fade with next week’s editions, or next month’s, or next year’s.
”It’s a huge black eye,” said Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of The New York Times Company and publisher of the newspaper, whose family has owned a controlling interest in The Times for 107 years. “It’s an abrogation of the trust between the newspaper and its readers.”
In his Columbia Journalism Review piece, David Uberti anticipated the uncertain future of plagiarists with a quote from Blair himself:
But The Times’ response may prove to be a model in an era when anyone — not least anonymous bloggers — can detect plagiarism. “I don’t think it’s necessarily easier to do it, because journalists have always had access to tools with which they could pick up other information,” Blair said in an interview with CJR. “What has changed dramatically is the ability to catch it.”
While fabrication remains difficult to detect, Blair is correct about plagiarism. The digital technology that has made plagiarism so easy has also simplified its detection, and sophisticated plagiarism detection programs like Turnitin are now in common use by universities and even high schools. Even a simple online search can often find plagiarism. Consider that the original opening to this section was: “Plagiarism is the use of another’s work without attribution.” To learn if this definition might be original, I entered all nine words (inside quotation marks) into Google and found five exact matches, the earliest being by Marina Koestler Ruben in How to Tutor Your Own Child (Ten Speed Press, 2011, p. 161). (Another two dozen or so near matches were also found, including this and this.) Since Ms. Marina’s definition preceded mine, it seemed best to not lead with the definition and explain why here.
Is there a future for plagiarists or fabricators who have been exposed? Shortly after Blair resigned from The Times, he was interviewed by David S. Hirschman for Media Bistro. In “Q&A: Jayson Blair” (March 9, 2004) Hirschman asked Blair: “What kinds of books can you write that people will believe? Do you plan to write novels?” The professional plagiarist and fabricator appropriately replied: “I have had one offer to write a nonfiction book, but I think I am going to focus on fiction.”
In the face of overwhelming evidence against him, Blair had no choice but to admit his fabrications and plagiarisms. That’s not always the case, as I observed firsthand in the case of a professional with a doctorate who plagiarized significant segments of his public presentations and some 12,000 words on his website. Wondering if he had plagiarized his way to a doctorate, I read his dissertation. While it wasn’t particularly noteworthy for a liberal arts doctorate and was much shorter than this article, it was properly referenced and did not include any obvious plagiarism. When confronted with his online copying of many thousands of words under his byline, he denied it was plagiarism but closed his website. The leadership at his organization was aware of the plagiarism but took no action after some defended him and others said they didn’t understand the definition of plagiarism.
Exceptions to Plagiarism
There are various exceptions to what is considered plagiarism, including the words, idioms and phrases we use to communicate with one another. When actors utter their lines, we can safely assume they are usually not their words (with the exception of improvisationalists like the late comics Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams). Comics sometime joke about the joke writers they hire and the jokes they “borrow,” but politicians who employ ghost writers rarely make such disclosures. In a legal proceeding, attorneys for both sides submit briefs in defense of their position. These are often styled in the form of an order by the court that includes a signature line for the judge. A judge is free to write his own order or he can simply revise the one that he approves or even sign it with no changes. Since the court’s filings are usually open to public disclosure, this procedure is not viewed as plagiarism.
President Abraham Lincoln apparently did not need or employ a ghost writer for the Gettysburg Address, probably the best known speech in American history. He wrote the drafts for the speech and several additional copies for requestors, all in his own hand.
Today ghost writers draft speeches, articles and books for many public figures in what has become a well-established tradition. I know several of these writers. One ghosted for a well-known public figure to help with college expenses. Another did so as a career until finally realizing she was insufficiently acknowledged for her contributions to a major new book and that she was sufficiently talented to write under her own name, which she now does.
When a ghost writer is hired to prepare an original article or book manuscript for a movie star or other public figure who takes full credit for the work without acknowledging the role of the ghost, is the supposed author a plagiarist? Yes, at least according to the integrity guidelines of many professional organizations and at virtually every university. What are students who are sternly disciplined or even expelled for plagiarism supposed to think of public figures who are applauded for doing what they cannot?
A Word to the Wise
Plagiarism has become such a serious issue that students and everyone else who writes might want to subject their own work to plagiarism checks. While finalizing this piece I noticed that the third paragraph of the introduction closed with “…to share is to care.” Original? I thought so while typing it, but a quick Google search disclosed that it’s actually a well-used phrase. While I couldn’t find its origin, this from wearecontactia caught my attention:
“To share is to care,” said Shakespeare. Well, he actually didn’t say that, but we’re sure he would’ve agreed with this statement if he had lived in this day and age.
