Plagiarism is a Philosophical Issue: A Response to Stanley Fish

There have been a number of pieces around issues of plagiarism and copyright in the New York Times recently.  I could write a whole blog that did nothing but catalog these articles: the piece describing college student skepticism regarding the idea of plagiarism, another describing the travails of a woman hired by BMI, one of the largest performing rights organizations in the world, as she moves from town to town, trying to persuade restaurant and club owners to pay royalties for their use of copyrighted music; a third on the impact of copyright law on the fashion industry.  And then there’s literary/legal scholar Stanley Fish’s “Plagiarism is Not a Big Moral Deal”, which makes the argument that plagiarism is not a moral or philosophical issue but simply one of professional decorum. The argument restates Fish’s broader thesis that there are no pre-existing meanings, only interpretive communities that make fragile but decisive agreements about meaning.  Thus:

“ … in order to have a basis, plagiarism would have to stand on some philosophical ground. But the ground plagiarism stands on is more mundane and firm; it is the ground of disciplinary practices and of the histories that have conferred on those practices a strong, even undoubted (though revisable)  sense of what kind of work  can be appropriately done and what kind of behavior cannot be tolerated. If it is wrong to plagiarize in some context of practice, it is not because the idea of originality has been affirmed by deep philosophical reasoning, but because the ensemble of activities that take place in the practice would be unintelligible  if  the possibility of being original  were not presupposed.”

The obvious rejoinder to Fish’s essay (and Fish’s position in general) is that if plagiarism is not a moral problem, then surely one should campaign for  reform of laws and rules governing plagiarism.  After all, students can be thrown out of college, employees can be fired, artists and writers fined large sums of money if they are found guilty of plagiarism in various disciplinary contexts.  There’s no indication in the essay that Fish believes in such reform.  If one did argue for legal reform, the particular intellectual frameworks that support the current disciplinary practices and interpretive communities  would reveal themselves and plagiarism would quickly become a philosophical issue…

Or a theoretical one, at any rate.  After all, the main “philosophical” argument made in favor of intellectual property is that it’s natural that human beings claim their thoughts as their property, even when it’s equally evident  that no one can own language and that every thought has its basis in a chain of signs, events, influences which do not belong to the thinker.  The presupposition of originality that Fish speaks of is ideological: it supports the interests of a particular economic and political framework or, if you like, practice. It is necessary in order to render that practice intelligible … but at what cost? And for who’s benefit?

That discussion of plagiarism in mainstream media tends to be ideological is beyond doubt.  The first sentence of “The Music Copyright Enforcers” lets you know what is to follow: “Few things can make Devon Baker cry”.  Baker, the BMI representative is a caring, feeling individual, while those who resist paying fees to BMI are a gang of subhuman beasts who curse and threaten violence at every turn.  At no point is the idea of the public domain or fair use mentioned in the article, even though these concepts are an integral part of intellectual property law today.  Following Fish, we might argue that it’s necessary, or valid, to present copyright violators as subhuman beasts because otherwise the practice of intellectual property law would become unintelligible.  That argument has obvious weaknesses though. It ignores the power relations that allow certain parties (for example corporations that benefit from aggressive enforcement of intellectual property law) to dominate discussions of what is intelligible and what is not, and who gets to practice what. Even so, practices of imitation, labeled as plagiarism or not, continue, because in them the life of the people manifests in a somewhat autonomous way.

Unlike Fish, I do believe that there’s a need to align “disciplinary practices” such as intellectual property law with philosophical principles.  I don’t claim that this is easy to do well. But the law as it stands is already taking explicitly philosophical positions and it always has been, all the way back to the Statute of Anne with its direct basis in Lockean possessive individualism.  In In Praise of Copying, I connect plagiarism to the problem of deception since what is objectionable in plagiarism is not the borrowing of someone else’s work, but the lack of attribution.  But that’s one of the main objections to copying in general: that something is presented as something else, and that we are deceived when we mistake the copy for the original.  This was Plato’s objection to mimesis and the poets in the Republic. The main challenge to the perfect operation of reason and self-knowledge according to Kant in Critique of Pure Reason is also deception.   So plagiarism is intimately connected to very basic issues that the western philosophical tradition has struggled with since the beginning.

In his second piece on plagiarism, written in response to the many comments on the first piece,  Fish restates his objection to philosophical examinations of plagiarism:

“I don’t say, as several posters charge, that rules against plagiarism are called into question by the deconstruction (in some quarters) of the idea of originality. I introduce those arguments only in order to assert their irrelevance to any enterprise founded on the presumption of originality as both a possibility and a value. A theoretical debunking of a concept has no effect on a practice whose very shape depends on that concept’s being firmly in place.”

