Copyright. Infringements. Plagiarism. Lameness.

Having a great memory often sucks. Because sometimes you’re not certain whether what you envision you know, is a byproduct of your own thought processes, or whether you’ve just perfectly memorized a line from some paper that came across your desk when doing research.

Years of university were filled with trepidation, after realizing that my meticulousness for research has a massive flaw – often I recall entire chunks of text, sometimes without context, a sort of semi-photographic ability – this placed me in a trepidatious position, tethering on infringment, plagiarism…I would often wake up in cold sweat after finishing a paper in a single night, dreading the thought that somewhere, I haven’t referenced a quote.

In my case, that would result in an disciplinary action – a scarlet letter marking a failed class, a zero for a grade, or even worse, a note on my transcript marking me a social reprobate forever. A criminal.

But the idea of plagiarism isn’t nearly as clean cut as universities and colleges would like you to think. My little memory issue aside, the concept of plagiarism, or unethical writing and research, misrepresenting someone else’s work and ideas as your own, is far more complex and nuanced than most “experts” on the subject would have you believe.

And that is why I found recent debate on the subject of plagiarism on New York Times infurating, frustrating and…yes, debilitating.

For one, referencing works adequately takes skill. Generally, I found most students behind the university gates are in actuality merely semi-literate (and the state of reading and writing skills often falls short of expectations by the time they graduate.) Research takes time, and so does juggling a complex line of thought interspersed with other people’s ideas.

My first encounter with psychology 101 quickly convinced me that it was less about psych and more about the APA Style Guide. Referencing is important, and whether it be APA or MLA, the idea that EVERYTHING that comes from someone else, is meticulously noted as such. That’s why copyright laws exist (hmmm, no they don’t but let’s pretend they do anyways).

But that throws the whole idea of plagiarism (or copyright) for a loop too: researching most (art)works and writings, quickly unveils a discomforting fact that every single “original” work, is heavily influenced by the preceeding works. Culture, it seems, tends to suffer from evolution, like the rest of us, and referencing it back tends to be far more difficult than initially envisioned.

I am blurring the issues of plagiarism with copyright, yes, but the two are intricately tied in the brave new world, where your own work, for example, no longer belongs to you, but is rather fed into a giant database. Then a private company charges your institution to maintain and compare your essay or paper with that of other students.

Bingo! Presto! Eureka!

The issue of plagiarism is relevant to copyright because of MONEY. You see, those of us who are convinced of our superiority to others, expect to be paid for our ideas. So, referencing those ideas or creations, associating them with an identity, a person, is a precaution against theft. Especially if those people are supposed to be paid for their genious. You know, like Britney Spears for her singing efforts, or your multi-national pharmaceutical company guarding the recipe to a life-saving medicine.

(Yeah, I was getting to that bit. And fyi, writing these rants can get tough, usually at midnight.)

Did I sound pissed off? Because I generally am.

For one,combating plagiarism in universities is not new. In fact, it is old. Ancient even. If we were to upload undergrad papers from the rosteer of current academia, I would bet that the statistics would show similar rates of plagiarism. The previous generations just had lesser chances of ever getting caught.

The second point comes from anecdotal evidence, but a solid source. Few years back, sitting in the offices of the Distance Education department, I took part in a conversation regarding – you guessed it – plagiarism. Few of the department staff were literally in charge of the committee dealing with plagiarism complaints against students, giving me the inside scoop on what goes on behind closed doors.

International students, often from privileged families, lived in luxurious, shared accommodations with services that ranged from
housekeeping to chefs. But they also had personal tutors on staff, and an exclusive database with old tests and examples of papers associated with each class and professor.

Those students, I was explained, often have enough money to pass a test, or buy a paper.

Similarly to these, any of more privileged students have the capacity to utilize expensive “tutors” who are known to not only assist with research and editing, but are also notorious for writing original content for their clients.

It comes at a price, I know. But I continuously run into wealthy students who had assistance from high-school to their Masters degree. Few years ago, I was offered by a student to finish off an essay for $100. Amazed at the offer, I discussed it over with a friend who coolly remarked “I charge at least $200 for that kind of work.”

The “war on plagiarism” endorses a culture steeped in already draconian measures to preserve works as capital. And it ultimately fails to address the issues at hand. Most students are unprepared to do the work, and importance as well as grades of students can be easily devised as to decrease potential for plagiarism.

It also punishes particular segments of the student population: those who are rich will escape the wrath of the new technology, but those trying to work and juggle impossible deadlines, or have learning difficulties, are turned into criminals without a hesitation.

The idea of uploading our papers onto giant, private databases, seems to smack of “guilty until proven innocent” attitude. Moreover, our rights as creators of these works are being ignored. Noone asked you for permission to “copy” or “distribute” this paper of yours, did they? [illustration created by Poptimism and obviously farts in the direction of copyrighted Coca Cola branding]