No wonder some students have a cavalier—or at least confused—attitude toward other people’s work: mixed messages are everywhere. The Internet opens up a stupendous warehouse of information with no locks on the door. Respected professionals, including Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, are campaigning for a robust public domain and decrying rigid intellectual property rights. While these thinkers in no way condone plagiarism or piracy, others have appropriated their principle of a “creative commons” to justify sharing proprietary material. Egged on by Napster and others, students across the country unsurprisingly embraced the idea of free music and movies through file sharing—and now some of them are being sued for copyright violations.
Disagreement is also brewing over “fan fiction” websites, where visitors take characters and scenes from, say, Harry Potter, and create their own online versions—many of which are creative indeed. (According to the Washington Post, author J.K. Rowling is flattered by “genuine fan fiction” but sent out her lawyers when “Harry” started smoking dope and having sex.) Is this “fair use,” or is it copyright infringement? No one’s gone to court yet, but there are rumblings.
Even before the Internet era, some postmodernist academics were declaring that all writing is a product of accumulated culture and multiple influences; so no individual can “own” a text. By extension, some claim, there is no such thing as plagiarism.
None of this sits well with the traditional values of the academy, where students’ grades and professors’ tenure are based on individual achievement. Indeed, the recent Stanford survey suggests that students still endorse those standards in the classroom.
Yet, according to Provost John Etchemendy, the University is receiving more and more notices from copyright owners of unauthorized music and video file sharing on the Farm. He referred to the contradiction in a May e-mail warning the campus community about potential legal consequences. Stanford was committed to disseminating information through its computer networks, he said. “However, the University’s research and teaching mission also depends on respect for the rights of intellectual property and the University will not facilitate [pirating].”