Tag Archives: authorship

Pirated Text

Here’s some loot that I stole from that book I’ve been reading, lovingly screencapped from Google Books. The guy she quotes, Krause, represents the ideas about textual ownership that evaporated in 18th century Germany.

Screenshot from Woodmansee's bookSo let’s think about my thievery here for a second (if that’s what it is). When I read that passage, I thought, “Holy smokes, I need to type this passage out and put it online.” If I had done so, there would surely be no breach of law; any claim that Krause’s estate might have ever been able to make about his intellectual property claim for this text–which he clearly wouldn’t want to make anyway!–has long since expired. Though I didn’t check, I have no doubt that his quote is in the public domain.

But instead of typing it, I saved myself some trouble by copying the screen from the Google Books scan of two pages of Woodmansee’s copyrighted book and then pasting them together with Photoshop. And that means, perhaps, that I’ve stolen the trouble that was spent back in 1994 to find and choose and translate this passage of Krause’s, massage it into original text, lay it out on the page, and publish the book that Google scanned. Is a screen shot of an actual book scan considered differently by the law than text that was retyped? And concerning fair use, it’s good that I only used a teensy bit of Woodmansee’s book, but it’s kind of up in the air if I’m using this image for any remixed new sort of purpose, since I’m really praising it–but I’m also saying more than that, aren’t I? Does my Photoshopping (can you find the seams in the image?) count as artistic or rhetorical manipulation for a new purpose?

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Take My Book. Please.

No surprises here: concerning book sales,

A year-long study has revealed that peer-to-peer piracy could actually boost sales, rather than eat into overall purchases. (via bookseller.com)

The trick, of course, is having the guts to do so in the first place. Even Cory Doctorow, in some essay that I think is in his Content collection, says that the first time he gave a book away he held back a little, using a more restrictive Creative Commons license. But he loved the experience so much, and he seemed to be selling more books than he would have otherwise, that he went even loosier-goosier with future books–and never looked back.

And now, there’s some research to back up his strong hunch. Sweet!

But like I said, taking that step is hard. Even with a department-written textbook that my colleagues and I put together over the summer, when I brought up the idea of putting it online, I was told by two knowledgeable, professional folks in drippingly sweet terms that if it were online, no one would buy it. So we reserved all our rights. I know the context here is probably different: a student who can get access to a textbook for free isn’t going to have that experience of, “This is so great, I want to be able to read the rest in a paper copy, and I’m willing to pay for it!” But that authorial fear of, “Should I let this get away from me?” was there, at least in a small way, nibbling at our (my) love of good content freely available online.

In the future, I’m going to ask the publishers what they think. For someone like me, I need all the publicity I can get–and now I can point to this story to back me up.

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Some Plain English and Clotted Cream, Please

There’s a great article in yesterday morning’s Wall Street Journal about Chrissie Maher, founder of the Plain English Campaign.

She sees incomprehensible legalese mumbo-jumbo from what we might call a social justice perspective:

“Families are losing their homes because of jargon-filled credit agreements,” says Ms. Maher, an energetic presence in a crocheted sweater and eyeglasses. “Language has been misused and has contributed to the economic disaster.”

It’s a good point. It reminds me of the time a few months ago when my wife visited a neighbor in the hospital. The neighbor couldn’t read, and while the nurses had read various brochures to her, my wife discovered that she didn’t really understand them at all; it turns out (surprise!) that simply reading a complex collection of sentences at someone’s face doesn’t mean that you’ve taught them that information.

It also makes me think of our experience buying our first house, a bit more than a year ago. I was regularly e-mailing and calling our mortgage and realty people, saying things like, “I know that you’ve explained this before, but I really need to make sure I understand it perfectly. What exactly do you mean by [fill in the blank with any of the 37 terms I could never quite get my head around]?” And let’s remember: my wife and I both have masters degrees from prestigious universities, and I’m working on a PhD in a distinctly language-oriented field. It’s not incorrect to say that my job is deciphering meanings in texts.

Add to that the layers of power that are at work here. A poor, black, uneducated woman is made aware of these identities every time she wades through worlds where rich, white, educated men predominate (like hospitals). That would be enough to keep anyone from wanting to ask for clarification after clarification in the way that I had the societal power to do when I bought my house, as a comparatively rich, white, educated man. This helps me understand, too, the reason why so many of my mostly poor, mostly minority neighbors don’t use banks. The answer I’ve always gotten was, “I just don’t trust them.” Well, why would you trust an organization with such an ability to do incomprehensible things and then “explain” them with incomprehensible language?

Two parting thoughts:

  1. I notice that a lot of the writing genres described in the WSJ article are the kind that don’t have an author’s name tagged on to them–things like policy explanations, bank websites, etc. (Foucault–and I hate to go here–would say that these kinds of text aren’t awarded the “author function” by society.) I half wonder if the collaborative writing process mixed with company power relations lead to unclear language; I can imagine a lower-down, newer employee being told to revise an older draft of a statement in legalese, and him thinking, “Well, I ought to try to imitate this ultra-formal, high-vocab type of language.” And then the next person who gets it thinks the same thing, and so on. But I’m hesitant to say that, because there’s so much I like about collaborative writing.
  2. I think there are some implications here for how we teach professional and technical writing. Like, in the past I would say, “It’s important to write in a clear, direct style so that your readers can skim your text and understand it easily; this keeps them in your good graces.” But this article reminds me that I can also say, “It’s important to write in a clear, direct style because this is a way to include the marginalized; this empowers them to enter places they’ve historically been kept away from.” Interesting stuff.

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Kanye: Symbol of a New Art

Interesting article in the Guardian (via OzMark17) about how Kanye’s blunder is being mashed-up in all kinds of ways, and how that’s indicative of a growing popular art form (though I don’t think the author, Sam Leith, he calls it art except in the title).

Here’s how I would respond if this were a student paper:

What I like: It’s great, Sam, how you use this overdiscussed Kanye incident to bring up a larger, much more interesting point: the growth of memes in general, including all those over-the-top videos putting new subtitles on Hitler’s rants and one I didn’t know about: “WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS?” Understanding these trends will, I think, do a lot toward helping us understand how cultures of sharing, showing-off, being really funny, and making important rhetorical moves all meet online.

Areas to Improve: You seem unnecessarily interested in the questions of authorship and origination with regards to these memes. You write:

The question that’s always asked about jokes is: where do they come from? They circulate, like funny little ripples in the collective unconscious, but it’s next to impossible to establish who first wondered aloud why the chicken crossed the road. Memes can be traced to their origins, however. And sometimes, like the Hubble telescope peering back to the beginnings of the universe, you can catch sight of one actually beginning.

The question you should ask yourself, Sam, is, “So what?” It seems to me like your concern for who created what is applying an older construction onto a newer art form that thrives in a world of collaboration, sharing, and author-less-ness.  And that’s ok!

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