New York University Confuses Filesharing with Plagiarism

We've often written here about how the copyright industry loves to confuse attribution with control of copying. The two are quite different, of course: plagiarism is not the same as the unauthorized sharing of properly-attributed materials. For example, when college students download songs from the Internet, they do not replace the artists' names with their own. The vast majority of shared files are accurately credited, even when the copying itself is illegal.

But the industry knows that the public gets much more upset about misattribution ("Artists deserve credit for their work!") than about illegal copying ("What, I can't share with my friends?"). So industry representatives take the easy route and simply pretend that one is the other.

I hadn't expected to see a New York University associate provost fall for the trick, though. Marilyn McMillan, Associate Provost and CITO at NYU, has published A Note on Illegal Downloading. It starts out with a few paragraphs purely about illegal copying, then takes a turn into truly weird territory...

We know that illegal downloading of music is a widespread practice. It has become an international phenomenon, one that is hardly confined to college campuses. Its allure is clear: why would you pay for something—a song to load on your MP3 player or a movie to load on your laptop—when you can get it for free with a little exploration and few keystrokes? And why would you not share something for free with friends?

In answering those questions, the University appeals to what Abraham Lincoln once called "the better angels" of your nature and to your commitment to the culture of scholarship.

As communities of scholars and learners, research universities—such as NYU—have two primary missions: to educate students and to create knowledge. This latter mission involves the production of original scholarship and research. Accordingly it is accompanied by an enormous respect for proper recognition being given to the creator of those ideas and knowledge. In higher education, it is considered a grave act to take another's work without permission or attribution. At NYU, which also has large and renowned programs in the arts, this respect extends to the creation of new art.

Few in this community would uphold shoplifting CDs from a record store. And few would be content to see their own work—a paper, for instance, or a journal article, or a term project in a course—taken by someone else and used without permission.

Yet, in reality, that is what you do when you download copyrighted files illegally. ...

What a coincidence: that's exactly the same analogy Hilary Rosen (the former head of the RIAA) used to offer when talking on college campuses, and it makes no more sense now than it did when Rosen first tried it. Copying is not like shoplifting (when you copy a song, the original doesn't go missing), and it's not like presenting others' work as your own, either. But if McMillan had stuck to the real issue and said "Few in this community would support post-publication sharing of other people's papers and journal articles...", well, she might have found some of her own faculty disagreeing with her: for example, the ones who support Science Commons, the Public Library of Science, and other academic organizations devoted to the idea that sharing knowledge is a good idea.

McMillan ends with this zinger:

The Internet has brought unimaginable access to information and extraordinary flexibility and opportunities for exploration and communication. NYU wants you to take advantage of all that. But, just as you abide by certain standards of behavior for scholarship and for University life, so, too, should you abide by high standards when it comes to the intellectual property of others on the Internet.

Is it too much to ask that a university stand for the spread of knowledge and culture, and that university officials distinguish between crediting and copying? Unfortunately, McMillan is not alone in believing that the prevention of sharing is part of a university's mission. Consider proposed Amendment 2314 to the U.S. Senate Higher Education Act of 2007 (S. 1462). It would require institutions of higher education to monitor file-sharing, report to the Secretary of Education, and "provide evidence to the Secretary that the institution has developed a plan for implementing a technology-based deterrent to prevent the illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property."

If you're a student or faculty member at NYU, please consider writing to Associate Provost McMillan, or pointing her to this article.


Difference between copyright and plagiarism.

Although there is a difference, without some kind of copyright (i.e. sending your work somewhere that will keep tabs on who wrote what and at what time) how DO you prevent plagiarism?

For example, let's say it's 1986 and kfogel sends me a book he wrote called "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone". I then take that book and send it to Scholastic Publishing changing the name to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by Brian Dean". Scholastic Publishing prints it and I make millions. Then kfogel tries to claim that he really wrote the book. How would kfogel prove his claim without some way of reliably documenting when he wrote it? Let's say he finished writing it on August 16, 1986. What would prevent me from taking his story then claiming that I wrote it on July 2, 1986 but procrastinated in sending it to Scholastic Publishing and that I also procrastinated in putting the date of July 2 on it?

Re: Difference between copyright and plagiarism.

Glad you asked...

For one thing, there are public timestamping services that anyone can use to prove that they had a certain file on a certain date. Some examples of such services:, AuthentiDate, DigiStamp. There are many more, those are just three off the top of my head.

So if you're really worried about someone claiming your work is theirs, just digitally sign it at a few timestamp sites. They become highly reliable witnesses in any dispute over origin: since the original author always possesses a file earliest, your timestamps will be earlier than anyone else's.

But in practice, do you need to timestamp? Probably not. I don't bother, and, as far as I'm aware, all the other people I know who distribute their works online under free licenses also don't bother to use a timestamping service.

The reason we don't is that the entire Internet serves as a timestamping service. Every time someone sends an email with a link to your work, or writes a blog post about it, or tags it on a tagging site, or does just about anything else with it, they're adding one more brick to the wall of evidence that the work was published by you on or before a certain date. Heck, Google crawls the entire Internet at regular intervals — they could probably tell you (or tell a court) when they first saw a file. And if they couldn't, then Yahoo could. And if Yahoo won't, then MSN Search will. And if MSN Search can't, then... you get the idea.

