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A Copyrighted Manifesto

platano's picture

Growing up, we have been conditioned to think that plagiarism is wrong, and we have seen the serious consequences that have resulted against people when they have attempted to use another’s work without citing it. Schools threaten their students with expulsion, and larger institutions threaten the public with legal action. Because of these circumstances, David Shield’s proposal, in his book “Reality Hunger”, of doing away with citations is almost absurd. Some people do not even bother to process his argument because it just seems impractical. It seems to them as if he isn’t saying anything new; that he’s just compiling quotes from other people. However, by doing this, they are starting to consider the question that Shields is posing to the general public: Should the genre of non-fiction still being restricted by copyright laws?

Shield’s main point has everything to do with those quotes that make up his book. He believes that we all share common knowledge, and that we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to it because of copyrighting. In order to agree or disagree with him, we have to consider when it is okay to not cite a source. A way to get away with not citing a source is by rephrasing something that has already been said, and presenting in an a new way. Therefore, people who believe that he isn’t presenting the information in a new way believe that he must cite his sources.

He, on the other hand, believes that “Art is theft,” which apparently is a quote from Picasso. He is making the claim that the genre of non-fiction is art: something constructed from other ideas, and beliefs that you didn’t originally think of yourself. It’s interesting that he should frame such a proposal as a 'hunger for reality'; arguing that if we stop policing what we say, we can actually arrive at new truths, new possibilities. But did he really come to any a new truth, by not only using, but also copying word-for-word, other people’s quotes?

Other people have already had conversations about copyrighting before him, so his stance on it isn’t even new. He also claims to have appropriated the quotes by changing their context. He didn’t really alter the quote itself; he simply left them fragmented on a page of other quotes. The only thing that holds them together is his intention of making a greater claim on copyright laws. This doesn’t seem to sit well with a lot of people, regardless of how skillfully crafted his book was.

He could have made a more compelling argument by writing a novel in which he actually related the quotes to something ‘real’: a person’s life story for example (Cassie, 2010). He isn’t showing the incoherence of how life truly is; he is instead demonstrating how constructed novels are. The closest that novels can come to real life is by trying to examine reality as the author may or may not have experienced it. A way that an author can examine their life is by comparing it to things that have been said or done.

Other people, such as Colbert from “The Colbert Report,” have brought up the idea that Shield’s, who believes himself free of “19th century conventions,“ should have published his book online. On the Internet, people can get away with all types of theft: they can talk about quotes without citing sources as well as download and sample music from other artists. The reason for copyrighting books is that when one person steals another's work, they are affecting the author’s livelihood. But can the same case be made for the Internet? People usually don’t make money for using someone else's source without citing them or for listening to a downloaded song, but they would if they published a book using another person’s work. So do the same rules apply?

The thing is, even if I heard a good case as to why we should all stop downloading music, it’s so hard to regulate copyright laws online. There are billions of users, billions of pages, and there is so much information and media so easily accessible. Should something still be considered a crime if a good portion of the population does it? Lil’ Wayne, who has been entirely all too popular for the last couple of years, is probably an artist who people download songs from the most in the rap industry. He is always coming out with songs, and some of them wouldn’t be accessible to you unless you downloaded them. However, he remains one of the most successful people in the industry. In fact, it seems highly probable that the more songs an artist has ‘stolen’ from them, the more successful they actually are. With the exception of music, there are formal places online where citations are and should be used (i.e.: newspaper and scholarly articles) because they need to gain credibility from their wanted audience.

I don’t believe that we should do away with the copyrighting of books and academic sources. In class, we have been talking about how much language is limited, and some people feel that everything that could be said has already been said. If we want to create new ideas, then we should stop simply reciting those old ideas, and push ourselves to expand, and further the thinking that has already been established. While knowledge should belong to everyone, most people would end up learning to steal another’s work rather than coming to the conclusion themselves. Shields is being a bit ambitious, in his hopes to get rid of copyrighting.

1) Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
2) "David Shields." Colbert Nation. Web. April 14, 2010. <URL:>.
3) Cassie, 2010.


Anne Dalke's picture

"Nothing to smile about"

yours is one of several essays, this time 'round, to be talking about questions of copyright; be sure to out ckosarek's historical survey of Copyright Law and Fair Use: Who's Stealing? for some background on these questions, as well as Smacholdt's meditation on Music, the Creative Process, and Copyright, for another angle on the issues you are discussing here.

You might look, too, @ another essay on Serendip, Questions of plagiarism, intellectual property, and creative story construction, which argues that more important than avoiding "theft" is respecting your own abilities: that is, the problem w/ plagiarism is not that you are stealing others' ideas, but rather that you are not developing your own...this seems very much in accord w/ your argument, yes?

You begin by asking whether "the genre of non-fiction should still be restricted by copyright laws?" I find myself wondering why you pull out that genre as distinctive from others (see my images of art theft, above...). And Shields' arguments, you say several times, are objected to by "we," by "some people," by "a lot of people." I'd like to know just who these folks are: quote from them, cite them, give them names and speaking positions. Otherwise, it seems as if you are just assembling a crowd of clouds, or....?

There are a coupla' other spots where I'd like to understand a little better what you are saying. For instance, when you say that Shields "isn’t showing the incoherence of how life truly is; he is instead demonstrating how constructed novels are," I'm wondering whether one claim doesn't prove the other. Or when you say that his "stance isn't even new," I'm thinking that yes, that's precisely his main point: that nothing is new; everything we say is re-cycled. So how can you really call him on those grounds?!

You also say that "the reason for copyrighting books is that when one person steals another's work, they are affecting the author’s livelihood." What Lewis Hyde explains in his book, Common as Air, is that that "copyright can be described as a grant whose true purpose is not so much to reward creators as to enrich the cultural commons."

But three of your most interesting observations, to me, are pragmatic ones: it is "so hard to regulate copyright laws online"; "on the Internet, people can get away with all types of theft." So "should something still be considered a crime if a good portion of the population does it?"  As Lewis Hyde says in Common as Air, his work is "not alone in conceiving of culture as a commons, especially since the digital Internet has made so many things light, swift, and global" (p. 14). Hyde actually provides a catalog of both cultural commons and their breeding grounds; his list includes Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia, Knowledge Conservancy, Internet Archive, Public Library of Science, Creative Commons, Science Commons, Neurocommons....

Finally, given your insistence of the need to police intellectual property, I'm a little puzzled by the reference form you use--let's talk about that. I'm particularly puzzled by the reference to "Cassie, 2010": who-and-what is that?