Thursday, July 13, 2006

Do You Copy That?

Yesterday Siva Vaidhyanathan pointed out that the "scandal" about Ann Coulter's alleged plagiarism might have been vastly overblown. Of course, my UCI colleague Jon Wiener is probably right that right-wingers tend to be more likely to get a free pass on authorial infractions of the code of originality than left-wingers, but like Siva I'm still not gleefully legitimating the Coulter story.

Part of my reserve has to do with seeing the name John Barrie associated with outing the conservative pundit from the story's first appearance in the New York Post. Barrie is a notorious media hound who loves to see his name in the press, so he can promote his commercially licensed plagiarism-detection software, I've used his product in our university writing program for the last eight years, but I have developed deep reservations about the company that produces it.

For advocates of digital rights and access to intellectual property, the parent company of, iParadigms, has both a troubling past and a troubling future. Although founder John Barrie claims that U.C. Berkeley did not purchase a campus license for because the university was embarrassed after he pointed out that “cheating was rampant” and thus “the university was dragged through the mud,” he doesn't mention the fact that the campus also has a legitimate gripe with Barrie, because the school might claim that the software was developed by campus personnel using campus resources. Thus Barrie might seem to have capitalized on an investment of public resources by attempting to sell his software back to his former employer. Particularly when open source and freeware alternatives could be developed (and are being developed at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the PAIRwise project without any media fanfare), the advancing hegemony of in the market is disappointing.

Furthermore, recent news from iParadigms about a collaborative project with LexisNexis to “protect intellectual property” with a product “designed to benefit the media and business community” does not give one much confidence in the lip service Barrie's company pays to academic ideals, particularly when the ethical obligations of a research university are to provide for the public good not corporate benefit. Although far from “total information awareness,” with programs like CopyGuard vying for attention and investment, the potential for surveillance by copyright holders risks hampering the dissemination of information within and between academic communities and, of course, among citizens participating in legitimate cultural practices that foster creativity and commerce.

Bottom line: this is a self-interested media stunt, and political progressives should refuse to participate in it.

For more about the rhetoric surrounding the program, including some choice words about the wishful thinking of technophobes, see my paper on "Honor Coding" from the Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism Conference. (Siva was there too!) You can skip the first page, which is a little dry, and get right to the true stories on page two.

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