Is Copyright Needed To Stop Plagiarism?

from the let-the-community-do-its-job dept

Whenever I speak about Free Culture at schools, I’m asked "what about plagiarism?" Copying and plagiarism are two quite different things, and you don’t need copyright to deal with plagiarism. To make this clearer, I made a one-minute meme song and video about it:

As Mimi demonstrates with the giant Copy Machine, copying a work means copying its attribution too:

just copy the credit along with the work

When people copy songs and movies, they don’t change the authors’ names. Plagiarism is something else: it’s lying. If Copyright has anything to do with plagiarism, it’s that it makes it easier to plagiarize (because works and their provenance aren’t public and are therefore easier to obscure and lie about) and increases incentive to do so (because copying with attribution is as illegal as copying without, and including attribution makes the infringement more conspicuous). American Copyright law does not protect attribution to begin with; it is concerned only with "ownership," not authorship.  Many artists sign their attributions away with the "rights" they sell, which is why it can be difficult to know which artists contributed to corporate works.

I chose Beethoven to illustrate how copyright has nothing to do with preventing plagiarism. All Beethoven’s work is in the Public Domain. Legally, you can take Ludwig van Beethoven’s songs, Jane Austen‘s novels, or Eadweard Muybridge‘s photographs and put any name you want on them. Go ahead! You’re at no risk of legal action. Your reputation may suffer, however, and you definitely won’t be fooling anyone. If anyone has doubts, they can use that same copy machine – the Internet – to sort out who authored what. Lying is very difficult in a public, transparent system. A good analog to this is public encryption keys: their security comes from their publicity.

The song says "always give credit where credit is due," but in many cases credit is NOT due. For example, how many credits should be at the end of this film? I devoted about two and a half seconds to these credits:

Movie and Song by Nina Paley
Vocals by Bliss Blood

But I could have credited far more. In fact, the credits could take longer than the movie. Here are some more credits:

Ukelele: Bliss Blood
Guitar: Al Street
Recorded by Bliss Blood and Al Street

What about sound effects? Were it not for duration constraints, this would be in the movie:

Sound Effects Design by Greg Sextro

Every single sound effect in the cartoon was made by someone. Should I credit each one? Crash-wobble by (Name of Foley Artist Here). Cartoon zip-run by (Name of Other Foley Artist Here). And so on: dozens of sound effects were used in the cartoon, and each one had an author. What about the little noises Mimi & Eunice make? Not only could the recording engineer be credited, but the voice actor as well (as far as I know, these were both Greg Sextro).

I included a few seconds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at the end, which I didn’t credit in the movie.  Should I have? Why or why not?

I could credit the characters:

& Special Guest Appearance by
Ludwig van Beethoven

I could be more detailed in crediting myself:

Lyrics and Melody by Nina Paley
Character design: Nina Paley
Animation: Nina Paley
Produced by Nina Paley
Directed by Nina Paley
Edited by Nina Paley
Backgrounds by Nina Paley
Color design by Nina Paley
Layout: Nina Paley
Based on the comic strip "Mimi & Eunice" by Nina Paley

And the funder!

This Minute Meme was funded by a generous grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

I didn’t even make a card for the Minute Memes logo. Should that be in there?

I used a Public Domain painting of Beethoven for the Beethoven character, which is by Joseph Karl Stieler.  Who photographed the painting? Who digitized the photograph? Is credit due here?


The ass drawing also came from Wikimedia Commons, where it’s credited to Pearson Scott Foresman. But who actually drew it? I have no idea. I doubt that Pearson Scott Foresman could even legally claim the copyright on it to "donate" to Wikimedia in the first place, but there they are, getting credit for it instead of an artist. That’s because copyright is only concerned with "ownership," not authorship.

Then there’s the software I used, good old pre-Adobe Macromedia Flash. Should I credit the software? What about the programmers who contributed to the software?
I also used a Macintosh computer (I know, I know, when Free Software and Open Hardware come close to doing what my old system does, I’ll be the first to embrace it) and a Wacom Cintiq pen monitor. How many people deserve credit for these in my movie?

