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Friday Philosophy – Content, Copying, Copyright &Theft February 12, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Blogging, Friday Philosophy, writing.
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There have been a couple of things this week that have made me think about the stuff that some of us write and what other people do with it.

I’m writing a book with 4 other people at the moment (the 4 being Arup Nanda, Brendan Tierney, Alex Nuijten and Heli Helskyaho, all experienced book publishers already – I’m the new kid) which is on SQL & PLSQL. It has been a very interesting experience. I knew writing a technical book was hard work, took a lot of time and that, frankly, the direct financial return on the effort is very, very poor. I know a few authors of Oracle books and I’d talked to them about it all, so I was aware. However, it turns out I did not really know how hard it was, I still did not understand how demanding of time and effort it was! But I had written technical blogs and a couple of articles before I started the book and I had developed the strong opinion that you do not take other people’s work, and you certainly do not take it without citing the original author – because you are actually stealing a lot of someone else’s time and effort.

Probable  front image of "the book"

Probable front image of “the book”

As a result, at the very start of writing my chapters I was determined that my content was going to be My Content. Me, my experience, the official documentation , my test databases – and a word document to receive the end product from those ingredients. I was not going to read what others had written recently on or around the topics I was covering as I did not want to be even subconsciously borrowing from other’s efforts {I say recently as I cannot unread what I had already read!}. I certainly did not want to be accused of doing so. If I was going to object to people stealing my content, I’d be hypocritical to actually commit the crime.

How very noble of me. How very silly of me.

A couple of months in I was talking to someone about the first chapter I was doing and how I was struggling to decide how to structure what I wanted to say. I knew the facts and features I wanted to cover but was unsure of how to make it flow so that it would make sense to the reader and build up their knowledge in steps. They asked me how other people had handled it and I gave them the little opinion piece I’ve just given you. And they laughed at me.
Was I including new stuff? Yes. Was I using my own experience? Yes. Was I going to cut lines, paragraphs, even pages out of other sources and put it in mine? No! Of course not! Well then why was I purposefully making life hard for myself?
Then they asked me the killer bit – Did I know every last thing about the topic? Hmm, no, probably not, but then no one knows every last thing and certainly has not used every little aspect of an oracle feature for real. So I was only going to put into my chapters parts of the topic? Well, I guess so. And that is what someone trying to learn about the feature wants? An expert opinion full of holes? That bit stumped me.

I was kind of writing my chapters to show how much I know. I was certainly limiting it to what I knew well. But the reader does not give a fig about how much I personally know, they are not hiring me to do a job. They are reading about a technical topic so that they can do their job. So I should be making sure I know as much as I can about the topic in order to describe it and I should describe all of it that I think could be useful to others, even if so far it has not been of use to me and the specifics of the problems I was solving. And how do I learn about technical stuff? I read the documentation… and blogs… and books… and play with it.

It also got me thinking about what I will feel like if people use my chapters in a couple of years to help them write about a topic (be it in a book, a blog or an article). If they simply copy my stuff, steal my words, I’ll be angry. If they copy it but just change a few bits to hide the fact I’ll be furious. But if they are writing this as they initially learned from me and then added their own experience and knowledge, I’ll be chuffed to bits – because I taught them. And now they would be teaching others.

So I started reading my modern books on the topics around what I was writing and looking at blog posts and articles more. I know I am doing a better job for the audience since I started doing that. However, the list of people I will need to thank in my bit of the acknowledgements is going up & up and I suspect that for years I’ll be meeting people at conferences & meetings and going “here’s a pint for the help you gave me! And, no, you did not know you had!”. {One thing that did worry the pants off me is that when I read around, it turns out that in my first chapter I uses an example very extensively that turns out to be the exact same example at least two other people have used – it’s convergent evolution, honest! But I’m sure someone at some point is going to point a finger… Oh well, the deadlines are too tight for me to change it now. I don’t even have time to write this blog really…}

There was a specific incident this week that made me think again about copying. I noticed (as I was checking out a relatively unused aspect of a PL/SQL tool and what I did not know about it – but others might benefit from knowing) that the same information was in two places. Exactly the same, word for word. Someone had stolen content from Tim Hall’s excellent Oraclebase site. And it was not just one article, it was dozens, with no citation of the original author anywhere and a copyright sign on the pages of stolen content. You can read about Tim’s ire in this blog post he wrote. He got more annoyed than I think he normally does as this guy had stolen stuff before and Tim was suffering from a cold. He got about as annoyed as I would get in that situation, in fact.

