Bantamweight Publishing in an Easily Plagiarised World

This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on July 15, 2009. I still (2014) think this – ownership and plagarism of micro-publishing – is a greatly underappreciated topic.

Even professional writers are prone to infrequent accidental plagiarism. But in the world of novels, newspapers, and college exams, there are rules about bootlegging others’ work that are well-established – most everyone agrees on what behaviors are unacceptable and what the consequences are. In bantamweight publishing, however, the rules are not so clear.

In order for the British Army to raise more units during the First World War, it created battalions of otherwise healthy men with lowered minimum height requirements. In this way, short, powerful miners and similarly swarthy individuals were able to contribute to the war effort. These soldiers were called bantams (a term now heard most commonly in boxing, bantamweight). Similarly, in a Web 2.0 environment, the short powerful bursts of searchable, findable, and sharable data emitted from personal electronic devices are a form of bantamweight publishing in which persons outside the regulated publishing industry can contribute to the information sharing effort.

Bantamweight publishing comes in many forms. Twitter is certainly in this category, but there are a steadily increasing number of ways to share small bits of information with the world. From updating your Facebook Wall to Yammering inside your enterprise to updating your LinkedIn status to commenting on people’s BrightKite locations, everyone is doing it. But in an easily plagiarized world, who owns your sentences once you publish them? It’s not really clear. And in a murky environment where someone might get a macropublishing book deal by popularizing someone else’s creative hashtag, bantamweight publishing runs the risk of serious future problems.

Oh, bantamweight publishing has its customs. Self-policing crowds ensure that most people who lift someone else’s excellent quote or funny picture or news link give credit to the originator using the “retweet” (RT) convention followed by a username. But there is little downside to cheating relative to being expelled from college or fired from your newspaper. As is well known in animal behavior circles, it can be temporarily advantageous for cheaters to infiltrate a system like this.

To be sure, quoting someone’s original haiku verbatim and making it appear as if it were your own is an infraction of bantamweight publishing customs. But what if someone tweets an Abraham Lincoln quotation – must the re-tweeter cite the originator? The custom seems less pressing in this case, mainly because of a lack of intent to deceive and arguable “fair use” of a well-known statement by a famous person. One can imagine altruistic plagiarism as well, where people repeat memes to raise money for charity, or virally make people aware of an immediate Amber alert. Further, who could fault someone for copying information about a charity onto their Facebook Wall without citing the originator? In the bantamweight publishing world, information sharing can easily supersede attribution. There are gradations of citations.

Bantamweight publishing is popular among those who feel brevity is a virtue. But when an entire work of art is bounded in 140 characters, even brevity has its limits. Sometimes, squeezing in a proper attribution through editing content can change the original meaning, when the edits unwillingly shift from cosmetic to substantive. And what happens when you run out of space when attempting to retweet someone who retweeted someone who tweeted an important quotation from the Washington Post? To a large degree, a work of bantamweight publishing is like a painting with an upper weight limit, where the novelty is the canvas and the attribution is the frame; most viewers would choose to appreciate the canvas without the frame if given the hard choice.

Another major difference between regular publishing and bantamweight publishing is the lack of research and editing standards. Sometimes people attribute flawed information properly. It is obvious that excellent curators of information like NYU professor Jay Rosen and publisher Tim O’Reilly are exceptions to the rule, based simply on the phenomena of Rick Rolling, #moonfruit, and celebrity death hoaxes. To many, bantamweight publishing is not an micro-investigatory piece to be researched, sourced, edited, and spread, but rather a form of enhanced social chatter and gossip spreading. And according to the rules of gossip, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from; gossip is fun.

Few would argue that the British bantam units were a bad idea, and likewise bantamweight publishing has many virtues. But there are also pitfalls to this in an easily plagiarized world, particularly when money comes into play. Who’s looking out for the intellectual property of a winning hashtag that becomes a book, or a stream of haikus that becomes a blog that companies advertise on? At some point, bantamweight publishing will no longer be a lawless frontier territory; what will it look like next?

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This post was written by:

Mark Drapeau - who has written 225 posts on Dr. Mark D. Drapeau.


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