File:Ass (PSF).png

Mimi and Eunice themselves were "inspired" by many historical cartoons. Early Disney and Fleischer animations, the "rubber hose" style, Peanuts, this recent cartoon, and countless other sources I don’t even know the names of – but would be compelled to find out, if credit were in fact due. Is it?

And so on. It is possible to attribute ad absurdum. So where is credit due? It’s complicated, the rules are changing, and standards are determined organically by communities, not laws. I had to edit the song for brevity, but I kind of wish I hadn’t excised this line:

A citation shows us where we can get more
of all the good culture that Free Culture’s for

Attribution is a way to help your neighbor. You share not only the work, but information about the work that helps them pursue their own research and maybe find more works to enjoy. How much one is expected to help their neighbor is determined by (often unspoken) community standards. People who don’t help their neighbors tend to be disliked. And those who go out of their way to deceive and defraud their neighbors – i.e. plagiarists – are hated and shunned. Plagiarism doesn’t affect works – works don’t have feelings, and what is done to one copy has no effect on other copies. Plagiarism affects communities, and it is consideration for such that determines where attribution is appropriate.

At least that’s the best I can come up with right now. Attribution is actually a very complicated concept; if you have more ideas about it, please share.

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Comments on “Is Copyright Needed To Stop Plagiarism?”

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Anonymous Poker says:

Re: Re:

Obviously you aren’t sophisticated enough to understand how Nina clearly outlines the problem of attribution and Von Neumann’s catastrophe of the infinite regress.

She has demonstrated the logical and visible result of the absurdity of trying to monetize every single step of the creative process. Should I, writing a blues tune, give attribution to every single blues musician I have ever heard? How about rock, all based on the blues? Should I credit Gibson for the guitar, Ernie Ball for the strings, the MCI recording console, the Neve mixing board, the audience members?

Your post, sir, reads like the grousings of an autobot programmed for Contrarianism, and I suggest you take a pill. Midol maybe.

Meek Barbarian (profile) says:

Re: Good Post

Damn. I knew I should have taken the blue copyrighted pill instead of that silly red public domain one. Now I’m in a world with it’s own programmed rules, some that can be bent, some that can be broken, and some that have bad acting lawyers saying “I know kung fu” while distorting reality with ip based lawsuits.

Ed C. says:

Re: Re: Good Post

No kidding. On one of my current projects, I accidentally used a photo licensed under CC BY-SA with another under a “no compete” license. (In the graphics market, many people make image sets that are licensed for derivative works, but don’t allow others to use it in works that allow derivatives, which would effectively be competing with their own.) It was my own fault I suppose, because I didn’t full understand what the share-alike license required. If I comply with the share-alike license, I would violate the no compete license, and complying with the no compete license requires violating the share-alike license. So, my only real option is to degrade my work and replace one of the two images. I’ve only found a replacement for the no compete image, but it’s really not as good and I’ll have to redo a quite a bit to incorporate it.

The only other issue I have though is that I don’t quite agree with the share-alike license. I have no problem with it, but I’m of the opinion that if others use my work and make it their own, then they should be free to use it and license it how they see fit. It just feels pretentious for me to take that right away from them.

Huph (user link) says:

Well, I think that it’s proper to credit those who had a hand in creating the specific work. So, definitely credit the sound designer, but no need to credit the company that produced the sound library the designer used. Musical attributions aren’t required, usually those are only listed at the end of a film because the terms of the license force as much. But rarely is the actual film score (not soundtrack) ever attributed; maybe the composer will be mentioned, but even that’s not the case with every film.

On the other hand, if it really means so much to you to credit every single molecule you’ve inhaled and every blade of grass you’ve ever stepped on, you could always write an overly pedantic blog post that fully attributes every waking second of your life that led to this moment. A lot of art is pointless that way.

Crosbie Fitch (profile) says:

No right to attribution

Giving credit is good. Giving credit credits the creditor as well as the credited. However, credit remains a mark of respect. We must be wary not to slip into the idea (inculcated by CC) that it should be a legal requirement to give credit, for then credit ceases to be a mark of respect (it also soon becomes burdensome to attach provenance and cross-fertilisation ?credits? to a work).

