Tag Archives: intellectual property

SOPA, Media Conglomerates, and the Moral Obligation to Boycott

SOPA, in its current form, is dead. But the fight to keep the internet an open platform for communication, creativity, and commerce is far from over. Pacts like ACTA are in some ways more troubling than SOPA/PIPA, as they represent attempts of copyright extremists to do an end-run around the US Congress. (Rep. Daniel Issa has spoken about this recently.) The root problem is not a specific piece of legislation, or even a single piece of technology, but fundamental disagreements about the nature of intellectual property, the relationship between the producers and consumers of media, and the role of government regulation in shaping and enforcing worldviews (be they conservative and profit-focused, or progressive and individual-focused). The fight will continue for as long as these disagreements persist. And the copyright extremists will continue to have sway as long as they have enormous amounts of money, and as long as the political system is arranged in such a way that deep pockets dictate legislative agendas.

This conception of the problem suggests two broad strategies. First: attempt to change the political structures that allow campaign and lobbying money to play such a significant role in the legislative process. Primarily, this is an argument about campaign finance reform. For a very readable outline of the problem, as well as the sketch of a few specific strategies for combatting it, I highly recommend Lawrence Lessig’s recent book Republic, Lost. Needless to say, solving the problems of money in politics is enormously difficult and complex, so I’ll set it aside for the moment.

The strategy that I want to consider here focuses more directly on the fact that media companies are very rich, and can afford political canoodling. (Operating here on the admittedly oversimplified assumption that media companies – TV, movie, music, book publishers – are driving the legislation.) These companies get their money from the people who buy their wares. So, in theory, if everyone stopped going to the movies, buying music, watching TV, etc, then they’d have no money. In other words, a boycott.

A few days ago, I tweeted something suggestive along these lines:

When you buy music, watch TV, or see a movie, don’t forget: the makers hate the free internet & will spend huge amounts of money to kill it.

Assume that the premise here is right (namely, that the people who make media – by which I mean, those who choose which media gets created in the first place, who fund its creation, who are responsible for its distribution and marketing, etc – hate the internet as it currently stands). That means that when you make them richer by buying their stuff, you are increasing their ability to fight the internet. All things being equal, then, someone who values the open internet should not spend money in this way – that is, you’d be morally obligated to boycott.

But all things are not equal. (Such is life.) There are some factors that may mitigate the obligation to boycott:

  • How valuable is the open internet, really?

    I’m assuming that an open internet is valuable enough to defend. I may be totally wrong about this, or I may be overestimating how valuable it is. The less valuable the internet, the less obliged we are to fight against the forces that would wreck it.

  • How much collateral damage would a boycott cause?

    The supporters of SOPA/PIPA talked a lot about the zillions of Americans who make their livings working for media conglomerates. If boycotting media companies would put them all out of work and out on the street, that’d be a bad thing. Of course, this is a complete caricature. For one thing, you can (and should, and hopefully did) make the very same argument about the zillions of Internet professionals who would be harmed by stifling legislation. More importantly, it’s not as if SOPA vs non-SOPA is a zero-sum game, where media professionals all lose their jobs if SOPAesque bills don’t pass. It’s likely that piracy is not as financially harmful as these companies complain, and it’s likely that there are anti-piracy measures that would not harm Internet professionals.

    There’s another kind of collateral damage you might be worried about: the damage caused to the creative people (musicians, writers, actors) who are directly responsible for the media that people love, and the subsequent damage to the “art” itself. In addition to the general points made in the foregoing paragraph, I’ll add that this assumes that the stuff produced by these companies is worth saving. For every The Wire (or whatever your favorite piece of popular media is), there are thousands upon thousands of pieces of trash. Taking these turds out of circulation is probably a *good* thing. Moreover, new models of direct funding for quality art (think Radiohead, Louis CK, projects taking place on Kickstarter) reduce collateral damage even further.

  • How much do you value the media produced by these companies?

    If you’re a TV junkie, or you love the movies, then it’s certainly rational for you to cling to them a bit more than someone who doesn’t care about these media (see the ‘turd’ comment above).

  • How likely is it that a boycott will make a difference?