When you release something onto the Internet, you're putting it into a permanent, world-wide data cloud, one that has mechanisms for replicating and remembering metadata in ad hoc, decentralized, and very hard to fake ways. It would be extremely difficult for a plagiarist to make a convincing case, given the lopsided first-mover advantage that accrues to whoever first releases a work. (Which is why if you're going to keep your work private, then you should consider using a timestamping service — anything not released to the Internet won't get the protection of the Internet.)

If that data cloud seems like too fuzzy or abstract a form of protection, consider this: in more than 15 years of working in free and open source software (in which code is released to the public for unrestricted copying and modification), I've never seen a case of credit theft. I'm not saying plagiarism has absolutely never happened, but if it has, it's pretty rare. And remember, it's not as if plagiarism never happens in the regular, copyrighted publishing world. Perfection is not required; all we need to do is be at least as good as traditional publishing at preventing plagiarism. I think open distribution has easily met and surpassed that bar.

Which brings up one last point: what's to stop the scenario you described above from happening today, under current copyright laws? After all, if someone is claiming that they wrote a given work, then they're naturally also claiming that they hold the copyright. Copyright law is therefore no protection in this circumstance. The issue under dispute is purely factual: who wrote the book? One party is the author, the other is a fraud. The question is, which is which?

If Scholastic Publishing (or a court of law) had to resolve that question, they'd do it in exactly the way you'd expect. They'd look at all the evidence each side can muster (computer hard drives, emails, witnesses who saw the book in progress, etc) and, hopefully, come to the right conclusion. None of these methods depend on copyright, since holding the copyright is the result of being the acknowledged author, not the cause.

To summarize:

If you publish your work onto the Net, it's pretty easy for anyone to verify that you were the first one to posses it, and therefore that you must be the author (and if you want rock-solid proof, you can always use a timestamping service).

If you keep your work private, then all the methods by which you might establish your priority are unrelated to copyright, since anyone falsely claiming to be the author would also be claiming the copyright. And you can still use a timestamping service, of course.

The mistake is in thinking that publishers "keep tabs on who wrote what and at what time". They don't; they only keep track of what they've published and who claimed to have written it. The Internet does the same thing, but on a much larger and harder-to-fake scale.

See also:

I hope this answers your question.

Copyright doesn't prevent plagiarism anyway

Copyright doesn't prevent plagiarism or protect against it.

Copyright simply means that ONCE authorship has been established, that author has a transferable privilege of exclusive reproduction and derivation.

Copyright doesn't help establish who the true author is, or prosecute the plagiarist for plagiarism.

It is possible to register works for copyright protection, but unlike patent, first to register doesn't constitute the right to assert authorship, or even entitlement to be treated as the holder of the work's copyright. Registration merely helps establish the provenance of a work.

If there is a given work, then copyright cares not who wrote it, nor even who the copyright holder is - UNTIL it is alleged that an unauthorised copy has been made - irrespective of whether the copy misrepresents authorship.

More importantly, it doesn't care whether you copy someone elses ideas, only the fixed expression of those ideas - if there is 'originality' in that expression.

Plagiarism should actually be protected by moral rights, the right to truth in attribution.

Thus copyright could be abolished tomorrow, and yet we'd still need a law to prohibit misattribution/plagiarism.

There's nothing ethically wrong with copying an artist's work (merely an infringement of a commercial privilege). The wrong comes in falsehood, misattributing their work.

Re: Difference between copyright and plagiarism.

These time stamping services can be very dangerous imho. If someone manages to time stamp his copy before the creator... well you get the point. This is the reasos why they are not widely used / taken seriously. There is just too much abuse potential.

There are certain legal issues with peer-to-peer networks, which have cast a lot of shadow on these services. This is unfortunate, because exposure might just be the most legitimate use for p2p media networks. After all, many authors post their own content to the Internet for free. Peer-to-peer networks allow users to distribute content online easily and at no cost. Just because a large number of individuals have posted copyrighted documents as well as songs and movies does not automatically make the entire technology illegitimate.


Schmerz Imbein

This article makes no sense.

This article really makes no sense. You cite no actual errors or misleading statements. Rebutting the whole article would take an article as large, but I'll stick to the biggest point.

You claim this constitutes "confusing" copying with plagiarism. This is simply a false claim. The statement says:

"And few would be content to see their own work—a paper, for instance, or a journal article, or a term project in a course—taken by someone else and used without permission.

Yet, in reality, that is what you do when you download copyrighted files illegally."

If there's some other statement that you think constitutes this "confusion", I can't imagine what it could be. And there is no confusion here. It clearly and accurately states that copying is like plagiarism in that they both constitute taking another person's work and using it without permission.

There is neither a statement nor an implication that they are identical. Obviously they have other differences and Ms. McMillan never claims otherwise.