The natural right is to truth, not to attribution, thus a right to accuracy in attribution, but not a right to be attributed. Thus there is a right against misattribution, which includes the circumstance where misattribution occurs by implication, e.g. through omission and context. A gallery of my unattributed drawings in which one was drawn by someone else, may imply my authorship. The remedy is clarification, e.g. ?Not all by me? or attribution ?This one by Fred?.

As long as they remain honest and truthful, it is up to the individual whether they give credit ? where and when they feel it is necessary and appropriate.

Lastly, as you observe, it is copyright that disincentivises attribution because of the FUD and ever increasing jeopardy for admitting uncleared/unlicensed works as inspiration or source material. Without copyright, people can once again take pride in building upon published works and crediting those they feel should be credited, without the copyright inculcated stigma and risk against it.

One day people will once again no longer ask permission to build upon other artists? work, and no longer fear to admit they were inspired by others? works, or that they incorporated any in theirs.

Jesse (profile) says:


Will you do a comic on so-called “self-plagiarism?” I sit through university propaganda sessions on plagiarism and copyright all the time, and the whole “self-plagiarism” gets to me.

So I can’t use a paper from one class in another class because I can’t get credit for the same work twice? But you’re the ones that made two courses so similar that the same paper could reasonably be submitted. Furthermore, professors reuse lecture notes/slides/tests year after year, and I’m pretty sure they get paid each time they use them.

dwg says:

Re: Self-plagiarism

If you’d stop failing that class you wouldn’t have to ask this question.

Seriously, though, think about it: you’re asking for MORE credits in exchange for taking that second (third, fourth) class, right? So doesn’t it make sense that you have to do MORE work to get those credits? Professors only rarely assign papers for their own reading pleasure–it’s to get you to work for credits (and show your proficiency in a particular area). If you want to rehash portions of your previous scholarship, that’s not verboten–but don’t expect something for nothing in academia…despite what you said about professors re-using lesson plans and materials year after year. They’re only there for the money.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Legally, you can take Ludwig van Beethoven’s songs, Jane Austen’s novels, or Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs and put any name you want on them. Go ahead! You’re at no risk of legal action.”

Um…just thought I’d pipe in here and say that (a) you shouldn’t actually do that, (b) you may be at risk for legal action if you do that, depending on what you do with the mislabeled works, and (c) it’s a pretty bad idea to tell people to do something and that there will be no legal consequences, if you don’t really know that much about the law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Potential violation of Federal Trade Commission regulations and potential unfair competition/”passing off” claims, to start.

Of course, it depends on what you do with the work. If you slap your own name on some Beathoven sheet music and stick it in your drawer, that’s probably not a violation of any law.

If you sell copies, for example, as your original work, you may be in violation of several laws. Basically, there are lots of state and federal laws prohibiting deceptive commercial activities of all sorts, as well as claims your competitors can bring against you.

It has nothing to do with copyright, and everytying to do with deception/public confusion.

Paul (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I don’t think the penalties are too great though. Otherwise, Warner Music Group wouldn’t be so bold as to claim copyright on the Happy Birthday song, which brings in an estimated 2 million a year on average, largely from licensing to film, TV, and radio due to its central cultural use in almost any birthday setting.

Paul (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Well, Just to make it easier for others…

The music was written by Patty and Mildred J. Hill. The song was “Good Morning to All” and was first published in 1893, in “Song Stories for the Kindergarten”.

Very rapidly, other words were applied by many others, as the tune was very catchy. One of the most popular (but far from singular) variations was the “Happy Birthday” words we are all familiar with. The “Happy Birthday” words were published several times with the tune in the following years (in 1918, 1924, and 1933, all without copyright notices).

In 1935 “Happy Birthday to You” was published with a copyright attributed to Preston Ware Orem. This version is identical to those published in 1918, 1924, and 1933 with the exception of the split note for the extra symbol in “Happy Birthday” vs “Good Morning”, and the added copyright.

