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WHO OWNS THIS TEXT?Plagiarism, Authorship, and Disciplinary Cultures
UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2009 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOPEN SOURCERY Computer Science and the Logic of Ownership Marvin Diogenes, Andrea Lunsford, and Mark Otuteye
This chapter participates in an increasingly important and sometimes acrimonious debate over how texts can be best circulated, shared, and, when appropriate, owned. Of course, these issues of textual and now digital ownership are not new. They have grown up, in fact, alongside print literacy, capitalism, and commodification, with copyright protection growing ever more powerful: the current protection extends to life plus seventy years for individuals or ninety-five years for corporate entities.
With the rise of the Internet and the Web, many hoped for a new era of democratization of texts that would challenge the power of traditional copyright: anyone could be an author; anyone could make work available for sharing. And to some degree, this hope has been realized, most notably in venues such as Wikipedia and in the explosion of blogging and social networking sites. Yet commercial interests are working incessantly to control the Web, and Hollywood, the music industry, and entities such as Microsoft now concentrate their efforts on getting Congress to protect digital works of all kinds. Democratic sharing of knowledge in this atmosphere is difficult, to say the least. Yet unofficially, people everywhere are sharing information and trading goods, often without any citation (or payment), from peer-to-peer music file sharing to journal article swapping to the open-source code movement in computer science.
For this project, we found computer science to be a particularly fascinating scene for questions about textual ownership. Why? First, computer science (CS) is a new, rapidly evolving field, one in the process of defining itself in relation to traditional ideas about intellectual property, collaboration, shared knowledge, and textual production and textual value. We were drawn to this dynamic, and to the frontier mentality that seems to be an important element of the developing field's sense of itself. Moreover, at our institution, as at many others, CS is a large undergraduate major (among the largest at Stanford), and CS courses have very high enrollments from other majors, too. Thus, a significant number of our first-year composition students will eventually have at least some contact with the field. Another interesting element is that at our institution, as at many others, students in CS courses account for a disproportionately high share of the total number of plagiarism cases, and we wondered why that was the case. As these cases generally hinge on the improper appropriation of code, we found ourselves increasingly focused on the nature of code in CS, its complex relation to what qualifies as an idea, and its parallels to the kinds of texts that writing teachers and humanists work with every day. We began our investigation by identifying eight lecturers and senior research faculty in CS who agreed to talk with us about a set of questions we sent them in advance. (See Appendix A to this book's introduction for the questions. The interview questions were adapted by Andrea, Marvin, and Claude Reichard, director of the writing-in-the-major program at Stanford. Claude was also a member of the interview team, and we thank him here for his essential contributions to that stage of this project.) These eight interviewees teach the full range of CS courses, from first-year through graduate level. Their work includes textbooks and articles as well as code, and one faculty member formerly served as co-chair of Stanford's Judicial Affairs Review Board. One of the informants works in the computer industry as a software developer. In each case, we met with our colleagues in their offices at Stanford for at least an hour, recording their remarks and later transcribing them.
Almost immediately, we could see the commitment these scholars had to the concept of open source (in general, the idea that source code is available for others to use or modify; see www.opensource.org) and to making their work available as widely as possible and as quickly as possible. These commitments lead to a tension, however, one that pits the desire to make a free space (free both in the sense of open to all who care to contribute and also free of charge) for publication of cutting-edge work against the corporate, institutional desire to control the expression of knowledge through traditional publication practices and copyright. We also began to gather information about CS ways of doing things, of their use of boiler-plate, conventions, and commonplaces in code that no one owns and everyone uses. The more we talked to the respondents, the more we came to know the features and special quality of their common space-what we might call the Burkean parlor of computer science. What follows is our attempt to hear a whole range of voices and to use them to explore issues of textual ownership, particularly in CS, but also in other cultural contexts.