    Probably hundreds of millions of Americans are consumers of TV, movies, books, and music. For a company like NBC Universal to take notice of a boycott, much less to change corporate policies as a result of the boycott, would require huge numbers of boycotters. You might thus argue that your individual boycott would have no positive value.

    Sadly, this is at least partly true – I’m sure there are many times more people who would go to bat for their TV shows than for the kind of heady internet freedoms that intellectuals get excited about. That said, January’s blackouts demonstrated a deep dependence on the Internet for a broader swath of Americans than I might have guessed. In any case, even a single dollar kept out of media company coffers is one dollar they can’t use to fight the open internet. The “everybody else is buying media anyway” argument is the same kind of reasoning that leads to looting during blackouts. (See also Kant.)

So what does this all mean? I think that there are a couple of takeaways:

  1. I think there’s a decent case to be made for a broad boycott.
  2. Even in the absence of an organized boycott, I think there’s a decent case to be made for individuals to boycott.
  3. If you care about the internet (if you’re reading this blog post, you probably do), you cannot continue to patronize these media companies without at least recognizing the indirect effects of your actions.

This last point is the most important. Every meaningful decision that you make is an ethical trade-off, and this one is no different. When you continue to patronize media conglomerates, you are saying that what you get from them is worth the damage that you thereby do to the cause of an open internet. You may be right about the value of this trade-off, or you may be wrong, but you can’t in good faith continue to consume without at least thinking about it.

Do something about SOPA

Hey you! Do something about SOPA and PROTECT IP..

The Stop Online Privacy Act (and its cousin in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act) are inching closer to passage. Time is running short for you to do what you can to stymie this legislation, which could very well destroy the open internet as we know it. (Don’t know about SOPA? Get a nice overview in this short video, or check out Jeff Sayre’s helpful bibliography of resources about the bill.)

Why you should care about this

If you are reading my blog, you likely fall into one of a few camps, each of which has a vested interest in preventing the passage of SOPA and PROTECTIP:

  • If you are a developer, user, or advocate of free and open source software, you have several reasons to be concerned about the proposed legislation.

    For one thing, the small-to-medium sized web organizations that are most likely to be targets of SOPA’s blacklisting protocols make up the bulk of the clientele for many web developers I know. These organizations generally do not have the visibility or high profile to put up a stink when and if they fall prey to overzealous “copyright” claims, nor do they have the deep pockets to fund the necessary legal defenses. The danger is especially great for websites that accept – or are built on – user-generated content, like many WordPress and BuddyPress sites; SOPA provides for the blacklisting of entire domains, based merely on the a few pieces of “offending” content, even if the content was not created or posted by the domain owners. Over time, these threats and constraints are bound to make the development of these kinds of sites far less feasible and attractive, resulting in less work for developers – and less development on the open source projects that are largely subsidized by this kind of work.

    On a deeper level, those who are interested in the philosophical underpinnings of free software – the rights of the user – should be terrified by the prospect of media corporations gaining what amounts to veto power over our most fecund channels for the exercise of free expression. Free software lives and dies alongside a free internet. When one level of our internet infrastructure (DNS) is under the control of a self-interested few, it makes “freedom” at higher levels of abstraction – like the level of the user-facing software – into an illusion.

  • If you are an educator or an instructional technologist, especially one who endorses the spirit of open educational movements like (the OG) edupunk and ds106, you should be flipping out about SOPA.

    At an institutional level, thoughtful folks in higher ed and edtech have been fighting for years against a FERPA-fueled obsession with privacy and closedness. They’ve made strides. Platforms that foster learning in open spaces – stuff like institutional blog and wiki installations – have become increasingly commonplace, demonstrating to the powers that be that, for one thing, the legal dangers are not so great, and for another, whatever legal concerns there may be are far outweighed by the pedagogical benefits to be reaped from the open nature of the systems. The threats put into place by SOPA are likely to undo much of this work, by tipping the scales back in the direction of fear-driven policy written by CYA-focused university lawyers. Advocates of open education, and the platforms that support it, should be keen not to let their efforts go to waste.

