Plagiarism, Intellectual Property and the Teaching of L2 Writing

As his book Plagiarism, Intellectual Property and the Teaching of L2 Writing is published this week we asked Joel Bloch to tell us about his interest in plagiarism and intellectual property.

On the popular American television show, CSI, there was an episode where a woman was accused of murdering her boyfriend because he had cheated on her. She denied that his infidelity was any motive for murder. However, later it was discovered that he had plagiarized something she written, and had questioned whether her work was original in the first place. At that point, she confessed that she had killed in a fit of rage when she had discovered what he had done. The fact that plagiarism can be more a motive for murder than infidelity should come as no surprise to anyone who has dealt with plagiarism over these years, particularly for those who have dealt with non-native English speakers.

Joel Bloch and the cute cat

The question of whether students from different cultures have different attitudes towards plagiarism, as well as towards the more general uses of intellectual property, has been at the center of an often heated debate over how culture should be viewed and how it may affect how an individual thinks and writes. This debate has intensified with the development of the World Wide Web and its support of what Ethan Zuckerman has called “The Cute Cat Theory,” which highlights the ability of the web to support the publication and sharing of photos of cats, as well as every form of intellectual property.

My own interest in plagiarism and intellectual property came almost accidently when I innocently gave a group of Chinese students an article to read on plagiarism and then saw how angry they became. Today there is not a day passing where there is not some scandal somewhere in the world involving plagiarism. The publication of every such instance often brings out a debate over how such incidents reflect the decline of the academy, of journalistic standards, and often of the society itself.

Intellectual property law has raised such passions. The US has just gone through another battle over what restrictions should be put on the use of the Internet in order to curb the scourge of the illicit use of intellectual property. This battle pitted one set of lobbyists against another, developed countries vs. developing countries,  media companies against Silicon Valley, adults against the young, and even Northern California vs. Southern California. Writing teachers are often thrown into the controversy with little preparation because of the background of their students and perhaps more importantly, the very nature of their work. They are often told what the restrictions are but rarely what their rights are.

For the last ten years, I have been teaching a second language writing course that deals primarily with plagiarism, about which I have written extensively in this book. The goal of the course is to not only help students avoid falling into the trap of plagiarism but also to understand the debate over these issues regarding the use of intellectual property. After all, most writing, particularly in the university, is about the use of intellectual property and therefore the rules for using it has seemed to me to be a natural topic around which to center a course. I wrote Plagiarism, Intellectual Property and the Teaching of L2 Writing in response to these controversies and to help writing teachers understand the importance of their contribution to this debate.  Although I clearly fall on the side of those who are looking for changes in traditional attitudes towards plagiarism and intellectual property, I hope this book helps teachers involve themselves in this debate and become advocates for whatever is best for their students.

For further information on plagiarism please see Joel’s websites: http://www.scoop.it/t/plagiarism and http://plagiarismstories.tumblr.com/

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