Appropriation vs. attribution. What’s ok in our digital world?

is online appropriation repurposing & piracy cause for alarm? (yes - I took this photo - does that mean it's your for the taking?)

Is online appropriation, repurposing & piracy cause for alarm? (I took this photo. Does that mean it’s yours for the taking?)

The Internet has been a blessing and a curse. The curse we know: A lot of people appropriating your intellectual property without paying for it. But I think it’s important to realise the blessing of the Internet, which is that everybody has a voice and you can break through. ~ Gloria Estafan

Ownership in the digital world is a slippery issue. In academia, the parameters are straightforward; if you are repeating or even building upon the ideas or words of someone else, you cite them. Period. Yet this same practice does not consistently apply in the blogosphere, Twitterverse, or classroom. I have found my original photos, from my blog, on others’ blogs, without attribution (after requests from me, these have been attributed). There are regular comments on social media like ‘I’m stealing that’. In a recent MOOC in which I am participating, one person made a meme from another person’s words, without attributing them. If I tweet or blog out some words, are they part of the public domain, and there for the taking?

I was recently pointed toward a post by Seán McHugh on his feelings about Creative Commons, especially in a teaching context. In fact, the tweet which pointed me towards Seán’s post said “Maybe y’all would be interested in learning about ‘constructive plagiarism’ from @proteanteacher”. Learning about constructive plagiarism? The English teacher and PhD researcher in me shuddered at the thought of how one might ‘constructively’ plagiarise. In what possible ways might taking someone else’s ideas or words or images without attribution be considered positively as ‘constructive’, I wondered.

In his post, Seán says, about using pictures from the web: “It’s theft? Nonsense. Can we please STOP lying to our kids? While a handful of CC activists relentlessly pursue their moral crusade, the rest of us in the real world will need to figure out how best to work within a web where ‘piracy’ is rampant, symptomatic of deeper issues that are a great deal more complex than the simplistic arguments pushed by those who should know better.” He points out that piracy is not theft as the original still exists. Yet industries such as music and film have laws against the pirating of original works. While some online content isn’t directly related to people’s livelihood, sometimes it is. And should it matter whether someone is making money from their authorship? Does that give them more right to own their own work?

I agree with Seán that our level of attribution might depend on our purpose. If a teacher asks a high school student to search for an image to stimulate a piece of poetry writing, it might not need to be attributed. If the student is going to publish the poem with the image, then I would argue that it does. Part of teaching digital citizenship should be around what it is to be a responsible, considerate digital citizen who respects the intellectual and creative work of others.

‘Piracy’ and ‘pirating’ are terms that have become trendy in some education circles thanks to Dave Burgess’ ‘Teach Like a Pirate’ phenomenon. Pirates can be seen as an imaginative metaphor for excitement on the high seas, or for murderous violence, as Corinne Campbell explores as part of her response to the book Teach Like a Pirate. Corinne writes, “On a personal note, I find the PIRATE acronym unfortunate, and quite frankly, offensive. … When I think of pirates, I don’t think of Disney and Jack Sparrow. For me the word triggers thoughts of the very real, very dangerous pirates who take rob, murder, rape and take hostages in seas today. I ‘get’ that most people don’t feel that way and love to buy into the Disney version, so I tried hard to squash my objections, but anything that trivialises rape and murder while celebrating those who commit such crimes is going to get my hackles up.” (This is only one part of Corinne’s post; she also has good things to say, so see the full post for a fuller picture.)

Is saying we’re not stealing or plagiarising something, but ‘pirating’ it, better? Is it a more ‘fun’, imaginative form of plagiarism or taking from another person? Is it ok because we haven’t removed the original? Or is it immoral, discourteous, or at the very least, lazy, to take someone else’s creative or intellectual property, and present it as our own, or as author-less?

In his post, Seán McHugh writes that “when we’re watching someone’s amazing, riveting, bullet point riddled PowerPoint, I do not assume that any images contained therein are images they created themselves or ‘own’, in fact, like most people, I believe, we assume the opposite; the images they use to illustrate their work are not theirs unless they say otherwise.” There are interesting assumptions at work here. Why would we assume that what a person presents is not their work? When I present at conferences using PowerPoint, I always caption images with author and source, if they are not my own. On my blog, I use mostly my own photos, or if the images are not mine, I clearly acknowledge the creator and/or source. I recently wanted a glorious picture of an octopus for my ‘Why I Love Twitter’ blog post, and found a lovely illustration after some Google searching. I used the found image, attributed the creator and source of the work in the caption, and tweeted it out to the illustrator so that they knew their work had been used. I’ve been part of the wonderful #blimage (blog + image) challenge, but in that challenge, people were asked to attribute the images to their creators.

