Given that the field of technical communication spans many workplace and academic contexts, utilizes countless writing technologies, and touches myriad sub-disciplines, the challenges the field faces in terms of issues of intellectual property (IP) will only intensify in the coming years. While philosophically, the ethical question of authorship--just what it means to be an author of a text in the first place (Barthes, 1967; Slack, Miller, & Doak, 1993)--pervades much of the work already, I want to identify what I see to be the three main challenges the field will continue to face in the future as it pertains to IP.
Even before the introduction of digital technologies in mediating pedagogical practice, the question of ownership of student-produced materials and teacher-based texts (e.g., syllabi, projects) was a key issue. Now, as students use archiving and presentational technologies such as Google Drive and WordPress to build workplace-based portfolios for future employers, questions of IP as it pertains to private entities such as Google helping facilitate public educational goals raises many questions about the risks involved with using eportfolios technologies in technical writing classrooms.
By digital production I mean here mainly editing software for digital images and the increasing use of the visual as a guiding light in rhetorical practice. As the field continues to be involved in multimodal production, and not just text-based documentation (this includes video and audio production as well), the appropriate literacies involved in citing images, navigating creative commons databases, and ethical digital manipulation must be learned and included in the basic expectations for proficient work.
Content and Software Management
Technical communicators and information designers deal with a lot of content. Like, a lot. As such, practitioners needs to always be aware of how to protect their own content as well as usefully and honestly borrow content from other sources. Whether this is lines of code or text, protecting content created either as in-house coding or web content will be vitally important in protecting business. See Bill Hart-Davidson’s (2001) work in Technical Communication on the parallels between technical communication and information technology.
While not exhaustive (think of how algorithms might be involved in creating IP issues we don’t know about yet), the issues circulating ownership and protection of ideas in these three areas will need to be critically addressed. But with technical and professional communication being a field that has shown ability to maintain self-awareness, integrate ethical theories into practice, and establish bridges between academia and industry, I am confident in its ability to do do.
You mention "the appropriate literacies involved in citing images, navigating creative commons databases, and ethical digital manipulation," to which I say ABSOLUTELY YES.
What makes this so interesting and tricky is the way all these different assumptions and literacies are jamming into each other: you've got people at large just finding images and audio files and videos and taking them for their own remixes...
...and then you've people saying, "Well that was illegal but if you use this other asset instead it's not illegal but this stuff here it's legal and fine but you have to give credit in this particular sort of way"...
...and then you've got people in the academy with their own varying methods for citing the stuff you found and used, whether or not it was legal or not (and whether or not your remix was actually anything anyone would ever want to experience, but that's a different issue I think but is it??)...
So yeah. It's a mess. I think our challenge is to see it as playful, productive mess, where everyone can teach everyone else, and where we can adjust legal structures to allow playful amateur creation of stuff to continue. This is why I love Lawrence Lessig's models on remix so much: he tries really hard both to honor content creators' rights AND the exciting remixes of amateurs. But to do that, we've got to honor everyone in the room and be friendly when we talk to each other.
Dr. Dan Richards, thanks for being smart and helping me think through this stuff.
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