I also noticed as I investigated my currently-obscure aspect of PL/SQL that most of the content on the topic elsewhere was mostly chunks just taken from the oracle official documentation with a few lines wrapped around each chunk. Was that stealing content? I’m still not sure about that, but I think that if there is more borrowed content than original content, it’s at best Poor Effort and probably is Theft. If they do not even write their own demo code for the feature but take Oracle’s – it’s theft. Bad people.

I did nearly comment on Twitter that I never got my stuff stolen, as my stuff is mostly just opinion pieces like this and of no technical worth! But the very next day – Yep, you guessed it, someone stole one of my blog posts. There was a single link back to my original post at the very end but it was not a citation, it just said “reference Link Martin Widlake’s”. In fact, initially I think it just said “Reference Link”. He also has a copyright sign on his web pages. I currently don’t, maybe I should add one so that I can simply say “copyright, take it off else i’ll issue a Take Down request to your service provider”.

I’ve emailed him to say I’m not happy to have a word-for-word copy stolen and presented as his and I am certainly not happy that the pieces is appearing on the front of his web site advertising his services! It seems he is just one guy trying to make a living in rural Northern Pakistan. Should I be concerned about the theft of my article and ask him to remove it? If it is helping him make a living thousands of miles away and he has at least added a small citation at the end? Yes, because it is still theft. And if I do not highlight to him how much this annoys people, he will probably steal other stuff. If you don’t challenge bad behaviour you condone it.

And besides, if he does steal more stuff this will certainly include Tim’s material as his site is often on the first search-engine page on any Oracle Topic. And when he pinches Tim’s stuff, Tim’s gonna be angry…

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Comments»

1. geraldacostadba - February 12, 2016

I know the feeling. I’m early into by blog and am extremely cautious to use my own content based on personal experiences. Thanks for keeping it original and putting more light on this subject.

Gerald

mwidlake - February 12, 2016

I checked out you blog – nice work, keep at it!

And yes, sometimes you do get people putting Oracle Support stuff out there (in reference to your second comment) and it is naughty. It’s a bit like stealing a bit of eveyone else’s licence fee. I wonder if Oracle ever send their lawyers after people who do that regularly. Oracle Lawyers can bite really quite hard!

2. geraldacostadba - February 12, 2016

I also wanted to say that I’ve seen full Oracle support articles posted on other peoples site. Even with no credit given I thought Oracle docs are only for folks paying for support!

Gerald

3. Martin Preiss - February 12, 2016

Martin,
a thousand years ago I wrote a book on some stories of a german expressionist writer – and in large parts my book consisted of quotations from other people’s papers. I still think that’s how science works (at least for the liberal arts). If we should see there something new it’s because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

By the way: I almost understand why someone could have the idea of copying something from the Oracle documentation – but only because Oracle is not very good in maintaining web links… (and to make it explicit for the Oracle Lawyers reading here: that was a joke)

Regards
Martin

mwidlake - February 12, 2016

You make a good couple of points there Martin.
Yes, I share you opinion that in science (of all branches), we are building a huge castle with very small bricks. Most scientists add a few pieces on top of the hundreds of thousands below, the occasional genius or blessed stumbler might lay the foundations for a new turret and, sometimes, a whole wall gets knocked down and something new started.
It is similar with knowledge of technical subjects. 99% of what I know I read or was taught. Of that 1% I worked out myself, it was probably already written down somewhere 🙂

Oracle documentation also suffers from being dull, dry and sometimes poorly written. There is something to be said for taking the official material and just adding some character to it – any character!
And yes, blasted broken links – Lawyers be damned, it’s true 🙂

4. Sai Gautam - February 12, 2016

Agreed with most of the points made here. But boiled down to its essence, it is a cultural thing. There is no stigma of “copying” in most parts of the world. Its a part of life – an idea/concept belongs to everyone. Copyright is a concept very alien and has not permeated to most public.

But one needs to draw the line at blatant plagiarism, especially since it does not add value and merely seeks to make a profit. It demoralizes the original thinkers and stems real progress.

As the old and new worlds clash, these are the friction points.

mwidlake - February 12, 2016

That’s an interesting point Sai – cultural difference.
But Copyright is a legal thing, not just a cultural thing.

I guess a key thing here is the distinction between plagiarism (theft) and reasonable duplication of content.
I am extremely happy for people to take the idea/concepts I write about or present on – my whole aim is to give that to people.
But if I have spent hours writing an article and someone takes that and slaps their name on it, that is simple, blatent theft. It is really no different to me getting your wallet and taking money out of it as money is really just an token of effort. If there was a society where that was deemed acceptable, would you say it was OK?

