Friday, June 25, 2010

No pilfering of my work, please

By Roberta M. Gubbins

Authors of original works are passionate about their creations. Each word, brush stroke, or angle of camera lens is considered and re-considered before put in use. For that reason, since the first writers carved on a clay tablet, they don’t appreciate others making copies, claiming the work as their own, and selling it for a profit.

Society, on the other hand, has not always agreed with the authors. Before the printing press, manuscripts were laboriously copied by scriveners to be bought and sold without any thought to paying the author. In those days, how would the author know his work had been copied unless he happened upon it in a church library or in royal’s home?

The invention of the printing press didn’t help authors much at all. Printers would petition their governments for exclusive monopolies to print and sell manuscripts—in 1469 the Italian government granted such monopoly to a Johannes of Speyer, conceding a five-year exclusive right to print in Venice and its dominions. The author’s rights were barely considered.

Albrecht Dürer claimed his own form of copyright, not the simple © resting quietly on the corner of his work, stating, when he discovered copies of his original works being sold, “Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximillian that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings.”

Therein lay the problem--each creator had to petition the government for the exclusive right to his own work—a time consuming and expensive process. The quandary for the authors of those times was ‘Do I want my work published for all the world to read and by so doing give my rights to it to the printer or publisher who will benefit far more than I or do I petition my government?’ And because the creative folks wanted that recognition they grudgingly signed over their rights or took the time to petition for a license to publish their own words.

This was the situation for centuries until the first copyright act in the world, the Statute of Anne, passed in the United Kingdom in 1710. The preamble to the “Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the copies of printed books in the author,” set forth the problem—printers were printing books and selling them without the receiving permission from the authors. The British parliament saw this as “a notorious invasion of the property of rightful proprietors of such books and writings, to their great detriment, and too often to the ruin of them and their families.”

This was indeed a serious situation. The statute conferred exclusive rights upon the author for 14 years and “for a further 14 years if the author was still alive at the end of the first period.” Lives were shorter then. The US has its own version of a copyright act, which grants the rights to authors for their lifetime plus 70 years. We live longer now.

Moving forward 300 years, we find authors in a new predicament, or maybe a repeat of an old problem. Now we have digital printing and the Internet. On the one hand, authors can now print and distribute their own works, free from the constraints of the printer/publisher. On the other hand, it is quite easy to cut and paste someone’s words and claim them as your own.

When does the cutting and pasting fall into the realm of plagiarism and a violation of the author’s rights? Or is it just fair use? Fair use is a term found in the US copyright law that allows anyone to quote or reproduce parts of another’s work without permission if done for the purposes of commentary, or news reporting or education.

The difference between fair use and stealing another’s work is not clear. There is no bright line that distinguishes how many words, lines, notes, or images can be taken without permission. An author may say, like Dürer, that taking of another’s work is pilfering and is deserved of punishment for “not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger.” Dürer was serious about protecting his work.

While I suspect that modern authors don’t generally put pilferers in mortal danger, they do, however, bring lawsuits or send cease and desist letters. And I suspect that over time, the distinction between fair use and stealing will become clearer until, of course, the next generation of technology comes along causing creatives to take on a new challenge to the security of their work.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Intentions: the why behind the what

Let's say its a sunny day, 90 degrees hot and humid. And you see a guy walking around in a rain coat and he's sweating so much he's getting wet. You say to him, "That coat isn't working, its not going to keep you dry, its actually making you get wet. The best way for you to dry off is to take off the coat." He looks at you like you're crazy and says, "I'm not trying to be dry, I'm trying to sweat off five pounds." 

Once you know the guy is trying to lose weight, then you could suggest better ways to do it. But if you assume you know what he is trying to do, you could give him advice that will be unrelated to what he was trying to do. Sure, it might be great advice--the best--but if it doesn't help him toward his goal then it isn't the best advice for him at that time. Also, it could ignore his goal altogether, which invalidates his intentions.

I'm just thinking, sometimes you have to ask someone why they are doing what they are doing to determine if what they are doing is successful.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Current final thoughts on the literature debate

Given that the purpose of the freshman composition course varies greatly from one institution to another, a one size fits all approach to what is appropriate reading for the composition classroom is not reasonable or desirable. The selection of literature may be appropriate. But does the reading of fiction have advantages over non-fiction? Louise Rosenblatt, author of Literature as Exploration, believes so. She pointed out that it is easy to think about complex human problems when emotions are not involved. This ease is a disservice to students as this type of setting, a non-emotional one, is not realistic. Students need the challenge that is supplied by emotion; fiction supplies that challenge as “literature offers an opportunity to develop the ability to think rationally within an emotionally colored context” (p217).
Rosenblatt notes that fiction provides students the opportunity to identify their emotions, test their assumptions, and consequently reject or revise their original reactions. (p215) She states, “It seems reasonable to suggest…that in building up the habit of mind essential to the attainment of sound literary judgment, the student will also be acquiring mental habit valuable for the development of sound insight into ordinary human experience.” (p215-216) In short, thinking generates more thinking and high level critical thinking generates more high level critical thinking.  And isn’t the generation of high level critical thinking an excellent reason to select literature for the composition classroom?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Exposing assumptions and moving beyond the original debate

Throughout her discussion, Lindemann refers to teaching literature. This phrase is revealing and reflects Lindemann’s limited perception of literature, its uses, and its impact on the reader. Although she does briefly touch upon critical theory, she does not explore it with any great depth. Tate also examined literature as a source for analysis, something to be taken apart and examined and then subsequently written about.

Steinberg’s addition to the conversation is a historical perspective; Gamer’s begins to explore the differences between fiction and non-fiction. Salvatori’s analysis goes a step further in that it explores the relationship of reader to text, acknowledging that readers engage differently with fiction than they do with non-fiction. It appears that the conversation stagnated and, for the most part, ended at that point. The stagnation occurred at the time when the question, why do readers engage differently with fiction than non-fiction, should have been raised. The connection between how literature affects readers and how fiction is crafted was not explored. Had it been, the conversation might have continued.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Additional entrants in the Lindemann v Tate conversation

Although the debate between Lindemann and Tate took center stage, others entered the conversation. Erwin Steinberg and Michael Gamer both had articles in the March 1995 issue of College English, the issue that featured Lindemann’s and Tate’s second installments mentioned above. Steinberg, in his article, “Imaginative Literature in Composition Classrooms?” focuses on the history of the use of literature in the composition classroom. He rejects Tate’s assertion that literature has recently been ejected from composition classrooms. Using Albert Kitzhaber’s 1963 report, “Themes, Theories, and Therapy,” he states that there is no typical composition classroom because the content of the courses varies so greatly from one institution to the next. Gamer, in his article, “Fictionalizing the Disciplines: Literature and the Boundaries of Knowledge,” rethinks Tate’s dilemma by replacing the concept of writing beyond the disciplines, writing from inside of the academy to outside, with his own alternative which focuses on writing that moves from outside the disciplines to inside the academy. He suggests that because academic discipline’s boundaries, as do the real world ones, overlap that students would be well served by reading, such as literature, that reflects that overlap.
Later, in 1996, Mariolina Salvatori, enters the conversation with her article, “Conversations with the Texts: Reading in the Teaching of Composition.” She moves away from focusing on the presence of literature in the classroom to the actual reading of the literature. To support her claim that that reading and writing are interconnected, she details theories such as that put forth by John Clifford and John Schilb in their 1985 essay, “Composition Theory and Literary Theory.” She offers discussion on her approach to teaching which stems from the assumption that reading and writing—literature and composition—are interconnected.