    At the level of the individual student, the case is more profound. The most promising thread in the story of higher ed and the internet – the thread running through Gardner Campbell’s Bags of Gold and Jim Groom’s a domain of one’s own – is, in my understanding, founded on notions about student power and agency. Users of the internet are not, and should not be, passive actors and consumers of content. Instead, they should take control of their (digital) selves, becoming active participants in the construction of the web, the web’s content, and their own avatars. SOPA and its ilk are an endorsement of the opposite idea: the “ownership” of creative content on the internet is heavily weighted toward media companies, which is to say that you are allowed to be in control of your digital self until it causes a problem for a suit at MPAA or RIAA. The entire remix/mashup culture of ds106 is impossible in such a scenario. If you think that this culture, and the ideology of student personhood that underscores the culture, is worth saving, you should be fighting SOPA tooth and nail.

What can you do? Write a blog post. Join or support the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Most importantly, if you are an American, contact your representatives in Congress. The Stop American Censorship site makes this easy, and gives you all the talking points you’ll need. (“This bill is a job killer!”)

Do it now!

The GPL is for users

The General Public License (aka the GPL) is for users. This observation seems so obvious that it needn’t be stated. But for those who develop software licensed under the GPL (like WordPress and most related projects), it’s a fact that should be revisited every now and again, because it has all sorts of ramifications for the work we do.

Users versus developers

What do I mean when I say that the GPL is “about users”? Who are “users”? We might draw a parallel between software and books. Books have readers (hopefully!), and they have authors. Authors read too; proofing is a kind of reading, of course, and one might argue moreover that reading is an inextricable part of writing. Yet when we talk about a book’s “readers” we generally mean to discount its author. ‘Readers’ in this sense is a gloss for ‘just readers’, that is, those readers whose relationship to the book is limited to reading. The situation with software is more complex, but roughly the same distinction can be made between users and developers. ‘Developers’ refers broadly to those people involved in the conceptualization and implementation (and also often the use) of a piece of software, while ‘users’ refers to those who just use it.

My reading of the GPL is that it’s heavily focused on users. (References to the GPL throughout are to GPL 3.0. You can find older versions of the licence, such as version 2 that is shipped with WordPress, on GNU’s website.) Take the opening line from the second paragraph of the Preamble:

The licenses for most software and other practical works are designed to take away your freedom to share and change the works. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change all versions of a program–to make sure it remains free software for all its users.

Here as elsewhere in the text of the GPL, no real distinction is made between “you” as it refers to developers and “you” as it refers to users. Closer analysis makes it pretty clear, though. Take, for example, the freedoms that are purported to be taken away by proprietary licenses: the freedom to “share and change” software. Developers – or, to be more specific, license holders, who are generally either the developers themselves or, in the case of work for hire, the people who paid for the software to be developed – generally do not restrict their own rights to share and change the software that they create. Instead, restrictions are imposed on others, the (“just”) users.

Similar reasoning applies to the core freedoms that are outlined in the Free Software Definition, a sort of unofficial sister document of the GPL, also maintained by the Free Software Foundation. The four freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

On the face of it, freedoms 1 and possibly 3 are focused on developers, in the sense of “those who are able to write code”. But, with respect to a piece of software that they did not write and whose license they do not control, coders are just regular users (in the same way that Vonnegut may have been a “reader” of Twain). All four freedoms, indeed, are user-centric. The license holder, almost by definition, doesn’t need permission to use the code (0); the developer doesn’t need to study the code to know how it works (1); owners can redistribute at will (2); owners can modify and redistribute at will (3). It’s only in the context of users – those who did not write the software – that these freedoms need protection in the form of free software licenses like the GPL.

The GPL does make a few explicit provisions for the developer/license holder:

For the developers’ and authors’ protection, the GPL clearly explains that there is no warranty for this free software. For both users’ and authors’ sake, the GPL requires that modified versions be marked as changed, so that their problems will not be attributed erroneously to authors of previous versions.

The second provision is a sort of legal convenience; the first intends to ease what may otherwise be a prohibitive consequence of the core freedoms guaranteed by the rest of the GPL. Both are important and valuable. But it seems fair to say that they are secondary to the user-focused parts of the document, at the very least because they are motivated by other parts of the document, while user freedom needs independent justification.

