Thursday, December 25, 2014

Nevada "plagiarism" issue fades into the sunset

On December 24, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Nevada Board of Regents leaders would not be looking further into allegations of plagiarism arising from the use of text by a government official derived from a preliminary report of a think tank [Brookings].  Of details:

The dispute concerns a report the think tank provided to higher education officials for background that wound up used verbatim and without attribution by a system official in a presentation to an interim legislative committee in June as part of an effort to create a multimillion-dollar grant program designed to improve the state’s workforce in “STEM” industries of science, technology, engineering and math.
Brookings didn’t finish its research until November. While the wording is largely identical, there are meaningful differences in the proposals.
Brookings and NSHE recommend different amounts of money: Brookings puts it at $5 million, NSHE at $3.5 million. In addition the two have different ideas about who will control that money. Brookings recommends local redevelopment agencies administer the grant funds, while NSHE recommends a council of representatives from various agencies, including NSHE, manage the money.

The published discussion has revolved around the use by the government official of text without attribution.  The issue is one of plagiarism and academic integrity.

But, if one looks at this from the point of view of copyright law, and of "work for hire," things appear a bit differently.  In copyright law, in a work for hire, the "author" is the one who pays for the work, not the one who creates the work (recall the Supreme Court case CCNV).  The "author" would have the right to reproduce the work. 

In the realm of patent law, this presents an interesting issue as to legal opinions on patents.
A law firm prepares an opinion, say on a drug patent, and conveys it to client A.  But then client B would like an opinion on the same drug patent.  Does the law firm convey the same opinion to client B, and charge the full amount for rendering (a previously done) opinion?  But is client A really the "author" (and owner) of the opinion under copyright law?

A related issue arose at Southern Illinois University when an official took work done for a previous university and "re-purposed" it for a task at SIU.  Although SIU determined that this self-plagiarism was not a problem [a questionable decision], the true victim was the other university.

Returning to the Nevada matter, if there were an agreement as to the confidentiality of the Brookings work during some time period, the action of the Nevada official would be problematic as to that confidentiality.  However, as to the ownership of the content (and "how" attribution is allocated), the "author" is the person who paid for the work for hire. 

Contemplate also the Supreme Court Dastar case.  For material in the public domain, anyone can claim to be the author of such public material, without running afoul of federal law.  Such an action would be plagiarism, but it's not against federal law. 

In a story about copying, note from AP

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Plagiarism revelations involving U.S. Sen. Jon Walsh and his subsequent political collapse marked Montana’s top news story of 2014, according to The Associated Press’ annual poll of state editors.

Walsh, in contrast to Poshard of SIU (who also copied without attribution in academic work), met a bad fate.  Is this the difference between Montana and Illinois?


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