Wrestling with Authorial Control

I like to think of myself as an active proponent of remix culture. I praise people who share their work with Creative Commons licenses that allow reuse, and I try to license my own works the same way. So if you want to take the words of this post and rap them over a beat you made, you can legally do so without needing to ask me, as long as it’s not a commercial venture, you give me credit for the original, and you use the same CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 license I use on my site.

So it’s been interesting in the last few days wrestling with feelings of authorial control that, academically, part of me felt I had somehow transcended. Here’s what happened:

The Initial Essay

For a custom textbook at my current school, I was asked a couple years ago to write a student-friendly piece introducing them to rhetoric. The point was supposed to be the practical usefulness of rhetoric, as my piece would be paired next to a denser, more theoretically heavy piece. I love writing for students, so I submitted to the textbook editors an essay called “Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches us about Writing.” (I also posted that original version here.)

The editors of the textbook made some edits, as editors are wont to do, so the version that ended up in the book is a bit different: two of my sections were deleted, my section breaks (marked with a *) were taken out, and some of the language and punctuation was, well, normalized. Here’s an example: after telling a story of someone whose Facebook posts made her seem rhetorically unsophisticated, I expressed my frustration at that sort of thing with this section-closing line:

Why study rhetoric? Because so many people so often seem to have no no no idea about how to communicate well.

In context, my hope was for the line to express the emotional level of my frustration, my punctuation-less “no no no” emphasizing the rhythms of speech more than the dictates of “proper” mechanics. But the edited version deleted the story that came before it and used this line instead:

Why study rhetoric? Because, communication is difficult, and even more difficult if we are not rhetorically aware.

Style-wise, the new line (to my ear) lacks the stylistic umph I was going for throughout the piece, and it lacks the rhythms of spoken speech. (Try sounding natural reading any sentence that begins with because-comma.)

I don’t want to sound too complainy, though–there was a lot of good work done to my piece, too. Many of my small errors were fixed, and plenty of my wordinesses (which I tend to drown in) were smoothed out beautifully. And hey, my piece was in a textbook for like 7,000 students! Rock on!

Revisions and Contracts

What does this have to do with authorial control? It gives you a sense of my attitude toward the piece as it grew into its next iteration, and as I locked the piece further and further into my mind as mine.

The essay as published in the textbook (the heavily edited version) was accepted for publication at the newish, online, free writing textbook Writing Commons. (Why was the edited version accepted at Writing Commons and not the original? It’s a long story; the short version being that the editors of Writing Commons used pieces written for the custom textbook as some of the first pieces to go through the peer review process at the new site.)

Leaping at the chance to revert some of the changes I wasn’t too happy with in the printed version, I used Word to compare my original version with the revised version. I then created a new final cut that incorporated the best of the book editor’s revisions while keeping a lot of what I had originally written. (I love showing undergraduate students the wonders of Word’s compare document features, which were made so much easier to use in Word 2007 and later.)

Screenshot of Microsoft Word's compare documents feature

The best part: that the editors added “Lord” before “Voldemort”

Writing Commons graciously worked with me through these changes, and I now have this new version up at their site (where perhaps many more than 7,000 students will find it helpful), peer reviewed and all.

Even better: Writing Commons uses the same Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license I use on my blog, and I retain copyright over the piece. I love the idea that someone who found this piece helpful can print copies out, make a video of it, cut out the pieces she finds most helpful, and so on–and all legally (again, as long as she follows the guidelines of this particular CC license).

But the Writing Commons contract also includes an interesting optional clause: essentially, they wanted to know if I’m okay with other Writing Commons authors updating my piece later on. If I checked yes, I would always be first author, but later revisers would be included on the list of authors. This clause makes sense, especially given how quickly pieces can age and need updating, sometimes at times when the original authors can’t be contacted. If someone brilliant came along and wanted to add a few new paragraphs to my piece on rhetoric as freestyle rap, they would be able to, as long as Writing Commons allowed them to and as long as I checked yes.

But I said no. And as I checked no, my thoughts were, “I don’t want anyone else messing with my language. I don’t want my stylistic quirks reduced to voiceless academese. I don’t want my vignettes cut out in favor of preachiness. I don’t want someone else to change the flow I found and add some other stories that have nothing to do with me.”

And this mental defensive posture came about five seconds after I was congratulating myself on being so open, such an example of young scholars who embrace Creative Commons and the “some rights reserved” mindset, so morally superior.

Oops?

Thinking it All Through

In “A Loss for Words: Plagiarism and Silence,” from the 1994 issue of American Scholar, poet Neal Bowers tells the story of his obsessive search for a plagiarist who was publishing his poems verbatim in multiple journals. I haven’t read the piece for more than five years, but I remember my reaction to Bowers: a dash of sympathy and a healthy mix of “get over it, dude.” I remember thinking, “Well, duh!” when Bowers wrote:

As angry as I still am, however, I confess that after two years of thinking and talking about being the victim of a chronic plagiarist, I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t have simply let the matter drop. In the end, my efforts to obtain justice have yielded few results; and I am not materially worse off than I was before my work started appeanng under someone else’s name.

Thinking back now, I realize this was at least a little uncharitable of me. It’s not like I’ve never felt I owned words before. I like writing, and I’m good at it; there have been plenty of pieces that I want to put my arms around and grasp, and if someone published them under another name, I would probably lash out with sudden Wolverine claws to protect my children.

But when I first read Bowers’s piece (which apparently he expanded into a book?), I was just getting excited about all the possibilities for purposefully losing control over writing. Authors like Kathy Acker and Jonathan Lethem and Dave Shields who blatantly create new, awesome things from the work of others, showing the claims of “I WROTE THIS JUST ME AND ONLY ME FOREVER WITH NO INFLUENCE” to be as flimsy as theorists have been suspecting for a long time.

In many ways, my thoughts on this stuff haven’t changed. I know that even my piece on rhetoric and freestyle rap isn’t as “original” as I feel it is: folded into it is something of Geoffrey Sirc’s ethos and the style of countless other essayists I’ve admired. The format of using clearly marked section breaks of varying length is absolutely stolen, but I’ve stolen it so often I have no idea where I first came to love it. Even the basic concept of seeing rhetoric as akin to freestyle rap was suggested to me long ago when I first learned–and this was a groundbreaking moment for me–that Homer’s poetry was performed orally by poets remarkably like freestyle rappers, who had a series of stock phrases in their mental storehouses that they could improvisationally (improvisatorily?) pull out when they needed them during a performance. I didn’t acknowledge this source in my essay. Heck, I didn’t even realize it was there until just now, as I consciously plumbed the influences that went into that thing, that collection of words that I love so much and want to protect.

So the closest I can get to a tidy, Full House-style conclusion right now is that I like the idea of living in that tension. I’m clearly more like Bowers than I sometimes like to think, protecting the fruits of my writing with a strong sense of authorial power. But even as I feel these feelings, I’m suspicious of them, wondering how much they’ve been infused into me from my Western cultural background and how much they were put there by a creative creator who revels in his own version of authorial control. (Wait, hasn’t someone else wondered something just like that before? I better go look it up. . . .)

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