There’s no question that the people who bear the brunt of implementing and upholding the GPL are software developers. In that sense, the GPL is very much “for” them. But, in a broader sense, that’s a bit like saying that school is “for” the teachers because the teachers play a key role in education. Schools are for children; they provide the motivation and justification for the whole enterprise. Similarly, the GPL is for users; if everyone wrote their own software, and there were no “just users”, the GPL (or any free software licenses, or any licenses at all) would be unnecessary.


If I buy a pizza, I trade ownership of money for ownership of pizza. Once I have the pie, I can do pretty much whatever I want with it. I can eat the whole thing myself, I can share with a friend or two, I can throw it on the sidewalk. I can save the pizza in hopes that prices rise so that I can make a quick buck in a resale, I can retail off the individual slices, or I can give the whole thing away. I can’t use the pizza to solve world hunger (not because I’m not allowed, but because it’s not possible); I can’t use the pizza as a deadly weapon (not because it’s impossible, but because I’m not allowed). In short, ownership bestows certain rights. Not all rights – I don’t have the right to murder with the pizza, or to do impossible things with it – but many, even most of them.

The situation is more complex with intangible goods; especially those, like software, which can be reproduced without cost or loss. Copyright law in the United States (so far as I understand it; IANAL etc), in accordance with the Berne Convention, grants rights over intellectual and creative works to the authors automatically, at the time of creation. Thus, if I write a piece of software (from scratch – set aside issues of derivative work for a moment), I am granted extensive rights over the use and reuse of that piece of software, automatically, in virtue of being the author. That includes copyright – literally, the rights related to the copying and distribution of the software. In short, the default situation, for better or for worse, is for the developer – and only the developer – to possess the rights and freedoms enumerated by the Free Software Definition. By default, nothing is protected for the users.

Free software licenses exist in order to counteract this default scenario. But keep in mind what that means: When a developer releases a work under a license like the GPL, certain freedoms and rights are granted to users, which necessarily restricts the freedoms of the developer. The GPL admits as much:

To protect your rights, we need to prevent others from denying you these rights or asking you to surrender the rights. Therefore, you have certain responsibilities if you distribute copies of the software, or if you modify it: responsibilities to respect the freedom of others.

“Responsibilities” is a nice way of putting what is essentially the stripping of certain rights (in the same way that, once you become a parent and thus responsible for your child’s well-being, you no longer have the right to go on a week-long bender). Once the software is released under a GPL, the original author has lost the right of exclusive distribution of the original software. Subsequent developers, those who modify and redistribute the software, are similarly restricted.

It’s a trade-off. Users get certain rights (viewing source code, copying, modifying, redistributing) because the developers have given up the default right of exclusivity. Examined in itself (without reference to subsidiary benefits for the moment), the trade-off is clearly made for the benefit of the users, and involves sacrifice on behalf of the developer, sacrifice which is usually quantified in monetary terms (Bill Gates didn’t get rich by writing open source software), but could also be associated with pride in being the sole author, etc. There are, in addition to this, secondary sacrifices involved in free software development (loss of identification with the software because of modifications or forking, less guaranteed income than in a proprietary development shop, increased support requests that come from wider use of a free-as-in-beer product [though the GPL explictly says that you can charge what you want, and that no warranty is implied]). To some extent, these secondary sacrifices can be mitigated by the realities of the market, and are anyway subject to the particulars of the scenario in which you find yourself. But the core sacrifice – giving up exclusivity over distribution – cannot be separated from free software licenses.

Software licenses are political documents

Developers have all sorts of reasons for releasing software under free software licenses like the GPL. A few, off the top of my head:

  • You want to modify and redistribute existing software that is GPLed
  • You want to distribute somewhere that requires GPL-compatibility, like the wordpress.org plugin repository
  • You believe that forkability and other GPLy goodness makes for a better product
  • You want to develop for a platform, or contribute to a project, that requires GPL compatibility

I classify these reasons as prudential, in the sense that they are focused on the material benefits (money, fame, better software) that you believe will come from developing under the GPL. All of these reasons are great and important, and many of them have motivated my own work with GPL-licensed software. Taken together or even individually, it’s easy to imagine that these (and other) benefits would outweigh the sacrifice involved in giving up exclusive distribution rights over your work.

