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Intellectual Property Rights?

Media interest has surrounded Kathryn Sutherland in recent weeks. The Observer and The Telegraph both reported claims that a new book by award-winning biographer Claire Harman has taken, without acknowledgement some of her own radical ideas about the novelist, pulled together over 10 years of research and published by her in 2005.

This week, Kathryn Sutherland writes exclusively for The Badger Online about voices, identity theft and plagiarism…

`Hearing . holds the frontier, so to speak, at the point where seeing fails’ (Paul Valery)

Valery’s words (collected along with other thoughts in 1935 in Analecta; literally: `things picked up’) may be growing harder for us to hear and understand as we move rapidly into a world in thrall to the power of the visual. But they imply something we may be reluctant to abandon once we recognize it. Put another way, when we throw the emphasis of understanding on hearing rather than seeing we allow the possibility of something shared. We look at the world from our own point of view; we hear it from that of others. In eighteenth-century aesthetics, hearing was associated with the social passions of sympathy as opposed to the more individual range of the visual. The distinction was between the holistic knowledge of the eye and the partial truths of the ear, the truths found in speech, listening, and conversation. In Jane Austen’s novels, time and again, the imagination’s ear rather than the eye proves the better guide. By contrast, seeing is liable to illusion. Seeing promises to link us directly with a world of objects – with real solid things – but those solid things can and do refuse to connect; they especially refuse to endorse the single point of view. Time and again, conversation talks down the confident insights of the individual eye. Through conversation, Austen’s heroines reach self and social understanding – their faulty, egotistical vision is corrected.

Anyone who writes, whether from inner necessity or habit or as a way of earning a living, believes their voice is bound up in what they write. We recognize this in the case of great writers – the imprint of a voice on the page. At the heart of Justine Picardie’s recent novel Daphne is the seedy real-life figure of Alex Symington, improperly appropriating and altering Emily Bronte manuscripts, passing them off as her brother Branwell’s.
(http://justine-picardie.blogspot.com/) But do we care when the labour of less glamorous writers is taken over unacknowledged? Is the principle that our writing is ours any less true?

It is clear that something momentous is happening as we shift from print to digital communication: concepts of copyright are loosening; intellectual property rights are under threat – not least because the Internet loosens the bond between author/creator and product built up slowly over the last few centuries of print. We are becoming less sure of the rights of anyone to be identified with their own work. We are what we read but we are also how we read. Where print technology promotes a concept of reflective reading, digital tools encourage searching, linking, cutting-and-pasting. Literary texts bear a cultural burden; they are more than just information sites to be plundered. Good reading means reading thoughtfully and in the round – hearing all the voices. The current dispute between Louis Vuitton and Google offers an interesting twist on the issue. The charge is that an authentic and highly respected brand name is being used to disseminate more effectively those very fakes that steal its identity.

Over recent decades, academics have become ever more marginal figures in the larger cultural conversation; part of the reason for this lies at our own door. Often we appear wilfully to seek out a difficult style, to turn away from the conversations we might have with a wider audience. Sometimes we need more commercially attuned writers to help our ideas circulate and grow. But those who spread ideas must be scrupulous in acknowledging the routes they travel. Without that basic courtesy and decency they deny others their voice. At worst, they impersonate them, stifling the possibility of shared conversations between different groups of writers and readers, between communities. We rarely think of the right to freedom of speech in such terms, and properly so, because far worse crimes are perpetrated against that right. But if in a society that enjoys free speech we simply stand by as our voices are suppressed or our ideas travestied, then we deserve our humiliation.

The academy, above all, depends on the scrupulous acknowledgement of others’ voices – this is both a basic courtesy and our lifeblood. Without it, we lose our place in the dissemination of ideas and a vital part of our usefulness to society. Of course, being academic, we are schizophrenic about this issue: at the moment British universities are buying wholesale into a belief in bibliometric citation indices as the measure of intellectual worth and a way of apportioning government funding. Well, if people feel free to take your stuff – your research, your ideas – without reference or acknowledgement, how exactly will that work? Oh, and while we have no robust plans to enforce proper usage in public circulation we are also coming down like a ton of bricks on students we suspect of plagiarism.

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