The Joyce Hatto Case: How Filesharing Defeats Plagiarism

Portait of Joyce Hatto

By now, the whole classical music world has heard of the Joyce Hatto scandal (Wikipedia’s article is excellent).

Joyce Hatto was a pianist who died in June, 2006. She didn’t play many concerts, but she recorded prolifically — or so everyone thought, until it was discovered, in early 2007, that most of her recordings were plagiarized from the records of other pianists. She never knew about it, apparently: the plagiarism was the work of her recording engineer and husband, William Barrington-Coupe.

The best part is how the deception was uncovered: when someone put her recordings onto a computer, automated comparison routines kept stubbornly identifying them as other pianists’ tracks!

It’s a great example of what we’ve been saying about artists putting their work online: sharing files widely prevents plagiarism, by making it much easier to detect. Forget Hatto herself for a moment — think instead of all those other pianists, whose recordings were passed off as her work: the reason the hoax was detected at all was because their track information was available online. And if the recordings themselves had been available online, the problem would only have been detected more quickly, probably years ago.

The unmasking had nothing to do with DRM, by the way. DRM is the set of software and hardware handicaps that prevents computers and music players from sharing files freely with each other. It’s true that some of the programs that detected the similarities between Hatto’s recordings and other pianists’ also have built-in DRM, but the DRM is utterly irrelevant to the comparison techniques that spotted the correlations. In fact, if DRM were as effective as the record companies wish it were, it would only have hindered the comparisons, since then the other pianists’ track information might not have been readily available for examination.

But we’ve still got a long way to go. The Wikipedia article on Hatto had the following sentence, as of early February 28th:

Meanwhile the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) has begun an investigation. If the allegations are true, it would be one of the most extraordinary cases of copyright infringement the record industry had ever seen, according to a BPI spokesman.

Notice how the hoax is identified as “copyright infringement“, not “plagiarism“. I checked the reference: the BPI spokesman apparently referred to “piracy”, so in the interests of accurate quoting, I’ve changed the Wikipedia article to say “piracy”. But that’s not really satisfactory: the word “piracy” is often used to refer to both unauthorized printing and plagiarism, as though the two are the same offense. The word thus provided a semantic pivot, around which some Wikipedian was able turn from one of the word’s meanings to the other, making it into a case of “copyright infringement”.

Who was this mysterious misquoter?

We’ll never know, because they did it anonymously, though clearly on purpose. For when the sentence was originally added, it quoted the BPI representative correctly. Later, someone came along and changed just one thing: “piracy” to “copyright infringement”. You can see the edit here. Probably they felt that “piracy” was too loaded a term, and that “copyright infringement” would be more accurate. Unfortunately, this is exactly the conflation — equating unauthorized copying with stealing credit — that the record industry promotes; the pity is that their effort has been so successful.

I’ve fixed the text to say “piracy” again. But the BPI spokesman should have talked about “plagiarism” in the first place, because that’s what we’re dealing with here, and the more we let digital files circulate freely, the less plagiarism there will be.

8 Comments on "The Joyce Hatto Case: How Filesharing Defeats Plagiarism"

  1. I must say that I’ve never come across the word “piracy” being used for plagiarism. I think the BPI representative was referring to copyright infringement here, as what Barrington-Coupe did was both. A lot of the time, plagiarism of a work which isn’t in the public domain is also copyright infringement. However, the BPI spokesman obviously knew this case was also plagiarism, and that that was the real reason it was so controversial. I think organisations such as the BPI are always looking for a convenient opportunity to confuse the two, to support their lies that unauthorised copying of information involves taking something away from someone.

    1. Joyce Hatto died in June 2006, having become a cause célèbre with fans of classical piano in the last years of her life.

  2. hi,
    I think that the main Idea of the BPI or all record companies even channels is not to prevent plagiarism.

    Its more simple than that they only want to save thier earnings. a tv channel that i saw puts in a TV advertizement that shows all sharing as plagiarism and the person that make it a thief and followed by the channel hero

    but as we all saw what helped to retain the rights of the owners of these sound tracks was the sharing that also has many benefits.

    thanks alot

    1. Not sure if it was checksumming of the digital data on the track or of analog properties of the data — I mean, it’s whatever comparison routines that particular program uses. The computer had access to a database of checksums, and it compared the checksums it computed from the music data with the checksums in the database, and got a positive match.

      I’m using “checksum” very loosely here, to mean any digital fingerprinting routine.