We tell our students “don’t plagiarize,” “cite your sources,” “attribute.” Often it is easier just to scare them. “You will fail the assignment” or “You will fail the class.” If we are feeling particularly threatening, we include the college or university honesty code and imply that they could be kicked out of school for plagiarism. I’ve never known a disciplinary committee to actually follow through with the policy, but we are supposed to report incidents, anyway.

If we have the time in a semester, then we get to the underlying reasons for proper attribution. Crediting other people’s academic work. Listing your sources so your readers can find out more. Building the network of research on which the academy is founded.

But part of the reason that we as academics cite our sources is the morality of it. We give credit, not because of legalities, nor threats, nor the larger picture, but because it is the right thing to do. Perhaps our students don’t feel that deeper moral imperative to credit sources, but it gets more difficult when highly visible media personalities see no problem with plagiarizing.

When a high-profile cable news reporter or a famous academic gets caught plagiarizing, they insist that it was a mistake and not plagiarism, are forgiven, and generally see no negative effects.

Recently, however, questions of copyright and plagiarism came into conflict in a more popular culture arena. The major players in this recent example are Glee–FOX’s television show about a high school glee club–and Jonathan Coulton–a singer-songwriter and geek-culture icon.

The entire premise of Glee is that a high school choir performs new arrangements of musical theatre and popular music–often drastically rearranged in order to fit the four-part harmonies of teenage show choirs.

However, in this case, the “new” arrangement was (allegedly) lifted directly from Jonathan Coulton’s own drastic rearrangement. When Coulton covered Sir Mix-a-Lot’s pop/hip-hop “Baby Got Back” in 2005, Coulton explained that “in the proud tradition of many white Americans who came before me I hereby steal and white-ify this thick and juicy piece of black culture.”

Another White American (not Jonathan Coulton) who whitified black culture

Another White American (not Jonathan Coulton) who whitified black culture

Of course, given Coulton’s self-conscious and irony-dripping view of the history of jazz, rock and roll, disco, hip-hop, etc., he did not actually “steal” Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song, but paid for a license to cover and record the song. In his version, Coulton wrote an entirely new tune using traditional bluegrass instrumentation. In effect, Coulton’s song is using Sir Mix-a-Lot’s lyrics and phrasing, but the music is Coulton’s. Nonetheless, Coulton still paid for the rights to record Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song.

Enter FOX and Glee.

They used a cover of “Baby Got Back” that sounds exactly like Coulton’s. Even to the extent that a character named Adam sings the lyric referring to himself as “Jonny C.”

Paul Lemere at the music tech blog, Music Machinery, even wrote a script to alternate between the “two” versions of the cover. The resulting remix sounds like it has an unbroken backing track. Which might imply that the instrumentation actually is Coulton’s performance.

Coulton was never contacted by FOX or Glee about using his version of “Baby Got Back.” After Coulton’s legions of tech-savvy fans stirred up Twitter over the lack of attribution, FOX officially responded. According to Coulton, FOX told him: “they’re within their legal rights to do this, and that I should be happy for the exposure (even though they do not credit me, and have not even publicly acknowledged that it’s my version – so you know, it’s kind of SECRET exposure).”

Shhhh! SECRET exposure!

Shhhh! SECRET exposure! [photo by left-hand]

 Even that bastion of free marketplace commercialism, Forbes, reported on the Coulton-Glee debacle. Forbes blogger Michele Catalano writes, “Coulton may not have any legal recourse here, but there is an ethical question at issue that FOX must answer.” It is an ethical question that Glee has avoided before.

While Coulton is still supposedly investigating his legal options, he did find some ethical restitution. Coulton released a “cover” of Glee‘s cover of his version of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” He called the song, “Baby Got Back (in the style of Glee)”, which was just renaming his original version. People who bought this file were buying the exact same file that he released in 2005, just renamed. This “cover” was then sold on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon, with proceeds going to Save the Music and It Gets Better, two charities that deal with social issues raised on Glee.

The month after airing a short segment on the Coulton-Glee kerfuffle, NPR’s On the Media dedicated an entire show to the problem of contemporary plagiarism. Included in this episode is an interview with Kenneth Goldsmith, who teaches a class at Princeton and requires his students to download a paper from a paper-mill and defend it in class. Drawing on the ready-mades of Duchamp and remix culture, Goldsmith argues that creativity is not in the originality of text. In a roundabout way, Goldsmith is emphasizing process over content.

A Duchamp ready-made. Where attribution is headed?

A Duchamp ready-made. Where attribution is headed?

Which brings me back to our students. How do we instill the ethics of citation and attribution, when the real world doesn’t seem to care about such paltry details? When even our own Academic Integrity policies in practice are not enforced? Besides, punishment of plagiarism doesn’t get to the root cause. I’ve tried to create “plagiarism-proof” assignments. Write from a character’s perspective. Analyze a specific school performance of a play, rather than the script. Keep logs of your own rehearsals. And yet, somehow, students find ways to copy without attribution.

I don’t want to give up, but I find myself less and less likely to bring these issues to the department, knowing that they will not do anything. Instead, I end up asking students to rewrite assignments (which only teaches them to copy ideas rather than easily searchable words) or giving the assignment an F (which doesn’t really teach anything, since it is usually end of the semester assignments where I catch this).

Are we approaching a post-plagiarism society?

Paper-writing Machine of the Future? [Photo by Plus903]

Paper-writing Machine of the Future? [Photo by Plus903]


  1. […] excellent post articulated the anxiety produced by the the mixed signals we all receive about originality and […]

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