I agree with Seán that the use of others’ work is a moral issue. Like him, I operate from the perspective of “do as you would be done by”, but that seems to mean different things to him as to me. I don’t use Creative Commons but I do feel a moral obligation to recognise and attribute the work of others. For me it is about courtesy, professionalism, respect and integrity.

In a recent Brand Newsroom podcast – at about the 19 minute mark – Sarah Mitchell, talking about Scott Stratten’s keynote at the annual Content Marketing World event says, “just because you can take something doesn’t mean you should take something”. She uses the analogy of fruit piled up outside a greengrocer; we wouldn’t take it just because it’s there. In an alternate view, author Neil Gaiman talks in this video about how he came to view piracy of his work as advertising, allowing an author to reach more people.

What do you think? Is using others’ images or words in your online content without attribution ok and an accepted part of being in a digitally connected world where no one owns anything? Is it lazy or inconsiderate content creation? Is it morally corrupt authorial practice? What kinds of explicit practices, agreements or common understandings might we need to help us navigate the terrain of ownership and attribution in our digital world?


18 thoughts on “Appropriation vs. attribution. What’s ok in our digital world?

  1. Deb you raise so many good points here. Theft is theft.

    What I am astonished with is that those who know better think because the platform is digital that it is any different to any other platform such as print or broadcast. Acknowledge your sourced material is absolutely right, courteous and mandatory. Sean’s idea of the original has not gone missing therefore is not piracy is not only misguided but he his using a physical argument in a digital world.

    Those that are stealing content are only demonstrating their professionalism and distinct lack of it.


  2. Hi Deb, thank you for your thoughtful, intelligent post, and thank you for taking the time to read my own post. While you will not be surprised to learn that you have not changed my mind, thank you for representing my perspective fairly and honestly. I could do a paragraph by paragraph response, but in fairness you have ignored most of my arguments, and as such I believe that all of the criticisms you raise here, I have already anticipated and argued against in my original post, so I will not repeat myself. I will watch with interest though, especially to see the opinions of people who have read both of our posts and have an objective opinion, especially on the matter of whether people assume that the images (without attribution) they see in presentations are images that are owned by the presenter or assumed to be images they got from another source.

    I don’t know about where you live, but where I live greengrocers keep an eye on their stock for precisely the reasons you state. I operate faithfully by the ‘do as I would be done by’ principle, I can’t see why you would be confused by that. I have stated clearly in my post and I will again here, that everything I create and post online is free for anyone to use. In terms of the different treatment of academic content (text) and media like images, the photos I take take a few seconds to press the shutter, I am not diminishing the talent required to do that, but the amount of effort it takes for me to take one great photograph compared to writing a thesis cannot really be equated as equal. If it was bothered about abuse of my intellectual property (which I would be if were relying on it to make a living) I would take steps to stop people from abusing it. That to me is being a ‘responsible, considerate digital citizen who respects the intellectual and creative work of others’. The alternative is akin to leaving my bicycle outside the local shopping centre without a log and hoping that no one takes it, as I wrote:

    “I own a car, motorbike, and a bicycle, but when I park them I … LOCK them, to prevent their theft, if you’re going to put your content out there, without restriction, then you can expect it to get used; in fact I operate on the assumption that the images thrown up by Google fall in this category, either free to use (public domain‚ and let’s face it, domains don’t come much more public than Google search results), or the owner doesn’t really care—like the newspaper I perused the other day that some other kind soul left on the train, the friend’s book I’ve borrowed…”

    And fret not, my post on ‘constructive plagiarism’ is coming soon—I hope you’re not one of those people that lends ‘their’ books and DVDs to their friends… consistency is key with citizenship!


    • Hi Seán

      It’s great to connect with someone who is willing to engage in a little thoughtful disagreement. I wasn’t trying to change your mind, but to add my perspective to what’s out there about this minefield.