So did I plagiarize? No, for the obvious rhyme just came to mind, and common idiomatic phrases like “apples and oranges” and “carrot and stick” that have become part of the vernacular are not subject to copyright, much less plagiarism. Nevertheless, “to share is to care” might be tagged by a plagiarism search engine, and that’s why it’s wise to check your own writing. In this case, if I was concerned that the phrase might be viewed as plagiarism, it could have been prefaced like this: “As they say, ‘to share is to care.’”
A Glimpse at the Future
While subscription and advertising-supported streaming services are making a big dent in piracy, the Internet guarantees that illegal downloading is here to stay. As for ghostwriting services that sell originally written term papers and even doctoral dissertations to increasing numbers of integrity-challenged students, they are so entrenched that they will be difficult to put out of business. High school and college instructors could require students to write short papers during class, but this approach will not allow the scholarly research required for serious papers.
Meanwhile, copyright and academic integrity advocates in the US and other countries must face the fact that the populations of many other countries have a very different view of intellectual property and even fundamental integrity. This topic is covered in Media Piracy in Emerging Economies, an in-depth analysis edited by Joe Karaganis (SSRC Books, 2011) that addresses the situation in South Africa, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Bolivia and India. A summary of this book includes these major findings:
Antipiracy education has failed.
The authors find no significant stigma attached to piracy in any of the countries examined. Rather, piracy is part of the daily media practices of large and growing portions of the population.
Changing the law is easy. Changing the practice is hard.
Industry lobbies have been very successful at changing laws to criminalize these practices, but largely unsuccessful at getting governments to apply them. There is, the authors argue, no realistic way to reconcile mass enforcement and due process, especially in countries with severely overburdened legal systems.
In spite of these findings, pockets of integrity remain. For example, over the years I’ve received a dozen or more requests from educators and missionaries in developing countries who have asked to make copies of my books for use by their students. I’ve never turned down such a request. Meanwhile, the global outlook for reducing illegal downloading and plagiarism remains discouraging. Perhaps the most encouraging development is the growing influence of the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI), an international organization that recognizes the global reach of plagiarism and:
…works to identify, promote, and affirm the values of academic integrity among students, faculty, teachers, and administrators.
While promoting academic integrity is the key goal of the ICAI, working toward this goal may also reduce illegal online downloading.
Traditional Print Piracy
Over the years, readers of my books and articles have sent messages about seeing pirated copies of my books and articles. While most of these reports are about online pirates, traditional print pirating and plagiarism are still around. I close this report with examples of both.
The Unaware Ghost Writer
Shortly after I became a freelance writer, a research foundation with major NASA contracts hired me to write a magazine article about the use of various NASA developments in medicine. During a meeting to discuss the article, a high ranking scientist at the foundation made a brief appearance at the door. When I was later informed that his name would appear on the article, I assumed he would revise and make additions to the piece, and we would be co-authors. That’s not what happened. The article appeared under the scientist’s byline, and my role wasn’t even acknowledged. That’s when I decided to avoid co-authorships unless I closely know and trust the co-author. That’s also when I decided that ghost writing enables what can only be described as plagiarism.
The Unfair University Copy Machine
After the ghost writing episode and long before the file sharing era, I began receiving reports from university students about teachers who were distributing photocopies of some of my most popular books. “Fair use” permits educators to make copies of copyrighted material, but one professor was copying so much that I wrote his university, which sent a letter of apology and ordered an end to the practice.
中国的剽窃者 (The Chinese Plagiarist—Google Translate).
I learned about offshore piracy when a package arrived from a Chinese student who was studying at Harvard. Inside was a pirated edition of one of my books, and inside the back cover was this note:
Congratulation! Your book Optoelectronics is retranslated from Chinese into Uighur (a Turkic dialect in north-west China). The translator Tursun Ärshidin (Xinjiang People’s Publisher, Urumchi, China) sent this copy to me and wanted to find out and send it to you.
The translator hopes to keep in touch with you. I would like to help your communications if it is necessary.
I am ______ from same region of China.
Sincerely yours, ______
Congratulations? I would much rather have received a royalty check than this introduction to the Chinese view of flattery. Actually, two checks were due, for the note revealed that the book was retranslated from the Chinese version, about which I knew nothing. The book’s inscription also included the title of my 1986 memoir, Siliconnections: Coming of Age in the Electronic Era. So maybe that was also targeted for translation.
At least this book bore my name as author, so it was not a joint case of copyright violation and plagiarism like those described next.
