Internet Issues and Ownership/Authorship

Busy, busy day today, folks, so if you want background on today’s post, go look at yesterday’s post.

The report that I’ve been talking about presents the complex issue of ownership and authorship thusly:

Offline, ownership and authorship are well-define concepts, protected by law and reinforced by cultural norms in corporations and schools…  For various reasons, online, ownership and authorship are less clear-cut.  Technology, and the ease with which it can be manipulated through copy-paste functions, permits easy access to copyrighted material.  Nearly anything can be easily obtained, for free or via purchase, on the Internet.  With this widespread availability of free content, software, and files mixed with pay-for-use versions, the navigation of what is freely available and what is not can be confusing.  This confusion may be accompanied by a naive belief, on the part of younger users, that if something is downloadable, then it’s everybody’s property for free.”

This situates the young person’s perspective on authorship quite nicely.  The report goes on to suggest that this is not necessarily all negative.  For example, they suggest that the outcome may “a new ethics of collaboration and sharing,” which has the potential to increase creativity and interaction in lovely ways.

The specific promises that the expanded understanding that teenagers bring to ownership and authorship include increasing opportunities for co-creation and participation in ‘knowledge communities,’ along with the free flow of information and new skills which can empower teenagers to become more engaged and successful.  The potential benefits for engaging in open-source creation is substantial, but can be difficult to explain or understand in a traditional framework for understanding authorship.  I am looking for a good reference that describes this process in some depth, and I’ll post it here when I get it.

As for the potential perils or problems associated with a reduction in ownership regulation, the report highlights these three issues: exploitation of teenagers by corporate entities, abuse of information and content (i.e., illegal file sharing and downloading), and an assumption that much creative or thoughtful work may be co-opted by themselves without ethical issue.

In essence, the potential benefits from collaborative work are very substantial, but the potential negative consequences of inappropriate use are also very substantial.  We are in a transition period between old and new understandings of ownership and authorship and what collaborative and communal work really looks like and how and when to credit it.  The current teenagers and young adults may bare the brunt of these societal growing pains, and so they are called upon to have deep conversations with both older and younger people about what creation means.  As adults we can begin to model these conversations for them by starting them ourselves.  This is fully appropriate dinner-time conversation!

The original Harvard report has small vignettes at the beginning of each section, highlighting a real life example of an ethical dilemma that is related to the section.  The one on privacy is very good, and brings the issue of privacy to light in a very lovely way.  Below is the vignette on privacy.  Putting aside all questions of the necessity of doing an assignment according to the teacher’s rubric, this story is well suited to starting a lively discussion on the issue of ownership and authorship with teenagers:

“Daniel is a high school senior who has a long-standing interest in social movements and is an occasional contributor to articles on Wikipedia.  For his American History course, he was asked to write a research paper about an American protest movement.  Daniel decides to write about the May 1, 2006 immigration rallies.  In his paper, he draws extensively from an entry about the rallies on Wikipedia to which he contributed a few months ago.  After reading Daniel’s paper, his teacher calls him into her office an accuses him of plagiarism, noting tha the had used verbatim lines from Wikipedia without giving proper credit.  Daniel replies that since he was a contributor to the Wikipedia article, his use did not constitute plagiarism.  Even so, he argues, the passages he used were mainly historical supporting facts; the core of the paper is his unique analysis of the rallies’ significance as a protest movement.  Above all, the ethics of Wikipedia, Daniel asserts, is to make knowledge available for widespread use.  He hardly expects to be cited by others for his contributions; authorship is irrelevant.”

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Interesting. Part of me wonders if he really believed that, or if he was saying something likely to get him out of trouble. It’s especially interesting hte modern remix culture, where there’s widespread use of copyrighted materials– sometimes in a way that’s fair use, and sometimes in a way that is blatantly not. Yet even if it IS legal, and it is creative, it may still have a smack of plagiarism to it.

  2. First, thanks for this series. It’s been very enlightening, and well worth more attention.

    But I’m afraid Daniel’s position in this case is very weak, even if he is correct. The problem with “crowd-sourced” sites like Wikipedia is that attribution is difficult, if not impossible to prove. Daniel can go back an demonstrate that a specific user posted specific text/changes at a specific time. But how does he prove that he is that user? As a student, the onus is on Daniel to prove that he did in fact originate the text over which he claims authorship. The teacher is right to be skeptical, otherwise every student that comes down the pike is going to plagiarize off the Web and claim original authorship.

    Daniel may be able to prove his point. If so, he should have armed himself with that evidence beforehand. The teacher is under no obligation to accept his word. Far from it, in fact! The responsibility lies with Daniel to prove his claim, and he should marshal that evidence BEFORE handing in the assignment, not cobble it together after the teacher finds the matching text.

  3. Even if he wrote it himself, he needs to cite it. And since Wikipedia isn’t supposed to be for original research anyway, he needs to cite where he got the information.

    These are big issues in library studies, too, by the way. If a library owns a book, it has the responsibility to keep that book from being copied in a way that violates copyright, AND it has the responsibility to preserve it so that the information will be accessible in the future. If the library only owns a share of a resource for a specified time period, then who is going to preserve it? The ground is shifting.

  4. […] started with an introduction, and I have so far delved into the topics of identity, privacy, and ownership/authorship.  I am boiling down the report to a quicker read for those who don’t want to read the whole […]

  5. what are the issues of ownership?

  6. Ben, the issue of ownership is similar to authorship – in most of history, if you author something, you own it unless you explicitly give it to someone else. On the Internet, that’s just not the case. Wikipedia is a great example – you don’t own what you write there because of the terms. However, for this blog for example, I overtly claim ownership (see the copywright at the bottom of the page?) because it is so easy to inappropriately use someone else’s writing when it’s online and I don’t want that to happen to the posts I author here. Well, I don’t want it to happen again!

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