There’s another kind of justification for releasing under the GPL: you endorse, and want to advance, the political and moral ends that motived the creation of the GPL. The GPL assumes that it’s a good thing for users to have maximal freedom over their software:

If you develop a new program, and you want it to be of the greatest possible use to the public, the best way to achieve this is to make it free software which everyone can redistribute and change under these terms.

The assumption here is that “greatest possible use to the public”, and by the extension the good of the public, is something to be actively pursued – a moral claim par excellence.

And, among free software licenses, the GPL is perhaps the most explicit about the ways in which user freedoms (and thus the greatest good of the public) should be guaranteed and propagated. The “viral” nature of the GPL constitutes a kind of normative statement about the value of user rights over developer rights, which goes beyond other free software licenses that do not share its viral nature. The difference might be summed up like this. Alice and Bob are coders, and Carol is a potential user of the software. If Alice writes a piece of software and licenses it under a free software license like those in the BSD tradition, Bob can fork the software, make a few changes, and sell it to Carol under any terms he’d like – he can compile a binary executable for distribution, without making the source code available, converting his fork into closed-source, proprietary software. If Alice licenses the software under the GPL, on the other hand, Bob can still modify and sell to Carol, but he may not change the terms of the original license – in particular, the source code must be made available for further modification and distribution.

The normative aspect of the difference is in the value that each license scheme ascribes to the rights and freedoms of various individuals involved. BSD is more permissive with respect to Bob; GPL limits his ability to license the derivitive work as he pleases. GPL is more focused on Carol, and protecting her – and other “just users” like her – at the cost of some of Bob’s freedoms. (The GPL is for users.) One might express the difference in political terms thus: the GPL is more liberal, and less libertarian, than the BSD. Users, who are on the weak end of the power spectrum when it comes to software, are protected under the GPL, in the same way that society’s underprivileged and weak are often the focus of political liberalism. On this picture, licenses, like laws more generally, are designed in part to create the restrictions necessary to protect the positive freedoms of a vulnerable population.

For developers who agree independently with the normative principles underlying the GPL, its moral benefits can outweigh the sacrifices it entails. Such a justification is the starting point for Stallman and the Free Software Foundation (see, for example, the FSF’s about page). You may, of course, foreground other aspects of free/open-source software when justifying your licensing. I’ve listed some justifications above, and entire movements have sprouted to focus on prudential, rather than moral, justifications for open source development.

But – and here’s the rub – licensing your work under the GPL constitutes an endorsement of its moral justifications, even if it’s not (from a cognitive point of view) what motivated you personally to apply the license. If you choose a free software license for prudential reasons, you are not justified in complaining when your project is forked. If you choose the GPL for prudential reasons, you can’t altogether disavow the inherently altruistic underpinnings reflected in the license’s preamble. Put another way: Among other things, software licenses are political documents, and it’s incumbent upon developers to understand them before adopting them.

It’s important for developers to think carefully about this before diving into a license. My own take is that the original motivation for free software – that user control over the software they use is fundamental to their autonomy – becomes truer every day, as more and more of our agency is mediated through software. For that reason, licenses like the GPL are ethically important, at least if your worldview depends (as mine does) on respecting the agency of other human beings.

This post was prompted by a recent post by Ipstenu. Much of my thinking on the matter is clarified and inspired by the first few chapters of Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software, a book about free software written by philosophers/computer scientists Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter. You can (and should) buy the book here.

The ethics of Turnitin, or How I Learned To Stop Detecting Plagiarism

Yesterday I was feeling sorry for myself with regard to Turnitin and the like. I ended up having an interesting discussion with @LanceStrate, @mattthomas, and @KelliMarshall about the ethics surrounding plagiarism detection service. It got me to thinking about why it bothers me.

My gut feeling is this: Turnitin, SafeAssign et al make big bucks off of their database. More papers scanned means a bigger database; bigger database means (in theory) better plagiarism detection; better detection means (in theory) more value and more profit. Forcing students to relinquish their papers to this machine feels exploitative.

John Stuart Mill – Awesome Guy | cc licensed flickr photo shared by netNicholls

But I wonder why this bothers me. I have no problem feeding different kinds of information-gathering machines. Take Google. I use Gmail, Google Reader, Google Calendar, and google.com extensively. The more I use these services, the more information they gather about my online activities; bigger database means better ad targeting; better targeting means more value and more profit. My “stuff” – information about me, writing I produce, records of my activity, etc. – is not sacrosanct. I’m willing to give it up in some cases.