There are many other similar misrepresentations and distortions of what Ms. McMillan claimed, and this article is largely concerned with rebutting its own distortions.

I have a better idea -- criticize what Ms. McMillan actually wrote rather than what you think she's trying to imply in some secret code only you can see.

Re: This article makes no sense.

Well, did you actually read the quotes from Ms. McMillan? Here's one again; search for the words "proper recognition" and "attribution":

... This latter mission involves the production of original scholarship and research. Accordingly it is accompanied by an enormous respect for proper recognition being given to the creator of those ideas and knowledge. In higher education, it is considered a grave act to take another's work without permission or attribution. ...

Do you see it now?

McMillan is clearly linking unauthorized copying with plagiarism. If not, why else would she mention recognition and attribution here? They would otherwise be complete non sequiturs; there's no reason for her to talk about them at all unless she thinks they're related to illegal downloading, which is ostensibly what her piece is about.

McMillan is using an activity that everyone agrees is bad (plagiarism, that is, the theft of credit), and trying to tarnish illegal downloading with the same brush, even though illegal downloading in no way involves plagiarism. Why else should she mention attribution in a piece whose purpose is to argue against an activity (filesharing) that doesn't interfere with proper attribution at all?

Answer: because her arguments against illegal downloading would be much weaker if she stuck to the actual issues. So she drags in (perhaps unconsciously) an unrelated issue. She might as well have said "People who download illegally often use illegal drugs too, so don't fileshare, because drugs are bad."

This is not only their problem

Many institutions or universities thought like that when this concept was introduced.Also every new concept is subjected to such doubts and criticisms. Many people today also believe that internet is just for chatting and one cannot earn from internet or that internet money is illegal.The point of saying all this is that these things do happen and people or institutions release that they have made a mistake a while later only when the whole world accepts it and the same will happen or would have happened by now in this case.

Situation in Germany

Hi, i was interested reading this article and liked to give some feedback about the situation here in germany. File sharing (of illegal content) is prohibited in germany. Our university's monitor as far as i know file-sharing or illegal activities of the students. It is not possible that any student logs anonymous in the Internet via university networks. In germany, we have still (how long?) just a view open hotspots or "internet-cafes" where you can use the web anonymous. regards..

Re: New York University Confuses Filesharing with Plagiarism

I believe the problem is people in general prefers the lazy way to thinking; although giving CREDIT is much different than illegally distributing something, it may be because CREDIT = money in some people's eyes, by not PAYING for the sharing, you are stealing.  People want to draw parallels to the real world (ie shoplifting) so it would be easier to associate it as an evil act.

Except it doesn't work because they AREN'T close parrallels, as you have pointed out.  I really think these people need an English Dictionary to get their terms and definitions correct before using words and concepts they don't know clearly enough...

Re: New York University Confuses Filesharing with Plagiarism

I think that if you publish something that you did not personally write you should always ask the author for permission. Then you should (commercial link deleted) and promote what you published. You should not just publish something and then wait for someone to tell you that that is their article, poste etc. I do not like it when people copy my work and don't ask or credit me. I don't think that anyone else does either.

Re: New York University Confuses Filesharing with Plagiarism

Not only should the authors be asked for permission, authors themselves should also always protect their digital content against illegal copying and/or filesharing. All digital content (not only hardware digital media like CD's etc etc but also digital formats like ebooks etc but even the software binaries like in executable files) can be protected against stealing of intellectual property by means of watermarking. A specialised form of watermarking that refers to the rightful owner of the software/hardware is also possible by fingerprinting. O well, the solutions are available but it seems hardly anybody uses them! 

Re: New York University Confuses Filesharing with Plagiarism

I don't have a strong opinion about this one way or the other but there's certainly plenty to think about here.  I disagree that copying is unlike shoplifting, though.  The author says that in copying "the original doesn't go missing."  Well, in shoplifting the original doesn't go missing, either.  A CD for sale in a music store is just a copy of a master, which is the original.  Seems to me the cases *are* parallel, particularly when you look at it in light of digital downloads, which will eventually supplant hard media.


Re: New York University Confuses Filesharing with Plagiarism

That's a completely different meaning of the term "original" -- it's thinking with words, instead of with meanings.

When we say that real shoplifting results in real loss, what we mean is that something went out of the store without being paid for -- a CD, a book, whatever.  That was inventory, and it is now one less CD they can sell.  The store has less stuff after the theft than it had before the theft.  In other words, the store paid to have content put onto a physical medium, and then someone stole the physical medium.  It's theft, pure and simple.

The fact that the content on these physical items is replicated from an original source known as a "master" is irrelevant to the theft that took place -- the theft was a theft of the physical object, not the content.

When you duplicate a CD, on the other hand, there is not less in the store than there was before.  No theft has taken place.

Re: New York University Confuses Filesharing with Plagiarism

Yes, this is an interesting subject indeed, all started out with napster basically. filesharing has its ups and downs. For example, famous musicians and guitarists won't have 500 million dollars income at the end of the year, only 200 million bucks :-) . Poor them...
So kids, take some beginner guitar lessons, and do your best to create CD which will be freely downloadable online.