But the point of a theoretical debunking is to make a concept that appears to be “firmly in place” less so. And if the “very shape” of a particular practice “depends on that concept’s being firmly in place”, dislodging it will at least potentially lead to a change of practice.  It’s worth a shot, anyway.

Fish’s rethinking of the concept of practice is key to understanding his work.  He develops his ideas on this topic most fully in Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (1989). A lot of what seems paradoxical in these New York Times op ed pieces has to do with the very specific meaning that Fish assigns to words like morality, philosophy, theory and practice.  At the same time, as Alan Jacobs notes in his excellent review of that book, there’s something wrong with how Fish thinks about practice.   Everything is practice – fine. The world is a multiplicity of unstable but significant constellations of practice and practices — sure. With plagiarism, we’re talking about a number of different practices, even when we focus on the problem of student plagiarism in the university, as Susan Blum notes in her new book on the topic.

The internet for example has changed the practice of teaching and learning in the university.  We can rigidly stick to a particular framing of education and the concepts that enable it, such as plagiarism, originality etc., but when that framing is undermined by the practice of consulting iPhones in the classroom, we have the option of abandoning or at least revising our values and the concepts which inform our practices.  This might involve teaching methodology, practices of citation more, as Fish notes in his second column. But also a greater acceptance of competent but unattributed use of other people’s work – since if the goal is learning, the intrusion of the internet into the university classroom is, amongst other things, the intrusion of a different practice of learning. That practice comes more naturally to many students today than the practices of citation that governed the Gutenberg/book era university.  So: there’s a conflict of practices.  Theory has a role in illuminating and resolving that conflict.

Mimesis is a concept that Fish doesn’t talk about much in his work, even though it’s pervasively present.  He loves to use examples from sports to illustrate his arguments about practice.  Practice is mimetic because it’s about the repetition of a form shaped by rules.  Sports are an intensely mimetic activity, as we know from reading the two great theorists of play, Huizinga and Caillois. But sports are not a great model for thinking more broadly about practice since the explicit agreements about rules that make them possible don’t exist to the same degree in other aspects of the human world, or the natural world.  Practice – and mimesis – are much more chaotic outside of the realm of sports, and it requires something like Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory to track the way a practice evolves.  Or Mahayana Buddhism, another antifoundationalist practice – but I won’t go into that right now.

The problem of practice is a profound one.  It’s not a coincidence that many of the debates around the nature of practice today concern copying.  This is because a very particular way of thinking about copying dominates our legal, economic, political and aesthetic systems — yet the practices of everyday life, the various mimetic modes by which Hardt and Negri’s multitude are constituted, continually exceed those systems.  That surplus is reappropriated through intellectual property law and various kinds of taboos on mimetic activity, generating official or disciplinary practices. Yet the practices of the multitude always reappear again, in one form or another …

WikiLeaks as a Culture of the Copy

Plato wanted to keep imitation out of the Republic, even as he copied the words of Socrates to write his text.  The WikiLeaks affair reminds us how improbable that dream of a world without imitation remains today.   With WikiLeaks’ recent publication of 90,000 secret US military documents describing the day to day operation of the war in Afghanistan over the last six years, we can see familiar claims being made about the danger that the distribution of copies poses to the polis.  But it’s equally clear that the way that we make use and share copies forms an essential part of the functioning of a genuinely democratic republic.  Intriguingly, WikiLeaks’ logo is itself an image of the world being copied, duplicated: the real world perhaps leaking out of the false, spectacular “original”.

The stories about illegal copying that we’re most familiar with today concern intellectual property law: pirated copies of consumer products that break copyright, trademark or patent law in one way or another. Setting aside those cases where a company’s entire production and distribution system has been copied (see Adrian John’s recent book Piracy on NEC’s corporate doppelgänger), the issue is also usually connected to mass distribution of copies: filesharing of music and video being the most obvious example.  With WikiLeaks, the issue is state property and state secrets — just as it was with the event that people are comparing WikiLeaks with: the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 (itself a fascinating episode in the history of copying).  Sensitive or classified information is precisely state-owned information whose reproduction and distribution is controlled by law. It would be interesting to compare and contrast intellectual property law and laws governing classified information. The obligations of the state to its citizens are different to those of private property owners to the public, yet in both cases, particular historical notions of property, rights, ownership and copy are key to how things play out.

As Mark Rose tells it in his essential history of the birth of copyright law, Authors and Owners, there’s an intriguing link between laws governing copyright and “sensitive information”.  The censorship of the press, established and maintained through an agreement between the Crown and the printers guild known as the Stationers’ Company, broke down during the English Revolution of 1641-1660. When the monarchy was restored, the censorship of the press resumed, and journalist/authors such as Daniel Defoe were imprisoned for seditious writings.  The first calls for a copyright law which would give authors the right to claim their work as their property were made at the end of the seventeenth century.  One of the arguments made by Defoe, when he was released from Newgate prison in 1703, was that if a writer could be punished for saying something seditious, with the implication that the seditious writing belonged to him/her, then surely he or she should be rewarded for more acceptable writings by being recognized as the legal owner of his/her work.  Questions of responsibility were resolved within the emerging capitalist marketplace by being framed in terms of ownership.  The Statute of Anne became law in England in the spring of 1710.

