Saturday, August 9, 2008

owning your words

In a Chronicle of Higher Education column, Jennifer Sinor writes about having one of her course syllabi used by a colleague at a different institution, posing the question "Is it plagiarism when a colleague borrows your syllabus and then uses it in its entirety for his own course?" It's an interesting question. When do you own your words and when are they up for grabs by everyone else? Sinor's experience suggests to her that although she feels she owns her syllabus, and its appropriation by someone else was plagiarism, the others she talks to are less certain. Her department chair's response, interestingly, is that she doesn't own her syllabus: the university does.

As Sinor's column goes on to discuss, the question of what aspects of a professor's output are property of their employer and what are their own intellectual property are not entirely straightforward these days. But I'd like to focus not on the specifics of syllabi but on the recognition that we have different types of relationships to the words we use and the writings we create. I've commented before on the ways that blogs recycle other blogs as a type of commonplacing--in those cases, a particular writer's words (and ideas) become akin to common property. It's usually pretty easy to trace those words back to their source (one of the beautifully simple things about hyperlinks), so I wouldn't argue that such instances are plagiarism. But they do operate under a different type of ownership than the system by which scholars quote from each other in their articles and books. Are there other types of word ownership circulating today? One other system is that of technical manuals: who is the author of the guides that come with your new cell phone or laptop? It's certainly not an individual, but the corporation that produced the product. If writer A leaves company X to go work for company Z, A couldn't reproduce those manuals she wrote at X for Z. (Of course, she wouldn't want to do that anyway, since Z's product is certainly not the same as A's--the written word is so closely tied to the product that it serves more as an extension of that product than as a product in and of itself.)

Some of these other models of word ownership are helpful in thinking about the ways writers did and did not own their words in early modern England. Although there were recognizable writers who had audiences--John Skelton was a name that his audience would associate with a certain type of poetry, for instance--published books were owned by their publisher, not their author. (Even that sentence isn't quite right, since there were not "publishers" and "authors" in the same way that there are today. More on that in a future post.) When a publisher wanted to print and sell a book, he or she would go down to the Stationer's Hall and enter that book in the Stationer's Register. If the rights to print that book did not already belong to another stationer, and if the book wasn't similar enough to another book that it would impede the other book's potential to sell, then he could claim the right to print that book himself. The author didn't figure into the matter.

I haven't talked at all yet about early modern authors or early modern stationers in this blog. It's a big and fascinating subject, and one that will come up in future weeks. But for now, I'll leave you with a few more examples of the myriad questions about authorship and ownership that come up in today's world.

Sinor, in her column, links to a blog post by Chris Cagle in which he discussed the question of syllabi and plagiarism; he responds to her column by noting that he feels his views were misrepresented by Sinor. The comments to his response raise the issue of whether or not other writers and journalists are responsible for contacting a blog author before citing them: are the blog comments public record?

Sinor also references Malcolm Gladwell's piece for the New Yorker magazine about plagiarism, "Something Borrowed" in the November 25, 2004 issue. It's a great piece, taking as its starting point the controversy around Bryony Lavery's play "Frozen" and accusations that she had lifted the dialogue for its psychiatrist character from a real psychiatrist's writings. The piece raises another question that I haven't brought up here: in artistic creations, do the rules about plagiarism work in the same way? You can read Gladwell's piece through the New Yorker archive. You can also read the piece through Gladwell's own archive on his website. Does it make a difference where you read it? Is it a different experience reading it as part of a collection of work that is owned by the New Yorker or reading it as a collection of work owned by Gladwell? Does the manner of publication suggest something different about who owns it? Does it change how we read it?

Incidentally, if you are curious about syllabi, you can find the syllabus for my Fall 2007 Folger seminar on "Books and Early Modern Culture" through the navigation links on the Undergraduate Program's homepage. The Fall 2008 syllabus will soon be posted there as well. And in light of this discussion: the syllabus is something that I designed myself, although elements of its assignments and organization are drawn from the large collection of book history syllabi that circulate via SHARPweb and through friends. I do feel like I own this syllabus. But one of the Folger's hopes for this new program is that it can serve as a model for other collaborations between research libraries and undergraduate institutions and as a model for teaching book history and research skills to undergrads. It would be hard to be a model--for this program or for any teaching endeavor--if we didn't share our efforts with our colleagues. Should you use it, please credit my work and the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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