So what’s the difference? Most obviously, I am choosing to use Google’s products in a way that students are not asking to use Turnitin. I will grant that there are different levels of “forcedness”, as @LanceStrate points out. Students can opt out of a class, or out of school in general. And if instructors make the Turnitin requirement explicit in the syllabus on the first day of class (or earlier), students will be reasonably well-informed about what they will be “forced” to do. But no matter how you conceive of the spectrum of requirement, the fact remains that my use of Google is far freer than students’ use of Turnitin.

That a professor requires students to do certain things that they wouldn’t otherwise do is not, in itself, an indictment of the requirement. I doubt that my own students would write about the Nicomachean Ethics if their grade didn’t depend on it. But, in this case, I as an instructor am obligated to exercise my power in a responsible way. (Heavy is the head that wears the crown.) Requirements should not be arbitrary, but should serve the goals of the class and the best interest of the students. Requiring a paper on Aristotle has negative effects on students – it takes away from the time and energy they could be spending on other things that are valuable to them – and it’s my responsibility to ensure that these negative effects are outweighed by the benefits bestowed by such an assignment. A well thought-out term paper assignment will, in the long run, have positive utility for the student.

Is the same true for plagiarism detection? Are the negative effects of such technologies (being forced to enrich a corporate entity, losing control over one’s intellectual property, feeling a presumption of one’s own guilt in the absence of supporting evidence) outweighed by some benefits? It’s at this point in the thought process that the pedagogical implications of Turnitin should be considered.

  • Is Turnitin good at detecting plagiarism? My experience says: Not really. While Google’s database doesn’t include as many student papers as Turnitin’s, Turnitin is in turn pretty awful at identifying plagiarism from the open web. Thoughtful reading and Googling has been more effective for me. I’d like to see data on the larger trends, though – for example, what percentage of student copying comes from the open web (Google’s domain) versus for-sale paper databases.
  • How much harm does “plagiarism” really do? This is really the more important question. Even if it turns out that Turnitin is very, very good at plagiarism detection, there is very little benefit from the software’s use if it turns out that plagiarism, as defined, isn’t really that harmful. This question is tough to answer, though. For one thing, there are lots of different kinds of plagiarism, certain kinds of which are more harmful than others. A student who copies a paper wholesale from Wikipedia is doing more harm than one who synthesizes a coherent paper from a bunch of different sources, or one who fails to cite a paraphrased argument. Surely the second and third students are getting more out of the assignment than the first. Furthermore, I have an untested gut feeling that the most harmful types of plagiarism – where a student steals wholesale – are easier to detect without using Turnitin, since they’re more likely not to be even approximately in the student’s voice or level of expertise. If this is right, then it might be the case that Turnitin is most necessary for the least harmful varieties of “plagiarism” – varieties whose ethical implications, some might argue, ought to be reassessed in light of how new technologies are affecting knowledge creation. (Too big a topic to address here, but you get the idea.)
  • Are there less troubling alternatives to Turnitin? Let’s grant that Turnitin is very good at detecting plagiarism, and that plagiarism is hugely pernicious. All things being equal, if we could avoid plagiarism by means that have less of a downside, we should choose those other means. In my experience (again, I have no comprehensive data to back this up), the answer is yes, there are far better ways. @KelliMarshall suggests assigning unique paper prompts, making plagiarism more difficult. I’ve found that the scaffolding of assignments – such that students write early, write often, and write in a low-stakes milieu – is extremely effective at lowering the tempation to plagiarize. To be more specific: When students are writing in journals or blogs – spaces where they are not harshly graded – and when their formal assignments allow students to pull from and build upon the ideas that they’ve already put to paper(/bits), cheating simply doesn’t happen very often. That initial moment – when a student sits down at the computer the night before the due date, not having written a single word, not knowing where to start, and copying out of desparation – is averted altogether. In the semesters I’ve used blogs and structured assignments in this way, I’ve had to deal with plagiarism maybe once per semester (out of 70+ students writing hundreds of papers). Another thing that’s worked really well for me is having frank discussions with students about why plagiarism is so demonized in academia in the first place (perhaps this conversation is a little more justified in an Ethics course). When they understand the motivations, and are not simply handed seemingly (and perhaps actually?) arbitrary rules about the Evils Of Plagiarism, they’re more likely to grok.