Most likely, the 1935 copyright is invalid, for the Hill sisters had copyrighted “Good Morning to all” in 1909, and that copyright was still in effect.

There have been lawsuits over the song through the years. But getting into them here would be tedious at best.

Hope this helps!

Ed C. says:

Re: Re: Re:8 Re:

From the same wikipedia page:
“…while in the United States, the song is currently set to pass in to the public domain in 2030.”

Yes, it should be in the public domain, but yet it isn’t, and won’t be unless someone gets the current copyright revoked. There definitely seems to be legal grounds for it too, but they are certainly going to fight to the bitter end over that $2 million/year in royalties that they did absolutely nothing to deserve.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:9 Re:

That’s not entirely accurate.

It is disputed whether it is or is not in the public domain. Warner claims it is not in the public domain. Others claim that it is. Whether it is or is not does not hinge on the existence of a copyright registration.

So, as a matter of facts and law, Happy Birthday may be in the public domain.

Ed C. says:

Re: Re: Re:10 Re:

Sorry, perhaps I should have said “Yes, it should be in the public domain, but yet it effectively is not, and won’t be unless someone gets a court order saying that Time Warner’s copyright claim is invalid,” because that’s what it’s going to take to stop them from extorting $2 million every year.

Brendan (profile) says:

music in tv commercials

I really appreciate the way some tv commercials now include a music credit at the beginning and/or end of their spots. It really is the simplest solution to the problem of people trying to figure out what an unknown track is.

Plus, the band in question gets better exposure, for which they might be willing to lower therice of the licensed use.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: music in tv commercials

I admit I try to avoid commercials in general so I haven’t made the observation you have, but I’ve often wondered why many don’t include a musical credit, or why that isn’t included as a requirement! Anything to get your music out there but no easy way to find it? Seems silly.

I’ve actually had to google a few tunes used in ads to find the identity of the musical artists so I can buy a copy.

out_of_the_blue says:

By golly: I have to answer the /question/ as YES.

Because voluntary attribution just isn’t enough to stop various kinds of /actual/ thieves.

You’re really only making a case that computers currently enable the better detection of plagiarism, and that plays into the hands of the “copyright maximalists”!

I’m not a “copyright maximalist” nor for tossing it entirely. As I’ve said several times here, I’m firmly against the present unilateral increase of terms and “authority” by the industry, but I regard copyright as /previously/ being about right — a Constitutional “for a limited time”.

Attribution is usually impractical. I specifically do /not/ want it on “small” items because distracts from whatever esthetic value. Nor do I want to be directed to commercial interests. — Probably Art should be kept away from /money/ but that is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

Prashanth (profile) says:

Black box

I’m not a serious content creator, by any means, so I’m not an expert at all on this. That said, I may have an idea regarding where to draw the line between appropriate attribution and attribution ad absurdum:
Treat every clip, work, or sample like a “black box”. Attribute that sample to the foremost person (or, as in many cases, people) responsible for its existence. If it’s something like a particular recording of a Beethoven symphony, attribute the conductor of that orchestra featured in that recording. That should be sufficient, because implicit in that attribution are the names of the other people involved in the work’s existence; if someone was curious enough to further investigate, those people’s names would show up in the credits for that particular work. So to summarize, attribute the one or two foremost people responsible for the “black box”.
Oh, and I really liked the video! ๐Ÿ˜€

Jose_X (profile) says:

Great job on making important distinction to help knock down obstacle to getting more authors on board supporting free content

I, my dog, and the rest of the world perhaps, find it extremely difficult to give credit to everyone. This dependency on society is one great reason NOT to give 70+ year monopoly to any ONE.

An “extensive” list of credit can be a part of every project. For example, in many open source projects, eg, managed with version control like “git”, this already exists, as each precise change is attributable to an author.

We can formalize this mechanism into an XML standard. The XML element entry for an author can have all sorts of things like a link to the home page, to a p2p download, to reviews, background, etc, to a store front (to monetize the work), to date created, date xxxx, and many more things.

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