      Perhaps I am a weirdo for attributing any work that isn’t mine and wanting to live in a world where we presume the originality of work, rather than its appropriation from elsewhere, and where we teach children to acknowledge their sources, even from public domains.

      Where we disagree on the ‘do as I would be done by’ principle is in how we would like to be done by, and our assumptions about what authors believe. Everything that I create and post is not free for anyone to use without attribution. I have taken photographs for other people with the agreement that those photos can be used by them without attribution. I have ghost written pieces for people with the understanding that I will not be acknowledged; the content is theirs. But, like lending or giving something I own to my friends, this is my choice. My intention is explicit and communicated. There is a mutually understood agreement. I don’t think it’s good enough to say ‘if it’s on the Internet others are free to take it.’ I don’t assume that someone who has shared their images, words or ideas online sees them as free for my use, or ‘doesn’t really care.’

      I enjoy your blog and look forward to seeing what your post on ‘constructive plagiarism’ adds to this discussion.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Then I think we disagree on what ‘do as you woudl be done by’ means, and the fact that it can mean very different things to different people. The fact is you seem to expect me (and the many people like me) to do as YOU (not I) would be done by. But that’s not the standard, I do to others as I would have them do to me; do I assume that others allow me to reuse, remix, repurpose there content that they have left in the public domain without littering my slides with unsightly attribution (assuming I can easily find the attribution) yes. Am I happy to allow others to do the same with my images? Yes.

        All that attribution is ugly. And it is for the most part meaningless, suppose you attribute my sunset on your slide last week, would I have known about it? No. So would I care? No. Could I care? No. That is the definition of meaninglessness. Go on, free yourself from the burden of responsibility, embrace the collaborative online brain—we are one!


  3. Hells bells. A good and timely reminder to me to properly acknowledge my image sources. I nearly always acknowledge my written ones, but I often forget the images. However, if it’s for a PowerPoint, not being published, I have been known to insert an image for illustrative purposes and not acknowledge. Bad me. If I were to publish, attributing authorship would be a given. I guess that’s the grey area for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jess, I do think it’s tricky. The issue can be seen as context specific and it’s clear that people have varied assumptions and perspectives, perhaps dependent on how they feel about their own content being used. Sometimes I try to search for the creator of an image to find its source and cannot because it has been through so many rabbit warrens of the net and social media. A friend shared this today which documents the memefication of someone’s childhood photograph without their knowledge: . The article calls it the image’s “glorious and spectacular excavation.”

      My post has more questions than answers, I think, because the concept of ownership can be tenuous and contested. I hope that sharing online doesn’t immediately come with the price that our content is no longer our own, but maybe I’m not embracing the glory of the collaborative online brain.

      Liked by 1 person

      • If people leave there stuff out there in usable form without making it easy for others who stumble upon it to attribute, why is it so bad to assume that these people, the true owners really don’t care? there is far too much obsession with ownership in the world, and yes I am one of those people who care little about ownership. So, yes maybe this reckless abandonment of the burden of ownership is a part of ’embracing the glory of the collaborative brain’— I don’t know if you were being facetious, but I like that that idea!


  4. Great piece and even more intriguing conversations. I am still on my moral crusade, but that is my choice. I do so for a number of reasons, but first and fore-mostly to give a hat tip to those who’s work I am referencing and riffing. The reality though is that I will never capture every use nor every influence. However, that does not mean I throw in the towel. I do however wonder if it is bad faith to not at least make some sort of effort?

    Where I think that it does matter is within spaces like YouTube. Through the use of algorhtms it is decided whether music etc … is free to use ( I guess the answer is just post somewhere else which celebrates ‘piracy’? What then does that bring?

    In regards to ‘teaching’, I think there are so many problems with CC in schools. The biggest is that the usual suspects ( are more often than not blocked. Maybe they should be as there are some inappropriate resources there, but then again isn’t there ‘inappropriate’ resources and content EVERYWHERE on the internet? In addition to this, education provides the means to circumvent copyright based on its use to teaching purposes. Therefore if we are to be technical I think that much of what we do would fall under this category. This though never sits comfortably with me.

    Anyway, there are some of my thoughts. I am not sure that there is an ‘answer’, however more importantly there are many conversations which need to be had. Thanks Deb and co for spurring them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aaron, thanks so much for your comment and for adding more layers to this very interesting conversation. I agree that there’s not a clear-cut answer, but I’m pleased to be part of the conversation.

