The History of an Idea
Humor Makes for Strange Vatfellows
Offered as proof of the effects of living in the information age, the following is a story about how an idea goes from a person's head to the printed page, from the printed page to the printed journal, from that printed journal to the humor pages on the World Wide Web, from those humor pages to the pages of a major cyberzine, from the pages of a major cyberzine to pages of a major mainstream magazine which is itself about to launch a virtual magazine on the World Wide Web...
A certain, relatively young philosophy professor receives a call from a graduate school buddy who tells him that an article the professor wrote years ago has appeared in the May 1996 issue of Harper's Magazine without a signature. The young professor decides to try to track the strange trek of the piece of writing through real and cyberspace...
A tired philosophy graduate student at Syracuse University has read
one too many articles on Ethics for Jonathan Bennett's "Morality and
Consequences" seminar. The actual straw that breaks the camel's back
is an article by Judith Jarvis Thomson which, building on Phillipa Foot's
article, introduces a version of the Trolley Problem. In the essay, Professor
Thomson invites the reader to make moral judgments based on an ever-increasingly
complicated series of examples. The young graduate student sets out to
write the mother of all ethics examples, a decision involving so many competing
and complicating options that no ethical theory could ever tell one what
to do. Over the next few days, several graduate students read and added
complications to the example (most notably, Professor Rudy Garns, now of
Northern Kentucky University; Professor Alastair Norcross, now of Southern
Methodist University; and Professor Mark O. Webb, now of Texas Tech University)
which, when finished, was accidentally left in a seminar room. Jonathan
Bennett finds the article and shows it to several colleagues, who find
it wildly amusing. Professor Bennett urges the young graduate student to
send the article to a Philosophy Journal.
The young graduate student receives word that the example will be published in the January edition of the Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association as Tissues in the Profession. The graduate student is thrilled that the scope of his audience is now as wide as it could be: all members of the APA receive the journal, and so it is possible that most philosophers would see the article.
The example is published, and the young, published graduate student
begins to receive call and letters from philosophers from around the country,
most notably Ruth Barcan Marcus of Yale. Some philosophers congratulate
the young author, others ask to use the example in their classes, while
still others were not sure whether the article was meant as satire or as
serious moral philosophy.
January 1988--October 1995
The once again tired philosopher, now an itinerant professor who has
had a series of one year jobs across the land, has recently landed a more
permanent position at Felician College in Lodi, NJ. From time to time,
as he has wandered from Syracuse to Tulsa to Hawaii seeking employment,
he has come across people who had the article displayed on their doors.
He has also shown the article to some more and less appreciative philosophers.
One day in October of 1995, a professor in the Chemistry Department at
Felician College gives the young, no-longer-itinerant professor a Final
Exam parody, labelled "Final Exam, STS 110, Prof. R. McGinn,"
thinking he will find it amusing. The young professor finds it nearly as
funny as when he wrote it, seven years before. It turns out that the example
was given to the chemist by a friend associated with the Spanish Department
at NYU. The young professor marvels at the fact that his essay has gone
from complete obscurity to relative obscurity, surmising that it probably
was transmitted over the Internet. He tries a few times to track the article
down on the World Wide Web, but is unsuccessful.
During the same time period, unbeknownst to our hero, Dr. Robert McGinn, acting chair of the Program of Science, Technology and Society and Professor at Stanford University sees the article and begins to use it as an ice-breaker before his final exam in STS 110, Ethics and Public Policy. He distributes the example as though it were the final exam for the course, then after all present get the joke, he cites the article and gets on to the business of testing his class.
The young professor receives a call from a graduate school buddy, in fact, one Mark Webb, a collaborator on the original article, who announces that the original example has appeared in the May 1996 issue of Harper's Magazine without a signature.
The young professor, ecstatic that his esoteric little humor piece has received wider readership than any bit of philosophy since Aristotle's time, renews his quest to track the strange trek of the piece of writing through real and cyberspace. He discovers that the article has been cited by Harper's as having been anonymously lifted off the WWW by bOING bOING Magazine, the leading cyberzine.
in a Vat, bOING bOING, Number 13, page 15. The newly (conventionally)
republished author resumes his search for the online source of the article.
He tracks down two web pages with the article and queries the authors of
the pages about their sources for the piece. One of the fellows, David
Myers, a graduate student in Oceanography at the University of Washington,
explains that the piece was emailed to him by a friend who had it emailed
to him by a person who received it in a class. Further investigation revealed
that the class which was the source of the article was indeed the class
of Professor Robert McGinn, a professor of Ethics and Technology at Stanford
University. Professor McGinn saw the article in the Proceedings and
Addresses of the American Philosophical Association under the title
Tissues in the Profession.
While the now-nearly-middle-aged professor, who is preparing to move yet again to a tenure-track (read: never have to move again) job at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, finds all of this very amusing, the entire episode raises some questions which are just now being addressed by the legal and moral experts. It is beyond doubt that Harper's published an article which was already copyrighted. However, it is also beyond doubt that they did so blamelessly, at least in the opinion of the author. Whether what they did is currently a violation of the law is a boring question--whether it should be a violation of the law is what concerns me. With the advent of the access all now have to the Internet if they want (and can afford it), the idea of intellectual property may have come to a pragmatically-driven end. There is no way Harper's or bOING bOING could have checked on the publication status of the article: a search that would turn up the Addresses and Proceedings of the APA would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming. While I do think the person who posted the piece anonymously on the Web did something mildly wrong, I do not want people to stop using my piece in the fashion of Professor McGinn for fear some other wrong act may occur--I wrote the piece to make people laugh and it should continue to do so. Also, there is no way blame reverts to people like Professor McGinn for the subsequent actions of those who do not listen in his class. It is not my mother's fault, for example, that I slouch when I sit. It is my fault for not listening to her when she told me not to do so.
However, once a blackguard has done the deed, and the article is on the Web without the author's name, the jig is up. Anyone could type or scan absolutely any piece of mostly unknown original work anonymously onto the Web and no one would be the wiser. Anyone who found this material which was explicitly listed as anonymous would be justified in believing it was fair to reproduce the piece as found. In fact, a person could claim the authorship of a widely unknown piece and achieve some notoriety as an author without too much fear of being caught.
There seem to me to be two major options: require people and organizations
to meet impossible standards of care; or to consider abandoning the idea
of intellectual property as it currently stands. I favor the latter option,
but this is a topic to be taken up in a philosophical journal, so look
for it to turn up in the pages of Harper's soon, without my name on it.
Other sites that have published this article (with or without my name attached!)
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