Monday, June 30, 2008

Copycat and Mouse Games

Software designed to detect or deter inappropriate acquisition of electronic files has often focused on the products of the lucrative entertainment industry and thus has generally targeted music or video files stored on computer hard drives without the copyright holder's permission. A number of recent high-profile programs, however, are focusing on allegedly pirated text that is oriented toward public rather than private consumption.

For example, a recent article in the Wired Blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Scholarly Publishers Sign On to Plagiarism-Detection Service," describes how the seemingly publicity-ravenous parent company of, iParadisms, is soliciting content from large publishers of multiple scholarly journals, such as Elsevier, Sage, and Wiley Blackwell, in order to prevent authors from submitting content that has previously appeared as the research of others. As this press item from Reuters indicates, the company is still using the fingerprint metaphor to describe their services, which has been a consistent feature of their corporate rhetoric. Of course, the idea of having automated software take the place of the peer-review process that should be spotting familiar scholarship and prose seems to indicate that something has certainly gone awry somewhere in the world of scholarly publishing.

(The iParadigms company is also proud to announce that they can screen admissions essays for universities that don't have other means to gauge authenticity.)

Scholarly journals aren't alone in trying to protect the originality of their content. Popular niche bloggers like The Apostate, the ex-Muslim feminist gadfly, put Copyscape warnings in their blogrolls to notify potential copycats in the blogosphere that their work should not be appropriated by others. After all, Virtualpolitik friend Scott Eric Kaufman of Acephanlous discovered that one of his humorous postings had been plagiarized.

News organizations have also been threatening to police matching text and to follow the lead of the Associated Press in asking bloggers to pay for content that they reproduce. Fellow Sivacracy blogger Ann Bartow doubts that the AP will be able to catch those who appropriate whole paragraphs and argues that it will conversely provide a significant disincentive for bloggers to link back to the original source, so that the news service is even less likely to get credit for their work. (She Bartow's posts on the subject here, and how Siva Vaidhyanathan explains what he sees as a fundamental paradox in the AP's course of action here.) Unfortunately for advocates for fair use, partisan bloggers may choose to out competitors and ideological nemeses. The AP already provides an online form to encourage writers to pay up for reposting; perhaps they will soon post a fink form to maximize this revenue stream.

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