On Integrity, Plagiarism, and Online Media

I've worked in arts education for over a decade teaching music and theater courses year round. I also spent the better part of three years hustling hard to get an English teacher position at the high school level. I'm still teaching music and theater, but my Bye Bye Birdie LARP adventure is suspended. The biggest lesson I try to teach any of my students is to act with integrity and compassion in everything they do.

Bye Bye Birdie has a song called “An English Teacher” originally performed by Chita Rivera. You’re welcome.

English classes make that easy. If you plagiarize your paper--steal someone else's work directly, borrow ideas without attribution, or do the dreaded Ctrl-F and thesaurus combination, you fail and risk significant punishment. There is no gray area. You are expected to write and defend your own ideas. If you use someone else's work, you cite your source and make sure you get the last word in. Very rarely, you come across a student who plagiarizes and shows no remorse. They are the ones who wind up with major disciplinary records. 

In the arts, it's not as clear. I encourage my music and theater students to watch and study the artists who came before them to understand different interpretations of material. I also refuse to let anyone, no matter their age, get away with blindly copying what came before. Every little girl who plays Annie in Annie is not Andrea McArdle and does not need to use her every embellishment on the score and exact phrasing to play the role. I can teach you why she did what she did, but as a young artist with integrity, you find a way to make the performance your own and not copy someone else's work.

Sure, there are things that turn into a gray area. I taught a semester of digital media and filmmaking to high school students. I received pushback every single time I brought up why it's not okay to just take someone else's song and put it in a video without permission. 

I guess I’m using songs from musicals in this. Here’s Andrea McArdle’s signature performance of “Tomorrow” in Annie. Notice the scoops into the high notes and extra “h” sound in “away” for clarity. Your Annies should find their own spin on the song, not copy someone else’s.

The excuses were always the same. And by excuses, I mean excuse, singular. Their favorite YouTuber did it, so why can't they? I'd come back with real life examples of YouTubers almost ruining the careers by using other people's work without a license, and they'd say it proved nothing.

The confusion comes with Fair Use and inconsistent application. Fair Use, despite how you might see it referenced, still requires some level of consent from the content creator and intellectual property right laws. It is a very limited range of use assuming you're in the United States of America: for criticism, reporting, teaching, and research. Some game developers extend that to video playthroughs, and occasionally songwriters and musicians who own the copyright to their own work might encourage fan covers. Otherwise, you're playing in horribly gray territory of is it or isn't it illegal use. And no, saying "I don't own the rights to this" or some variant doesn't mean you're not violating someone else's intellectual property.

Inconsistent application is just as bad. There are large companies and famous creators who don't care about certain uses of their work. Fan art is the biggest example. It seems perfectly legal to sell your drawings of a superhero until you're told it's not. It's always incredibly sad to see an artist at a fan convention confronted in person by a lawyer for a major company and told to remove all unlicensed merchandise from their booth; the usual result is someone leaving angry or in tears and not being welcomed back at the convention. It is possible to get a license for this use, but it's usually for something very transformative, like handmade plushies of not-so-child-friendly characters that otherwise would never get that kind of release. They key here is actually getting permission and, preferably, a contract with clear and specific terms.

The internet is filled with these violations that are allowed unless they are actively policed by the creator. I've been in many situations since I started writing online (ah, the good old days, where every email was @AOL and websites were judged by how many dancing hamsters appeared on them) where my work was stolen and reposted without permission. I could prove the work was stolen from me, but it was near-impossible to get it removed until the internet applications of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) became common knowledge and supported by US case law. Even then, without access to a lawyer, I'd have to rely on fear of DMCA violations and punitive damages to get articles pulled from sites that stole them.

This kind of practice is rampant online because so much is ignored with copyright violations. I'm not surprised at all by Jason Schreier's article on former IGN editor Filip Miucin being fired for egregious copyright violations. Not even the extent of sub-par thesaurus-substituting was surprising. The only surprising thing was how shocked people were that a professional writer would do this online.

NSFW. [title of show], a musical about 2 people creating a musical about creating a musical, features an entire song about the struggles of creating original ideas. It’s hard. No one’s saying it’s not. But that’s not an excuse to not try to do something different (even if you’re adapting—with license and attribution, naturally).

The amount of websites that exist solely to paraphrase someone else's work on a page loaded with ads is staggering. There will be an attribution (maybe), but there's no original thought or reporting. It's plagiarism that acknowledges who they steal from. It's disgusting. It's also why I only regularly visit a handful of websites I trust at this point. I like a website with a clear tone, strong authorial voices, and well-defended opinions.

If it sounds like someone is paraphrasing a press release, I'm clicking away. That's only not plagiarism because they have permission, nay, encouragement to write those talking points. And if I recognize mine or anyone else's work as the "inspiration" of a story, I go off. It's hard enough making a living as a digital content creator; it's harder when the value of your words is diluted by poor imitations. 

With my former film students, I set clear guidelines and consequences for what would happen if they used someone's work without a license. They were not getting an A, no matter how well edited, shot, or scripted their content was. I know they did not pay for a license to use a song by The Weekend, so I know that they're choosing to violate someone else's rights, stealing someone else's work for their own gain. Students who followed our media guidelines and had enough integrity to settle for a less-than-stellar royalty free catalogue the school licensed were rewarded for doing the right thing with better grades.

There really need to be consistent consequences for plagiarism and other digital theft among the online creative community. Firing an editor for stealing someone else's review is a great start. Now that the example is clearly set and well-publicized, other websites need to take the lead and punish writers who lack integrity. Be clear with your editorial standards, vet your writers' work, and make the consequences and reason for them very clear.

You'd fire them for hacking into your PayPal and stealing your AdSense money; punish them for pressing Ctrl-c on someone else's writing and using a thesaurus to change a few words around. Theft is theft, and writing means nothing if it lacks integrity.

Musical theater is a medium that has thrived off of licensed, legal adaptations. No one is saying you can’t take risks if you have the rights. You just need them. No one expected a Sunset Boulevard musical, but the musical was done with all the IPR contracts in place.

The gray area with intellectual property rights and plagiarism is a convenient myth created by apathy. If I don't have the rights to Mickey Mouse, I legally cannot use Mickey Mouse in my work unless it is for criticism, news reporting, teaching a lesson in a classroom, or publishing academic research. It doesn't matter if you've seen other people get away with using Mickey Mouse without permission: you're selling your own mind, creativity, ability, and integrity short by relying on someone else's ideas to become the substance of your own work.

High school students can't get away with this. Why are professional writers and content creators getting away with this?

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