The “digital age” made me do it

The New York Times ran an interesting story this weekend under the headline, “Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in the Digital Age.”   The gist is that that the prevalence of content on the internet has actually devalued the concept of original work – and given a generation of schoolgoers the impression that ideas can be plucked out of the air and included in their term papers:

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

The article cites students who copy whole passages from Wikipedia or unabashedly swipe from articles without attribution or citation.

Blaming the internet for changing behavior is one thing, but it doesn’t change human nature.

The concept of cheating a plagiarizing has been around since one cavekid copied another cavekid’s cave wall drawings to get a better cave-grade.  (You can bet your saber-tooth tiger pelt that Thag would have based his drawing on cave-Wikipedia if such a thing had existed.)  To see an even clearer example, look at music piracy: recording mixes on cassettes and sharing songs with friends was a common practice, file sharing services just made it easier and digital.

Take the computers and internet connections away from every dorm room and class room, and some students will still cheat.  So, you can look at the advent of the so-called digital age in two ways.  Sure, it’s easier than ever for some students to take the easy way out and try to get by without putting in the work.

On the other hand, has it ever been easier to catch them doing it?

Viacom, YouTube, and what it means for innovation

YouTube’s victory in Viacom’s piracy lawsuit will be, in the long term, a good thing for online innovation.

Almost a decade ago, Napster was dismantled because its users shared songs.  The technology it was based on was neutral – and could have been used to share legal sound files just as easily as illegal files.  But the technology became the target of content creators – musicians – concerned about people using the technology for piracy.

Blaming Napster because people used it to do something illegal is like blaming a hotel because someone turned a room into a meth lab.  The same analogy can be used for YouTube’s situation: they built the rails for video sharing.  People could use that to share a bootleg copy of Shrek 8, thus cheating Mike Myers out of his cut of the domestic gross or DVD sales.  They could also use it to share a video of a cat falling off the bed, or to create a video blog, or to jump start a comedy career, or to reveal a Congressman roughing up a college kid, or a Senator uttering something that sounds like a racial slur and changing the course of the 2008 Presidential election.

To be clear, YouTube should be held accountable for helping police piracy when concerns are brought to their attention, just as a hotel owner should cooperate with warrant-bearing law enforcement officials investigating meth distribution that seems to be coming from their hotel.  The people dealing meth should be punished.  If the hotel stonewalls and knowingly protects said meth dealers, they should be punished.  But otherwise, the hotel owner is just someone providing a product for private use, and can’t be held liable for its mis-use.

There are, of course, legitimate questions about how important Google feels it is to do right by the people it makes money off of – and the dicey question of how much knowledge a site can have of the activity before it makes a move.  But the result of the Google/Viacom case has less to do with a clash of the corporate titans than with shielding future start ups from liability (and excessive damages) for honest efforts to build online social networks.  If start up sites are held liable for their members’ illegal activities, it could crush innovation and entrepreneurship.  Under the Napster rules, some poor schmuck who isn’t as big as Google could lose his shirt for building a website in his basement because of the actions of the users.  The YouTube rules are simply more fair.

Google: booking it out of China?

The big technology news today is that Google is threatening to leave China, leading to a wave of speculation on what that may mean for both the gatekeeper of internet information and the Chinese economy.

On the surface, Google has said this is about human rights and cyber attacks – which are likely, at least, factors in their decision. But this isn’t the first time Google’s China operation has been in the news in the last few weeks.  Recall that Google’s efforts to make all books available online has run afoul of copyright holders in China (as it has here in the States) and even spawned a lawsuit.  Negotiations on what Google would pay the authors of the works it scanned and made available to search users were subsequently put on hold.

While Google’s exit strategy is a good way to draw attention to human rights, in the end it may be a way to beat the Library Cops.

(Disclosure: I have worked in a minor role on projects involving Google’s book settlement in the past, although I do not now.)