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?