Navigating the Rough Waters of Plagiarism in Contemporary Composition

In contemporary conversations about plagiarism, Danielle Nicole DeVoss and James E. Porter point out two sides: “on the one side we have the fierce protectors of long and strong copyright control of digital material (like the RIAA), arguing that copyright is a necessary mechanism for protecting vested economic interests. On the other side we have an emergent culture of young people (mostly) who live in (and at times, create) networks encouraging widespread sharing and distribution of digital material” (185). This clash underlies the confusion that so many of our students have as they move from a filesharing social community to a copyright-bound academic and professional community. Instructors, ultimately, play an important role in helping students navigate their transition from one sphere to the other. 

The challenge of defining and enforcing intellectual property rights is not a new one, as reviewing the literature indicates. While the type of composition and our ability to access it has changed dramatically over the years, the legal concerns that surround that access are timeless. Robert Verhoogt and Chris Schriks, exploring the history of copyright issues, point out that “the introduction of new media constantly [results] in new legal questions of intellectual property. Or should we say the same legal questions over and over again” (83)? New communication technologies lead to a repetition of copyright and citation debates, presenting ongoing challenges for students and instructors alike.

Filesharing technology has created a significant challenge for the development and enforcement of intellectual property legislation across the globe. The American government has been keeping a careful eye on maintaining intellectual property rights because the value of U.S. intellectual property is priced at roughly 5-5.5 trillion dollars and makes up 45% of our Gross Domestic Product (Shapiro and Hassett 2). Statistics show that piracy costs “companies as much as $638 billion a year, losses greater than the total GDP of all but 12 countries” (Shapiro and Hassett 3). Because digital information can be accessed worldwide, intellectual property is a global issue that all countries have a stake in. What we teach in the classroom, therefore, impacts more than our students and more than our own Gross Domestic Product; it’s part of a global discussion with both ethical and economic implications.

Like every important educational issue, there are several perspectives on how we should teach intellectual property. Some compositionists, like Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Stuart Selber, DeVoss, and Porter argue that the remix approach to composition can be helpful in encouraging creativity, and they urge teachers to adopt a filesharing ethic into their pedagogies. Scholars like Sonia Bodi and Martine Courant Rife, respond to a perceived unawareness that students have about plagiarism by calling for teachers and students to adhere strictly to copyright laws and to teach them in the classroom. For this MediaCommons discussion, I invite responders to share their own experiences in navigating the rough waters of copyright and intellectual property issues in the higher education classroom. How do you address this global concern? How do you localize it to the concerns of students and their own assignments? And how do digital texts shape and reshape student productions and citation patterns in your classroom?



I would like to thank Ella Marie Hicks for her help in co-writing a version of this paper for presentation at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in 2009.


Works Cited

Bodi, Sonia. "Ethics And Information Technology: Some Principles To Guide Students." Journal Of Academic Librarianship 24.6 (1998): 459. Business Source Complete. Web. 20 Mar. 2009.

DeVoss, Dànielle Nicole, and James E. Porter. "Why Napster Matters To Writing: Filesharing As A New Ethic Of Digital Delivery."Computers & Composition 23.2 (2006): 178-210. Education Research Complete. Web. 20 Mar. 2009.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan, and Stuart A. Selber. "Plagiarism, Originality, Assemblage." Computers & Composition 24.4 (2007): 375-403. Education Research Complete. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

Rife, Martine Courant. "The Fair Use Doctrine: History, Application, And Implications For (New Media) Writing Teachers." Computers & Composition 24.2 (2007): 154-178. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

Shapiro, Robert J. and Kevin A. Hassett. The Economic Value of Intellectual Property. Sonecon, 2005. PDF file.

Verhoogt, Robert and Chris Schriks. “Reflecting Media: A Cultural History of Copyright and the Media.” The History of Information Security: A Comprehensive Handbook. Oxford, UK. Elsevier B.V., 2007. Print.  

Image on front page by Robert de Vido via Flickr. 


Honestly, I have never considered the plagiarism in a global context. I, like many of my students, probably think of plagiarism and piracy as something small scale. Thinking of it in regards to Gross Domestic Product makes plagiarism seem real; there are far reaching implications.  I have never addressed the global concern in my classroom. However, we do have a several discussions about plagiarism and the immediate impact it can have. After reading this, I realize the conversation has to be expanded to address immediate and long term impacts of plagiarism/piracy. I think that most students would feel different about plagiarism if the conversation included the economic implications. Discussing ethics can be tricky. Students are aware of, even if they don't understand, the importance of economic growth and stability. I'm starting to agree with Bodi and Rife that these conversations should be a regular part of the classroom dialogue. I think that students are aware of the short term implications of plagiarism (their grades), but do not consider the long term impacts or the culture that it creates.









Thanks, Chvonne! It's true, most students don't consider ethics beyond their specific assignments. I know I didn't when I was an undergraduate. I wasn't aware of concepts like fair use and intellectual property until I began working in a publishing company where we had to be so very cautious about the written and visual materials we collected. That cautiousness carried over into my online publications today. I now turn to compfight rather than google images and seek creative commons licensing just to be safe. I don't think many students see themselves as 'real' composers, so they don't worry much about copyright issues; however, online publication and multimodal texts certainly problematize their role as "consumers," and cause many to find themselves as "producers" without being entirely aware of it.  

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