On balance, then, it seems to me that there is very little, if anything, to be gained from Turnitin et al that cannot be gained through other, less harmful means. Now I have to work up the guts to start sending links to this post whenever a faculty member asks me how to do plagiarism detection! But I suppose my lack of intestinal fortitude is a topic for another blog post.

Doctorow on ethics and copyright

I’m posting this passage from Cory Doctorow’s generally awesome discussion of copyright to Microsoft because it’s too long to tweet:

Copyright isn’t an ethical proposition, it’s a utlititarian one. There’s nothing *moral* about paying a composer tuppence for the piano-roll rights, there’s nothing *immoral* about not paying Hollywood for the right to videotape a movie off your TV. They’re just the best way of balancing out so that people’s physical property rights in their VCRs and phonographs are respected and so that creators get enough of a dangling carrot to go on making shows and music and books and paintings.

Now, I think this is perhaps overly simplistic, since utilitarian considerations might ipso facto be ethical ones. More explicitly, if it’s true that violating copyright reduces the efficacy of Doctorow’s “carrot”, and if the ensuing decreased productivity of content producers has negative overall “utilitarian” impact, then that initial act of piracy might rightly have negative ethical import.

But the core of what Doctorow is saying strikes me as absolutely correct: to act like the copying of a CD is a violation of someone’s rights is to make a lot of very questionable assumptions about the concept of intellectual property.

The piece is worth reading in its entirety. Do it!

What the Facebook debacle says about sharing

Allow me to take a few more swings at this dead horse.

Sharing - it used to be so easy

Sharing - it used to be so easy - via clappstar

Mark Zuckerberg, Head Honcho of Facebook, posted a blog entry yesterday about the uproar that followed the Consumerist’s comparison of FB’s old Terms of Service with the new. Luke over at Cac.ophony calls Zuckerberg’s response “totally inadequate”. I think I agree, but I want to take a closer look at the argument that Zuckerberg provides for the TOS being the way they are, as I think that it draws attention to a lot of unanswered questions about one’s relationship with content – and, in particular, the somewhat ill-formed concept of sharing – as it takes place in social spaces.

The first part of Zuckerberg’s argument:

When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they’ve asked us to share it with.

So far so good, I think. The act of uploading a photo or writing a Facebook blog entry is, I think, clearly an intentional act by the poster, a way of saying, more or less explicitly, “I want others to see/hear this content via Facebook”. If we posit a correlation between Facebook’s rights (I guess I mean moral rights here – I don’t know much about legal issues) and the extent to which the user’s action demonstrates an explicit desire to use Facebook for sharing content, Zuckerberg’s first point seems right enough.

Zuckerberg’s next point:

When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person’s sent messages box and the other in their friend’s inbox.

He draws a parallel with the way that email works: when you send a message, the recipient gets her own copy, and you don’t get to take that copy back later, even if you wanted to. By extention, this is “the right way for Facebook to work”, Zuckerberg says. I don’t think it’s that easy, though.

If Zuckerberg is trying to legitimatize FB’s behavior in this regard by comparing it to email, then we should be able to establish that it’s OK for email to behave this way too. Is it? I have often (sad to say) wanted to take an email back within seconds of pressing the Send button. Sometimes it takes more time: there are emails I sent in college that seemed fine at the time, but now I would prefer that the recipient never again have the chance to go back and reread them. How obvious is it, from a moral point of view, that an email, once sent, should be irretrievable? Are we allowing the fact that it’s technologically difficult/impossible to retrieve a sent email to shade our moral judgment? Imagine that it’s the 18th century, and I’ve just sent a letter that I decided I want back. The only way to get it back would be to break into the person’s house and take away a physical object that I had given to the recipient. It seems to me that these circumstantial facts about retrieving a physical letter are at least part of what makes the act of retrieval wrong. But the circumstantial facts are far different with email, or at least they could be with the right software design. Thus, while I might have a gut feeling that a sent letter no longer belongs to me, the gut feeling really ought to be reassessed in light of the new circumstances presented by electronic communication.

