Why Plagiarism Makes Sense in the Digital Age: Copying, Remixing, and Composing

Why Plagiarism Makes Sense in the Digital Age: Copying, Remixing, and Composing (CCCC 2006 Chicago — Day 2)

This was a jam-packed, no-downtime, hardly-time-to-breathe presentation. I’m posting the notes that I took while the presenters were speaking, very lightedly edited afterwards in my hotel room. I hope whatever inadvertent remixing I did while taking these notes doesn’t distort their intended message too much. In many ways, this panel felt like the continuation of, and one possible fulfillment of, the discussion raised by a panel from last year’s Cs, “Writing Teachers Writing New Media.”

Jim Porter addressed the crowed room by noting that plagiarism is, in many respects, a normal part of the writing process. Especially normal in the realm of digital writing. “Composing in the digital age is different.” The technical functions of copy/paste change everything. Remixing makes sense. “We do believe in the ethic of fair use.” The issue of plagiarism is more complex than it’s typically portrayed. Playing copyright police supports the business practices of corporations that have a vested interest in the status quo.

Catherine Latterell, Penn State U, “What is Remix Culture?”

Latterell showed clips and examples of remix culture. “My presentation is very consciously a collage and a sample of other people’s work.” Streetwear movement of customizing sneakers; the tuxedo T-shirt. The remix uses media in ways independent of the original designer’s intentions. The Tangelo and “Sprite Remix.” Pets: Labradoodles. (Labrador poodle.)

Quoted Emerson on Quotation and Originality. “By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.”

A State of the Union remix that chops up Bush’s statements.

Pete Rojas, “Bootleg Culture.”

Office Space meets Super Friends (classic mash-up).

Sampling assumes or recognizes a shared network of meaning.

“Sampling plays games with memory.”

DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation.

Sampling implies breakdown of boundaries – truth/meaning, author/audience.

MySpace: The Movie

Lessig: “Everyone in the life of producing and creating engages in this practice of remix.”

James Porter, Michigan State University, “Forget Plagiarism, Teach Filesharing and Fair Use.”

Reiterated what has been said by people in our field before. “If you don’t like what I say, you can blame all the immoral influences in my life.”

Brian Martin, “Plagiarism: A misplaced emphasis.”

Mark Rose, “The author as proprietor: Donaldson v. Beckett”

Lessig – “Many kinds of piracy are useful and productive, either to create new content or foster new ways of doing business. Neither our tradition, nor any tradition, has ever banned all piracy.”

“We are all pirates.” (“Image used without permission of Disney.”)

Criticizes the black and white view of plagiarism, which insists on some gray area, “context-dependent issues” where the answers is “it depends.”

“Be rhetorical about plagiarism.”

Copying without attribution and without permission is not always unethical.

Is it ethical to use somebody else’s design content for a web page, without attribution, if you plug in your own content?

Students – “well it depends on what course you’re doing it in.”

“We are all ‘plagiarists’ “ but in an ethical context.

Chris Dussold was fired for copying another professor’s teaching statement. University couldn’t make a sexual harassment charge stick, so they went after him for the boilerplate teaching. Have we ever plagiarized boilerplate syllabus text without acknowledging the source. Ever use an existing PowerPoint template? Cut and paste bibliography entries? Reuse paragraphs from your own presentations?

Much of our professional work involves reusing templates and boilerplate without attribution. A laboratory director who did little of the actual work may have his name appended to a list of authors.

Plagiarism not reduced to unattributed copying. The real issue is “taking someone else’s work and representing it as your own, in situations where it matters.”

Got a big laugh noting that “like you” he goes to Wikipedia for a definition of a term – in this case, “plagiarism.”

Teach not so much “what is plagiarism” but “how to you make the decision” of what’s right or allowable in which context.

Danielle Nichole DeVoss, Michigan State University. “Pastiche, Remix, the RIAA, and/in the Writing Classroom.”


We are digitally literate technoretoricians. Not the hobby horse, but the bull in the china shop.

Our culture clings to an antiquated, romanticized notion of what writng is. Most, if not all writing takes place today in computer-mediated places. (Showed slides of people working together.)

The ability to compose documents with multiple media, to distribute, and to allow audiences to interact with that writing, changes many of the principles and practices of composition, which favors and privileges print-based notions.

(Included Leeroy Jenkins as an example of digital delivery.)

Offered 3 scenarios by “Amy Deel” a master’s student. If students translate and illustrate a piece of writing into a multimedia piece. Most students choose copyrighted material. Can you encourage them to publish their work? Can you publish it yourself in a conference presentation?

“When you’re downloading MP3s, you’re downloading Communism”

Copyright vs Copyleft.chart (attributed it to Jim.)

Puttign writing teachers on the grid almost squarely in the copyright domain.

Jack Valennti – “who’s just a rhetorical treat”

Mapped the values of composition instruction on top of the RIAA values of individual benefits.

Michael Day, once a student project goes public on the web, there is much more to consider. [I botched the 2nd half of the quote.]

Says it is “phenomenally difficult” to secure legitimate permission.

Johndon Johnson-Eilola, Clarkson U.

Begins with remixed movie trailer – Shining.

Plagiarism “as stealing” is about 12% of reported cases. Of more interest is cases where the concept of authorship fails to keep up with the creative processes. Defining “creativity” as the production of an original, unmixed text is a narrow view, idealizing the isolated genius. Take a problem-solving or problem-posing approach should push our students to use existing information to solve real problems. Composition hews pretty closely to those traditional views.

Shift the goal of writing from performance to action in context. Shift away from one extremely limited concept of reality, away from the hidden genius, away from writing as an isolated, de-contextualized process.

We tend to remain committed to that final artifact – original words, produced by the student. The ghost of the authorial genius remains between the lines, propping up what is becoming and increasingly unrealistic artifact in our digital age.

Thinking of composition instead of assemblage of parts, independent of what is original and what was existing. The distinction is “if not meaningless, at least secondary.”

Students recognize the hierarchical value of originality, causing students to hide their borrowed fragments. Focusing on problem-solving values assemblages.

Web design and design patterns – available from numerous sources. (Autocomplete, breadcrumbs, tabs.)

In theory, a web designer could create a new site only from assembling assisting material.

Ethical concerns. “Stop encouraging students to produce original texts all the time. Tell
them to work, at least occasionally” on collages. We don’t want students to claim that they wrote something that they didn’t actually write. Honesty about authorship is honesty framed within a binary arrangement between original text and borrowed text… asking students to be “honest” about what they wrote and what they borrowed is simply a tool that helps us preserve the value of the original writing.

Creativity moves to the assemblage. Citation is no longer a way of making subordinate elements in text, but rather a way to reward students for their new skills, to situate texts in preexisting, but new contexts. Their goal should be to filter and remix existing texts in order to solve problems. Students are encouraged to make explicit their borrowing. Encouraging writing instructors to recognize the value of this compositional skill.