Saw this white paper on plagiarism hopping around Twitter and found it mostly interesting. It essentially breaks down plagiarism into 10 types, ranked by severity, with a brief explanation of each (plus pithy names and icons for each). The list at the beginning is interesting as are the examples at the end; the middle, discussing the studies on which it was based, I could take or leave. But what I liked most about it was that it approached plagiarism (and by extension copyright) as a grey area rather than a black and white area. I find most discussions with colleagues about copyright frustrating because they tend to be both rigid and defensive about it, a syndrome I’ve taken to calling the Napster Syndrome.

The combination of the web and the Napster case 10 years ago (when was it even?) seems to have made people terrified that the federal government is going to bust down their door and haul them off for having a couple of illegally downloaded songs on their computer or, worse, having included images in a PowerPoint without a web address citation. And this is the legacy of Napster: copyright neurosis.

I am both a writer and a photographer, publishing books and selling photographs, both of which of course involve copyright. Do I want my work protected? Of course. And I want the work of other creators protected as well. But, more important, I want common sense. I want people to think things through and figure out the extent to which what they’re doing is really a violation of the spirit of the copyright law. If I use an image per slide of Rome in my 50 slide PowerPoint presentation (deadly boring, I would guess), do I really need to cite the source of each of those images? Am I really infringing on the ability of that photographer / creator to profit from their creation? Am I claiming those images as my own? Would anyone in that room assume (or care) that I took those images? What we can’t ever do is pawn something of as our own that is not our own, either in spirit or execution. That is clearly a violation of copyright and/or plagiarism and I certainly don’t endorse this. But can’t we also ease up on this maniacally blind adherence to a law that, while important, isn’t quite as important to us as we want to make it out to be.

Teach your students about copyright and fair use and citing sources and all of those related topics. Make sure of course that they know that they can’t claim someone else’s work or idea as their own. But also let them know that the explosion of information available on the web makes copyright laws much more complicated than they used to be (hence the advent of Creative Commons, a great resource and a better idea) and that, as with most rules / laws, a common sensical approach is always best.