JZ, a CS interviewee: Here's an issue we think about: as the tools have become more and more sophisticated, we have the students do more and more things that build on the work of others. Now that work is often public domain, standard-issue, but it creates an interesting tension; we say they need to write everything themselves, but there is a lot of code that we use ready-made, and we need to make sure they know what they are allowed to use, what parts they need to build independently. Sometimes people reinvent the wheel. A lot of that code is repetitive, not interesting, you don't want students to write it anyway. So you teach them to indicate where we got this stuff from, and then build on top of that.
PY, a CS interviewee: And then of course, there's the whole issue that on the Web everybody steals everything. It's extremely easy to steal stuff. I play computer games, so I read computer game websites. And sometimes you'll see text just stolen, word-for-word, put on someone else's website. You're just like, "Okay." No attribution, no nothing. It's all hobbyist stuff, but even so, it's clear that ... I don't know if it's a generation issue or what, but some people think nothing of just taking text from other people.
These computer science scholars are talking about two issues that came up over and over again in our conversations: the desire to keep students from having to do busywork by letting them use another's code as long as they give attribution, and the recognition that many people, including lots of students, view what's on the Web as available for use-without citation. (There's also an interesting parallel and perhaps a contrast in the attitudes toward code and word-PK notes that "on the Web everybody steals everything," but he seems to voice a special ire towards those who steal text. Apparently computer science students need to learn to acknowledge the sources of their ready-made code, but they should already know better than to appropriate text verbatim.) In these remarks, the interviewees thus point up the huge change that has taken place in terms of peer-to-peer sharing and the clash between what Lawrence Lessig calls a "permissions culture," which values absolute protection, and a "free culture," which values more open sharing of resources. The Record Industry Association of America (RIAA), for example, argues strenuously that downloading a song is tantamount to stealing a CD, while students and many others argue for a more nuanced understanding of what constitutes intellectual property (perhaps motivated by both the immediate desire to access songs easily and by long-term questions of control and ownership of music). In Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture, Lessig (2004) outlines four distinct types of sharing and explores the ethics of each. In response to the RIAA, he says "If 2.6 times the number of CDs sold were downloaded for free, yet sales revenue dropped by just 6.7 percent, then there is a huge difference between downloading a song and stealing a CD" (71). If teachers agree with Lessig's analysis, acknowledging the claims of businesses while seeking more complete contextual information about their profit and loss, then we have an obligation to be talking with our students about these issues and helping them to articulate an informed ethic of peer-to-peer sharing.
Listening to CS scholars talk about their community and its norms led Marvin and Andrea to spend some time thinking about the assumptions we hold as scholars of rhetoric and writing studies, and about the various Burkean parlors in which we find ourselves participating. How could we begin to try to fit what the computer scientists were saying about code into what we knew about text? Sometimes correspondences appeared; at other times, we encountered distinct differences, or what seemed to be brick walls blocking understanding-so much so that we began to think not of a parlor but of a veritable carnival of parlors, which sometimes overlap but many times do not. At this point, we were fortunate to engage a former student and recent Stanford graduate to work on this essay with us. Mark Otuteye came to Stanford a computer science major but eventually graduated in African and African American Studies and English, with an emphasis on poetry. He then had an intense internship at Google, and was in the second year of a Marshall Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh, where he was working on poetry and computer science, during the writing of this chapter. As one who participates in the conversations of both humanities and computer science parlors, Mark has a special perspective to bring to this project. He describes his introduction to Google's parlor, and its attitudes toward intellectual property, in this way:
Mark: My second day on the job at Google, I had my first personal run-in with intellectual property and computer science. I have a Web page at www.markotuteye.com/google.htm that discusses ten products I thought Google should develop. I had written the page way back as a way to study for the many Google interviews I was to have. At the end of the page, I had a comment box where visitors could tell me their ideas about products Google should develop. I was proud of my comment box because it was my first attempt at building interaction into a public site. When he saw the site, Avichal, my mentor at Google, warned me that the comment box produced a conflict of interest now that I worked at Google. If someone were to submit an idea that was similar to a product Google was already developing in-house, that person could sue me after the product launch. "Oh," I said. Avichal suggested that I add some text to the site protecting me from such a lawsuit, but I thought that I would rather just take the box out because it would be safer. The price of interaction on the Internet is an acute awareness of the kind of intellectual property protected by patent laws. And, now that I work at a company which must be very open internally (for innovation) but very opaque externally (for security), I'm getting a rapid education in the do's and the don'ts of IP.