Neil Chandler - February 12, 2016

There’s a direct link between Intellectual Property protection and innovation. Without laws, and the enforcement of those laws, innovation suffers.

Jeffrey Kemp - February 13, 2016

“Copying” in the sense used here is not just copying some words or ideas – it is copying *without attribution*, i.e. lying – the copier is saying or implying strongly “I wrote this” when they didn’t. People have been lying and cheating since the beginning, and “culture” is not a valid excuse for it.

mwidlake - February 13, 2016

Absolutely Jeffrey! The lack of attribution is key.

But then, there is some simple copying that is absolute theft. There is an element of culture in this. Many younger people (and quite a few older ones too) as well as some geographies think that if something is available on the net it should be free. Songs, videos, TV should all be free. I don’t mean YouTube and such where you get advertisements as part of the deal, I mean copies of just the jpeg or mp3. And if there is a way to get stuff free, it is somehow not theft to take it. How they expect the people who actually produce it to make a living seems out of their ability to comprehend, or is just magically not an issue as “everyone” (ie all their mates) does the same and this somehow justifies the theft.
I get really angry about that.

5. kelloggsville - February 12, 2016

I think some content needs ‘resurfacing’ . I blatantly stole Tom’s code here: http://www.kelloggsdba.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/sending-sql-output-to-csv-file.html (delete link if it’s an issue) But I do say that it’s his upfront and link to it’s source and his blog. But I was very worried about it being a copy and paste and asked another online dba about the ‘moral’ of me reposting it first. I understand that has a large difference between taking a whole page and claiming it as your own but I’m not sure where the good v bad fuzzy space is. I often see something online and think “that’s not yours” – sometimes it’s bad enough that I will try to contact the person who I think is the original owner, but sometimes it is just a ‘rewrite’, a badly disguised rewrite…..or is it? There is nothing new under the sun really and if one person is capable of writing a technical piece then so is someone else and how much will they differ if it’s a cut and dry topic? However, personally I never want to anger Tim, he’s a stone’s throw close enough from me for it still to hurt, and quite a lot actually.

mwidlake - February 12, 2016

I think you did just fine there Kellogsville. You state right up front the source, you provide links and you in no way try to claim the code. You are providing a service, giving what you see is a useful piece of code a second airing long after it was written. There might be people who would maybe suggest you just say “hey I found this cool code to do X” and just link to it, but people have some massive issue with the effort of moving a hand to the mouse and going through the hell of clicking the button. So you put the code right there in front of them.

If that was my code and I’d notice you doing this, I’d actually ping you a “thank you” for advertising it.

Oh, and the link is just fine.

6. jgarry - February 12, 2016

From http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ38a.pdf, treaty signing dates:
Pakistan · Berne (Rome) July 5, 1948; UCC Geneva Sept. 16, 1955; WTO Jan. 1, 1995
Your country may vary.

You may need to contact an international lawyer to verify details, but you might have to actually go there to enforce copyright violations. See the doc mentioned in http://theipexporter.com/category/pakistan/ for actual copyright law there (yeah, who’s going through that – but the thing to look for is whether there are notification rules previous to publication in the country – something like that is why McDonald’s in South Africa is a different company).

Thinking on Sai’s point, yeah, people want information to be free, simply telling them some arbitrary thing is wrong is useless in places where the government has always been what we call corrupt, and it is normal to rationalize the difference between what you do and what you let others know you do. That is one intersect between cultural and legal.

Most people who work on code and databases are smart and educated, so they are more likely to be able to quote others unthinkingly. (Google Alex Hailey plagiarism for one possible non-tech example.) When I took the AP history exam in high school, one of the questions was exactly something I had just read a book about, and I went into “the zone” and probably was pretty to close to word-for-word for paragraphs.

I think I’ve said some of this before 😉

There may be a direct link as Neil says, but it is not necessarily a tight link. Look at the range of open source licenses. Some of those guys are way out there in this respect, and quite innovative, perhaps due to substituting renown or internal reward for money. Before the economic system collapsed, the commies were way ahead in some STEAM endeavors. And at the risk of Godwin… http://b-29s-over-korea.com/German-Jets-In-WWII/German-Jets-Inflicted-Severe-Damage-In-WWII_pg1.html

In the end, attribution is the polite and right thing to do. But if you don’t, sometimes there are no consequences beyond ignoring impotent rage.


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