A cut-and-paste kleptocracy

We have created technology that is encouraging a culture of intellectual kleptocracy and all anyone wants to talk about is rights. The cut-and-paste functionality of our computers allows anyone to steal anything from anyone on the World Wide Web and claim it as their own. And all idealistic commentators like the Guardian's Victor Keegan or the FT's Cody Willard wants to do is remind us of that free downloads are worth their weight in gold or that DRM goes against the democratic tenets of the Internet.

This rather bleak thought occured to me while reading the transcripts of the All Things Digital conference in this morning's Wall Street Journal (premium archive only). Missing from all the debates was any qualitative discussion of the broader cultural benefits of the Web 2.0 revolution. This was particularly salient in the debate between Richard Sarnoff, President of New Media at Random House, and Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, over Google's plans to turn the Web into a cornucopian library of digital texts.

No prizes for guessing who is in favor and who is against this new library of Alexandria. Sarnoff understandably wants to protect his books and his authors and, of course, his bottom line from Google's brave new informational world. The messianic Lessig, of course, wants to foster the digital book, with its fuzzy promise of a golden age of intellectual communism. But neither Sarnoff nor Lessig discussed the impact that these digital books, free or not, will have on young people's sense of intellectual ownership.

Fortunately, some educators are addressing this critical issue. Today's Guardian Unlimited reports on a conference about plagiarism being held today in the English town of Gateshead. We are told that Professor Sally Brown, the pro-vice-chancellor for assessment, learning and teaching at Leeds Metropolitan University will tell the conference:

"That many students do not necessarily see anything wrong with copying other people's work. Students, according to Prof Brown, say things such as, "If they are stupid enough to give us three assignments with the same deadline, what can they expect?" and "I just couldn't say it better myself."

She confirms what many academic friends of mine in the US have told me. University students are stealing more and more information from the World Wide Web. Google is a plagariast's dream. It is creating a generation of intellectual kleptomaniacs who regard the cut-and-paste technology of the World Wide Web as a license to plunder other people's work and call it their own.

Sally Brown calls these students:

"Postmodern, eclectic, Google-generationists, Wikipediasts, who don't necessarily recognise the concepts of authorships/ownerships".

Larry Lessig and his band of merry pranksters on the Creative Commons would no doubt embrace these Google-generationists as conforming to a radical new culture of sharing. But for the rest of us, living in the real world of Lockean property rights, this incipient intellectual kleptocracy is of deep concern. If students steal their words and ideas from others, then what are they really learning? If plagariasm is being legitimized by the Google-generation, then how will this impact on their broader ethical sense about the ownership of things and ideas?