As Mark's experience demonstrates, in the corporate parlor, talk can be hazardous, ownership of ideas contested, legal remedies pursued. As the three of us immersed ourselves in the interview transcripts, we found ourselves hearing voices from other conversations about these fraught questions, voices that led us in a number of directions. Given our non-technical backgrounds and interests in popular culture, we began to make connections between the questions we asked the computer scientists and our own lived experiences, and we began to see how our interviews related to a larger conversation about ownership and control of ideas, texts, words, and codes. We also began to write together on writely.com (now Googledocs), where we could generate texts simultaneously and enter each other's texts. This technology led us to a free-wheeling meditation on concepts of ownership that we decided to weave together with the voices of our colleagues in computer sciences and other voices we hear around us every day.
In considering the key features of the computer science parlor, we sought ways to articulate and perhaps reconcile the tension between having a toolbox (the way a poet or lyricist or writing teacher might, parallel to those that new CS students are expected to develop as part of their apprenticeship) and generating and owning an idea or code. We contemplated what it means to be a member of community that owns things together and what it means to create as an individual, whether the object owned be code, a poem, a spoken-word piece, a song lyric, a joke, or a recipe.
RM, a CS interviewee: The basic issues: can you patent an idea for software, can you patent an algorithm, which is just a mathematical expression of an idea on its way to becoming a piece of software, or do you patent the software itself? The dividing line is not well-defined. I've patented ideas; for instance: I and a couple of students had an idea of doing a similarity search. When you represent objects in a computer, you represent them as a kind of number. You take a description of a table and represent it by its greatest parameters so that it becomes a sequence of numbers; you view that as a point in higher-dimensional space. Then the question: I have a huge database of these objects represented, how do I find similar objects? That becomes hard because of recursive dimensionality; instead of comparing the parameters to every object in the database, which is slow, you need to come up with something more clever. We came up with a mathematical function that takes these object descriptions and collapses them into small sets of objects, so that you compare only to the small sets. I and the two students hold that patent-well, who holds it? Stanford basically owns the idea, even though my name is listed as the inventor; we have an office of technology licensing, which handles the whole process. Whatever money they make off it by licensing the patent to industry, they split that up [according] to a certain formula: I'm making this up, but, say, one third to me, one third to my home department, the rest divided between the school of engineering and the university. They also pay the cost of filing the patent, which is not a small amount-ten to thirty thousand dollars. So they decide whether to file the patent; I cannot license it myself.
We're very interested here in RM's meditation on what can and can't be patented and the large grey area that currently exists in this evolving field. Other interviewees made the same point, arguing that the law is simply not yet able to distinguish effectively what is of most value in CS. In any case, as RM notes, for those working at universities, it is the institution that usually holds the patent-though the profit gained will be shared with the "inventor." What's clear is that the monetary stakes can ultimately be quite high if an invention turns out to solve a problem that needs to be solved. That context of potential vast profit suggests that scholars in CS must find ways to teach their students about these complex issues and about the grey areas of the existing law.
Mark: My grandmother used to make her own intricately spiced stews. My grandfather used to make pots and at one point he made a special mold that yielded pots perfect for cooking up stews. With a pot made from this special mold, my grandmother created a stew so piping hot and tasty that no one else in her neighborhood could figure out how she'd done it. Everyone could see the stew and taste the stew, but no one could figure out the recipe. It was Grandma's signature recipe.
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