The Plagiarizing Con Artist
All plagiarists can be viewed as con artists, and some are especially good at conning. Shortly after being congratulated for the unauthorized Chinese editions of one of my books, a California sheriff telephoned to ask questions about the first hand-lettered and illustrated electronics book I did for RadioShack. The book was designed to appear like my lab notebook, and its title was Electronics Notebook. The sheriff explained that criminal complaints had been received about a huckster who had copied electronic circuits from the book from which he created a fake notebook under his name. This cleverly planned scam described technical details about a major new invention for which he was seeking investors.
Eventually some of the investors realized they had been conned and reported the matter to the authorities. More than 600,000 copies of the book had been sold by then, and the sheriff called after someone matched the circuits in the fake notebook with those in my book. Perhaps the victims were too embarrassed to follow through with their charges, for I never heard back from the sheriff.
El Autor Plagiario Mexicano
In 2011, an email arrived from “A Friend in Mexico” who wrote about a plagiarized Spanish version of my bestselling book Getting Started in Electronics under another author’s name:
…somebody is stealing your copyright and inviting others to follow the same corruption culture that is destroying my country (and many others too…). I also feel compelled to send you this because I have learned from you, and I am grateful for that…
A quick Google search found this book, which was a close copy of the original. McGraw-Hill had published a Spanish version of the book in Mexico, and maybe that was the original source for the pirated version. Since this book had sold more than 1.3 million copies in the US, I assumed it might be doing well in Mexico and wrote the publisher. They referred me to their attorney, who replied that they had sold 30,000 copies of the book. Amazingly, he quickly offered to settle with me, and the publisher eventually paid a royalty and stopped publication of the book.
The Plagiarizing Author
In 2012 an engineer whose career was influenced by my books wrote that he was surprised to find very similar wording from some of my magazine articles in a new McGraw-Hill book by another author. I checked the book and found much more of my material than the tipster had noticed. Included were entire, word-for-word articles that I had written for Scientific American and Science Probe! magazines. Even my hand-drawn illustrations were copied. For example, displayed here on an iPad is part of the plagiarized, word-for-word text from one of my articles in Scientific American (“How to Monitor Ultraviolet Radiation from the Sun,” August 1990). The actual print version from the magazine is at right, and the ultraviolet sensor illustrated in the article is atop the iPad at left.
When I sent the evidence to McGraw-Hill, they destroyed the books in their inventory and ceased publishing it.
The Government Pirates
While US and State governments generally cannot infringe copyrights, sometimes they do so. Consider the instrument designer whose online instructions and diagrams for building a device to measure haze when pointed at the sun were copied word-for-word and without permission or attribution by a US government website. I was that designer, and I simply asked the responsible Federal employees to at least acknowledge my role or take down the site. They were as surprised by my request as I was about their lack of understanding of copyrights and plagiarism (which raises another layer of concerns). They initially did not want to comply with my request, but they eventually took down the site.
A Closing Disclosure
So many members of the file sharing generation, possibly even you, have downloaded copyrighted songs, movies and books that it seems good to answer a question some might want to ask me: “Have you downloaded copyrighted works without permission?”
I have downloaded copies of several of my pirated books to learn more about their quality. I also downloaded a pirated version of the Mexican plagiarized edition of my Getting Started in Electronics and a book that included word-for-word plagiarism of some of my key magazine articles. (While searching online for pirated copies of my books, my computer at the time was infected by malware controlled by someone in Norway.)
I download lots of online quotations and some US government photos to use in my articles and books. All are fully acknowledged. I’ve also downloaded a hundred or more scientific papers, most by government authors or authors supported by government grants. (The facts in these papers are not subject to copyright.)
I read lots of online news stories, most of which are sponsored by distracting ads that block part of the screens on my devices. Often these ads are about obscure electronic devices and products that I searched for on Google. The only other literary works I’ve downloaded are a few dozen or so in the public domain, including the Bible and works by John Muir, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and the US Exploring Expedition.
My phone has 190 downloaded songs, all of which were purchased from iTunes. I’ve bought two movies (Up and Earth) from iTunes, and I occasionally watch a movie or TV program with my wife via a paid Netflix subscription.
All in all, my downloading life probably seems rather boring. But that’s the tradeoff for working full time creating copyrighted material, most of which ends up being pirated and some of which I freely share online.
About Forrest Mims
Forrest Mims, an amateur scientist and Rolex Award recipient whose research has appeared in leading scientific journals, was named one of the “Fifty Best Brains in Science” by Discover Magazine. He has written more than a thousand journal, magazine, and newspaper articles and more than fifty books. His science is featured at forrestmims.org. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.