In truth, my temptation is to say that there is something morally wrong with taking back an email that you’ve sent, above and beyond the technological considerations. It has to do with the fact that sending email is an explicit transfer of rights to the recipient. Considering just this point, Facebook’s claim that it – the medium, the messenger, rather than the recipient – has rights is dubious – Gmail (see section 9.4) claims no such thing.

Zuckerberg’s choice of words in this regard is peculiar, and telling: he talks about a person “sharing” a message with someone else, instead of “sending” it. My guess is that this is to make it more plausible that the posting of an item – let’s say, of a picture I took – is the same thing as sending a message. But this is far from obvious. If I ask you over to my house to look at my photo albums – certainly a legitimate sense of “sharing” my photos with you – it does not follow from my invitation that you are permitted to take copies of the photos home with you. You can look at them until I decide I want to put them back in the cabinet. This feels quite different from what happens when I send you a letter, whether electronic or otherwise.

It is this idea – that I get to decide when you stop looking at my photos – that Facebook is taking away in its new TOS. It might be true that, as a matter of practical, Internet fact, if you’ve shared content on a single occasion then you have ipso facto shared it unlimitedly for the rest of time. But just because this is the way things are doesn’t mean it’s the way things ought to be. Part of the justification for FB’s position is technical: when you post an image on a friend’s wall, another copy is created, so that deleting the “original” on your account does not automatically delete all other copies. Surely this technical limitation is easily overcome, though, through the association of all copies derived from the same original.

You might argue that actively posting a picture on someone else’s wall is essentially the same thing as sending them a message, and thus the same moral considerations should apply. Maybe that’s right. But not all “sharing” on Facebook is done through the explicit actions of the sender. If you look at a friend’s photo on Facebook, for example, there is a link underneath it to Share with others or to post on your own profile. It might be said that a person who uploads to Facebook has thereby implicitly shared with all potential viewers of the picture, but you need some argument to show that this kind of “sharing” is equally irrevocable, from a moral point of view, as the more explicit kind.

I guess all this is to say that we are going to have to figure out what happens to content ownership when the concept of sharing takes on these kinds of massive proportions. One radical approach is to do away altogether with ownership and to be totally open, dude. I like openness, despite the fact that I seem to be arguing on behalf of ownership in this post. But to make this move merely because we are stymied about how to solve the problem of massive sharing is rather defeatist – openness should be something we choose, not a last resort.

Facebook and content

The Consumerist published a story yesterday about Facebook’s new Terms of Service. The gist of the changes appears to be something like this. Facebook has always claimed rights to the content that you post there. But there used to be a clause stating that

You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.

Now this clause is gone. Thus Facebook has legal (“irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide”) rights to your content.

On a personal note, these terms apply even to the content created by those individuals who place a Share This link on their personal sites, whether or not they are the ones who post the content on Facebook. I have a hard time believing that this would qualify as a conscionable contract, but I’m not a lawyer so what do I know. In any case, this means that I’ll be removing the Share on Facebook link from this blog.

The educational ramifications are important, I think. @academicdave tweeted the following this morning:

Just realized that facebook now owns the rights to one of my students recent projects (story told using facebook) even if they delete it.

This is a troubling thought. Instructors have a responsibility to their students and the work that those students do, and requiring that the students give essentially unlimited rights to their work to a corporate entity does not seem to me to be coincident with this responsibility. Of course, it was already the case that Facebook retained rights to these items before this TOS update, but the fact that these rights are now irrevocable, in my view, makes the question qualitatively different. Different enough that, while I used to be eager to talk to faculty members about how they might incorporate Facebook into their classes, I’m not certain that I can continue to do so with a clear conscience. There are lots of alternative spaces in which to share content where the restrictions aren’t so harsh.

Again, I’m not a lawyer, but I would be interested in knowing how the act of publishing something on Facebook, and the transfer of rights that it implies, interacts with any explicit licenses (e.g. Creative Commons) that you have given the content, especially where the Facebook license and the CC license are in disagreement with each other. Does anyone know anything about this?

I also wonder whether there will be sufficient backlash among the users of Facebook to make the company reconsider this updated TOS. I am pessimistic. My sense is that most people who use Facebook heavily aren’t thinking about this sort of issue.