      For me, even when I’m inspired by others, and don’t directly use their work or words, I like to reference as I think it is both a courteous hat-tip and a celebration of the fact that everything we say and do is part of a larger, interconnected web of layered conversation. We ARE part of a global brain, and we are rarely truly original, but we can acknowledge and celebrate our sources and those with whom we are conversing. Even riffing on someone else’s ideas or work, for me, deserves a mention that this is what I’m doing, rather than either assuming that people will assume I’m riffing on something that exists (without feeling the need to acknowledge who sparked my thinking), or pretending that I’m working in a vacuum.

      In this post – – I talk a bit about art as conversation and research as conversation. But those involved in these conversations have found various ways to ‘hat-tip’ the speakers who came before.

      Maybe with teaching it comes down to having these conversations with students about what is expected or required, versus what might be considerate or thoughtful practice in a digital world where content is ubiquitous and seemingly there for the taking.



  5. Nice post, Deb. I was challenged by this professionally a few years ago when working for a publisher and now always check the CC attribution. If you want true CC images than don’t need acknowledgement there are very few places they can be found (pixabay and wikimedia are pretty much the only ones…and even then the bar keeps shifting so it always pays to check). Now when I look at text books published in History, they all seem to use the same CC images as I did. This raises a couple of questions: the truly great images are not being made available in published works any more because of the exorbitant amounts of money it takes to include them. This means that unless teachers go and look for themselves, these great images will probably never get used. But as you say, when they do, good digital citizenship is vital. Maybe the conversation needs to not be just about acknowledging images but also about generosity. The piracy debate goes both ways. Many “pirates” have an ethical reason for doing so. For example, there are academics which are sharing their own work on Research Gate in defiance of journal copyright restrictions. SOme might say it is to “get themselves out there” others might say that taxpayer funded research should not be behind firewalls. I think this is a conversation that needs more voice. Thanks for talking about it


    • Thanks, Naomi. That’s an interesting perspective about publishing, as I haven’t had that experience (of working for a publisher).

      The Open Access and independent researcher / alternate academic movement is an interesting one, but (I assume) those academic papers would be appropriately citing their sources.

      I agree that the conversation goes both ways: taking and giving. In the post I mention author Neil Gaiman who came to like the pirating of his work as it shared his writing more globally, but he was being named as the author; he wasn’t having his writing posted without his name. Does generosity mean allowing others to use your stuff WITH credit, or WITHOUT it? I’m not sure. As I said in a previous comment I have created content for others, for which I didn’t want or expect attribution. But if someone takes something from my blog without crediting it, does asking for credit make me un-generous? Again, I’m not sure.

      Thanks for making me think!


      Liked by 1 person

      • My brother-in-law is a musician and he loves it when people pirate his work because it gives him a wider audience. In fact he wishes that he got 10 copies for every album sold. So his perspective aligns with Neil Gaiman’s. The difference is that their names are still on the product (as you say). I have a colleague who believes that he should give away his best ideas.He says that the publications are full of the boring bits and they can stay behind the firewall.
        I have been thinking about this heaps and was even contemplating a blog myself, but my angle was that all the great ideas were effectively stolen from someone else (eg, Newton co-opted Robert Hooke’s ideas about gravity and applied the maths). So what does it all mean? I guess we have to ask ourselves whether our ideas are going to springboard someone else to make revolutionary change. If so then who cares if they are stolen, there is a bigger cause. If not, then why are we here? It’s nice to be acknowledged but in the grand scheme….????

        Liked by 1 person

      • “So what does it all mean? I guess we have to ask ourselves whether our ideas are going to springboard someone else to make revolutionary change. If so then who cares if they are stolen, there is a bigger cause. If not, then why are we here? It’s nice to be acknowledged but in the grand scheme….????” ->>

        Does attribution matter if we’re part of collaborative change and a bigger cause? I’m not sure. But I think having back-and-forth conversations in which we acknowledge each others’ (co)contributions, we can get further. We can deliberately and thoughtfully and transparently add layers to the global dialogue.

        I guess I’m hoping that those who’re working towards a better world would be people who might hat-tip to those on whose shoulders they’re standing, whose maps they’re using or whose music they’re remixing. ?

        Liked by 1 person

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