On plagiarism and the public research university

dark blue sky with small corner of yellow-brick building intruding lower center
Heller Hall BY-NC jadammel/Joe D.
(photo taken at the U of M)

Recently, a blogger copied from a University-produced blog at significant length without credit or a link back to the original site – behavior that understandably produced pretty negative feelings from the staff members whose work was being reproduced without credit. Because the blogger had suggested that the content was in the public domain, these folks contacted me for clarification. We ended up discussing a lot of issues related to fair use and the mission of the public research university, as well as how best to foster appropriate public use of University-produced materials. It’s worth noting at the top here, that the initial situation was resolved with positive feelings all around, including the blogger apologizing for not providing credit.

The following thoughts on plagiarism of public-facing materials produced at a public research institution are adapted from email conversations around the above situation – but might be worth thinking about in other instances of sharing and ‘stealing’.

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First off, copying a whole blog post without credit sounds like plagiarism – which is unethical, and in the academic environment is a
punishable offense. But plagiarism is often not actually a copyright violation.
At times like
this, that can be frustrating, but there are actually good reasons for
the law
to work like that. When engaging with someone who may have
plagiarized in a blog environment, I’d stick to talking about plagiarism
in terms of journalistic (and blogger) ethics, rather than law
– most people usually do care about
behaving appropriately on these points, but can be pretty confused about
appropriate ways to provide credit, or about what works are free for
public use.

Depending on the facts of how a work is produced at the University of Minnesota and how the University copyright policies apply, the copyrights may belong to the Regents (i.e., to the University), to individuals, or to a combination. Bloggers (and others) may be confused about the public domain status of University of Minnesota materials, because the United States federal government does not own copyrights – all federal government materials are in the public domain in the U.S. Many states also have laws that make their own state laws public domain. However, the individual states, and especially units of those states acting as regular business entities, can own copyrights. It is quite common for Regents of state universities to hold copyrights in materials produced by their staff.

It’s important to remember that even if the Regents do own the rights, bloggers – and anyone else – do have some rights to re-use the content without permission under the copyright concept of “fair use”. At times, fair use does include even
the use of an entire work – a concept that has recently been upheld in cases of
bloggers reproducing news articles without permission.

Clearly, plagiarism of online content is problematic – but it is actually not true that every user would be violating copyright if they reproduced the whole article, and it is true that individuals do sometimes have the right to use quotations without
permission. Because there really is  room in the law for some re-use by individuals, I’d encourage anyone communicating with a possible plagiarist not to overstate what the law prohibits individuals from doing – although I understand why poor behavior and plagiarism might produce the urge to use some strong words.

It’s also important not to overstate the limits of use rights in copyright because, as a public research institution, the Regents have articulated institutional commitments to
sharing our work with the public
– one of the guiding principles of the
Regents’ Copyright Policy is “The University’s mission articulates a
commitment to sharing knowledge through education for a diverse community and
application of that knowledge to benefit the people of the state, the nation,
and the world. In this spirit, the University encourages faculty and students
to exercise their interests in ownership and use of their copyrighted works in
a manner that provides the greatest possible scholarly and public access to
their work.”

Throughout the University, we rely on fair use a lot in our research, teaching and
scholarship. It’s important to remember that that’s a two-way street.

edandellow-byncdnd-alankaar.jpg
‘ed and ‘ellow BY-NC-ND Alan Kaar
(photo taken at the U of M)

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