Monday, May 25, 2009

In a cut-and-paste culture, when can you use someone else's work?

I often joke with my students that, in a few years' time, I'll say, "Please have your assignment plagiarized for next Thursday."

Cut-and-paste culture

The Internet has changed everything, but perhaps no more than our ability to find and use information as we need it, which continues to be the medium's great promise: having the entire sum of human intelligence at our fingertips.

But what does that ability mean in terms of intellectual property? Will it - and the whole idea of copyright - die a natural death, like so many newspapers?

On this blog, I'm pretty liberal about quoting other websites, linking to YouTube videos - most of which are "illegal" in that the people who posted the clips don't own the rights to them, and using photos that "fit" my stories from Google images.

It seems fair to me, as long as I source where I got the information. Am I fooling myself? Or is that "fair use" of the medium? And is it a slippery slope between doing that, and copying stories outright?

For students in a writing program, the work should obviously be "original," with words and ideas from outside parties sourced. But should the same rules apply to everyone else? Should anyone care if a six-year-old kid prints out a picture of Mickey Mouse and sticks it to her window?

When I ask students to create a print ad, I always say, "Don't use Google to come up with creative, because all of the best creative comes from your own mind." And I believe that. There's something depressing about not using one's own intellectual capacity for thinking through a problem - but is Google faster and more efficient than our own brains? Or, as the Atlantic asked last summer, is Google making us stupid?

Putting the copy in copy

Another thing I've noticed with alarming frequency is the number of my freelance clients who send me copy to edit or use with their website or brochure, which has been lifted from another business' website.

Sometimes the violations are so flagrant that the name of the original business hasn't even been removed; when I point it out, the response is usually, "I like that copy and that's just an idea of how I want mine to read." But without my involvement, I'm sure that's exactly how the copy would read...

Time was, a person would be embarrassed to be caught lifting words - right Joe Biden? - but I'm not sure how long our cut-and-paste culture will still consider it a crime.

American University Center for Social Media

That brings me to the above video, which explains how you can legally borrow from other works without worrying about the legalities.

The video comes from the American University Center for Social Media, which published a document last year on the code of best practices in fair use for online video and explains fair use and copyright here.

The organization is a proponent of creativity and empowering remixes, mashups, and fan tributes. This is all good stuff to protect: one of my favorite songs is Beck's "Jack-Ass", which samples Them's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," which is a cover of the Bob Dylan song.

It just goes to show that there's a big difference between using another creative work as "inspiration" and posting someone else's song online and saying that it's you: one is creative, the other is stealing.

The document, and above video, are American examples, of course, but "as goes the U.S., so too goes Canada."

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