Piracy, Plagiarism, and Personality.


Consequence number one-- being reduced to public ranting about piracy despite being intellectually all about creative commons and open source. Apparently I’m a stone cold capitalist at heart when my work is shared. Rationally, I know piracy isn’t really lost sales – the files were only downloaded because it’s “free stuff” grabbed from the internet. I should just ignore those piracy alerts if I want to stay calm.

Consequence number two– public mind-howling fury about plagiarism. Not so very different than ordinary academic disdain for it, right? But I discovered a whole new level of rage when I saw my work presented for academic credit and for publication.

Consequence number three – running the risk of not keeping your cool and sense of humor on-line. No one may know if you’re a dog on the Internet, but they surely do know if you’re a noodle-brained, rage-filled, control freak.

Had my work not been available online, these instances wouldn’t have happened. I shan’t go as far as having a Luddite spasm, but having been pirated and plagiarized, I found my brain and gut were seemingly at odds with each other. There was nothing intellectual or thoughtful about my response to seeing files of my writing listed at a bit torrent site. I wanted to puke. Our reaction to our work being shared varies according to the context -- well, sure, and, duh, right? What I didn’t expect was how hardwired my reactions would be based on a flash determination of the context. My body reacted to the number of accesses – no processing needed to know that this wasn’t a good thing. The volume meant it wasn’t sales and it certainly wasn’t citations. Hard as I try to be thrilled that so many people wanted my work enough to download it, my gut still says: stole, not shared.

I would thrill if only a dozen copies of a journal article or paper I wrote were shared – but, of course, that marketplace is different. Our currency here is the trading of our thinking. We want our ideas to spread – so long as our name is attached. Being plagiarized stung more than being pirated. Briefly, a very unlucky student handed in copies of my own writing to me for a grade (now there was the mother of all teachable moments), and an equally unlucky writer drew me as a reviewer.

Parsing my reactions revealed that I am, when the chips are down, on the side of The Man. None of this information wants to be free, embiggening of the commons stuff. Intellect aside, I felt used. My work, ideas, imagination – the kidnapped root of plagiarism never felt truer. And here is where I think the word sharing has been coopted and devalued.  I do share my work. Had the plagiarized work been offered as fan fic, would I have cared? No, in fact, on the rare occasions that I’ve been asked, after being toe-twistingly flattered, I do give permission, and brag that my writing is a playground for others.

My attitude and thinking about ownership have been radically shaken up in the last few years of my digital existence. My academic and fiction careers are only possible because of on line sharing. Yes, sharing on line leads to risks of our ideas being no longer ours to control and profit from, but this was always true. It’s a cliché by now to say that the InterTubes have magnified and writ large our activities, and for me what they have mostly increased is the risks and stakes of revealing my personality to others. My work – it can stand for itself, and I will fight for it too -- but the real stakes are personal and reputational


Sarah, first I appreciate your willingness to problematize, in such a personal way, the dilemma of seemingly contradicting oneself when advocating for creative commons type sharing while simultaneously reacting with a visceral response to one's own work being pirated online. But, I have a hunch that many of us feel similarly. While no one, to my knowledge, has pirated anything of mine (which may simply suggest that I have produced nothing worth pirating!), I more than periodically struggle with the extent to which I want to "protect" my writings and teaching materials from being pirated, oh no, by other teachers! I  have thought about placing a creative commons license on the assignments and other materials that I post to my Google sites. I have also considered making my sites private or deactivating them after the end of a given semester. However, I have yet to enact either of these measures in part because I simply have not made the time to do so, which likely reflects the level of priority this has for me. But, part of not making this a priority stems, I think, from my desire to engage in open and social knowledge making and sharing, particularly with other instructors with whom I would otherwise have no contact if not for online sharing. But, please let me contradict myself, I anticipate having the same sort of visceral reaction Sarah M. has described should someone find my material "worthy" of pirating/plagiarizing.

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