What is new in the WikiLeaks situation is the sheer scale of the copying of state secrets, the ease with which the public can access these documents, and the possibility of a highly public debate on the WikiLeaks website that can build on and examine the documentation.  The notion of producing a copy of a war is not itself new.  As Paul Virilio has shown us, many of the key developments in twentieth century military technology aimed at allowing those conducting war to obtain as detailed a realtime picture as possible of a battlefield that could have many simultaneous geographical fronts.  This picture is already a copy, a representation of a war, and forms an archive of data that can be drawn upon in various ways.  While for obvious reasons the focus with the Afghan War Diary has been on the content of the revealed documents, it would be interesting to know how exactly these copies were copied: we know that they were often transcripts of radioed reports from the battlefield presumably entered into a database, but how exactly did such data make its way to Wikipedia’s website?  How do particular kinds of mediation by “copies” foreclose or enable different political possibilities?  Of course, it is precisely this kind of information that WikiLeaks will not be releasing, in order to maintain the anonymity of its sources.

WikiLeaks is a good example of what I mean when I say that the future of copying lies in depropriation. The word is not too elegant, it’s something I discuss in the last chapter of In Praise of Copying which is about appropriation. It’s clear that most of the crises and struggles around copying are about appropriation: I make a copy of x, x is not mine, by making a copy of it, I appropriate it.  But everything is in some sense appropriated, including x before I make a copy of it.  So the problem is: who has the right to appropriate something, or: who has the right to make a copy?  This is basically the question Marx asked. The problem with Marx’s answer — see the history of communism, as well as Marx’s own explicit remarks on the subject – is that it still assumes that appropriation is unavoidable.  When appropriation may precisely be the problem.  The notion of depropriation – which I take from feminist theorists such as Hélène Cixous and Avital Ronell – attempts to name the possibility of letting go of appropriation, of living without appropriating.  That’s very challenging since we appropriate with every mouthful of food we eat, every breath of air we take.  Buddhist texts recognized this problem and attempt to address it in a variety of ways, from extreme asceticism to continuous ethically focused exchange with the environment.  Depropriation seems to be a practical impossibility.   Yet we signs of it happening around us today, both in events and the circulation of ideas.  It’s something we can work towards: a world in which we minimize appropriation and maximize what Hardt and Negri call “the common”.  But we have to learn as individuals and as societies how to do that, which means addressing our own desire to appropriate.

I imagine that a lot people are suspicious of a “Buddhist” logic of depropriation since they assume that it means an attempted “quietist” withdrawal from mainstream society that lets capitalist appropriation continue unchecked.  But the history of Buddhist societies, for better and for worse, is not really one of quietism. Anyway, it’s not a question of idealizing those societies, whose faults are obvious to anyone who opens a history book. The issue is whether there is something within Buddhism that remains unrealized, or only partly, temporarily, occasionally realized, that can prospectively help us make a different world.,  Active depropriation … an ethics of engagement that means allowing oneself to be appropriated into a situation so that one can participate in transforming it without having to appropriate it again.  This is something we can learn a lot about from Buddhism.

William S. Burroughs called his incendiary 1959 novel Naked Lunch to mark “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”.  But what would that really mean?  The word we usually use for “appropriation” is “steal”, and the conventional narrative about WikiLeaks is that these secret documents have been stolen, appropriated.  What’s interesting though is to consider whose property they have become.  Unlike spy agencies who steal national secrets which then remain secrets, these documents have become visible without exactly becoming property.  They don’t belong to a nation-state; since they are published anonymously, they don’t belong to a particular person; they don’t belong to WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, though he is obviously in danger of becoming the face or designated spokesperson for the documents.  They also don’t belong to the mainstream press, who, despite WikiLeaks’ collaboration with the New York Times, Der Spiegel and Guardian, probably stand to lose the most in the current situation.

WikiLeaks heralds a new kind of journalism, if indeed you can call it that. Thanks to the particular way that WikiLeaks has organized the presentation of the documents, they are truly depropriated copies, belonging to no one yet accessible to many.  It’s a great example of the way the politics of open source goes beyond questions of proprietary software code.  Assange rightly suggests that there might be legal proceedings that develop out of what is found in the leaked documents, and in this sense, we find ourselves in a familiar tho necessary struggle to reappropriate the meaning of this event. But perhaps that puts them back within a framework of appropriation which WikiLeaks has already done considerable damage to …

Thanks to Eric Cazdyn for pointing out the copy related nature of this story.