Thursday, March 08, 2012

the CBA's unweeded garden*

You can always tell when a scandal begins to really take hold by the frequency and increasing desperation of the denials.

What began with a letter of complaint from inside the Canadian Bar Association to the CBA itself - a request to investigate why a copyright reform statement that should have presented the very real balance of opinion in that organization instead appeared as a one-sided and suspiciously received piece of free culture theorizing - has burst out onto the pages of one of Canada's national newspapers and is revealing for everyone just how sad and sneaky are the ways of the free culture lobby.

Following up on yesterday's exposé in the National Post, NP columnist Terence Corcoran today reveals how the man in the centre of all this ruckus, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, finds himself stuck to a rhetorical flypaper of his own making.

Corcoran writes:

Prof. Geist made a bit of a splash in the copyright and plagiarism world back in 2009 when he ripped into the Conference Board of Canada for alleged plagiarism... Prof. Geist demanded that the Conference Board report be withdrawn as tainted propaganda or, as he called it, “copyright policy laundering.” Said Prof. Geist back in 2009: “Given the lack of attribution in some instances, this work [by the Conference Board] would face possible plagiarism sanctions in almost any academic environment.”
As yesterday's NP piece showed, 34 of Canada's most well-informed, respected intellectual property experts signed a letter of complaint to the CBA, calling that organization's attention to either a clear case of unattributed copying - a.k.a. plagiarism - by the CBA copyright reform committee, or closed-door policy laundering by someone who was not supposed to have anything to do with the policy submission.

Which one of these options is true seems to depend on whether or not Prof. Geist admits to having provided specific language to the CBA's statement on Bill C-32, one of the many previous copyright reform bills in Canada. The complainants found 16 cases of substantial copied text from Prof. Geist's blog postings on copyright reform, including a typo that somehow made a mysterious migration from the blog to the official CBA document. Since the quotations were not styled as quotations and were unattributed, there is a strong whiff of plagiarism that wouldn't pass the sniff test in almost any academic environment.

Today Prof. Geist has published a somewhat convoluted denial on his own blog, naming many of the 34 complainants and seemingly implying their opinions might be influenced by their clients (while ignoring others on the list who wouldn't fit that manner of attack), and then offering his own explanation for how his words ended up in the policy document he apparently did not write. Having previously stated that he was not involved in drafting the statement, Geist now offers that there is a likelihood those sections of the statement that are his are the result of work he did previously on an unpublished statement about Bill C-61, an earlier attempt at reform. He writes:
"committees will often use prior committee work and such work never includes attribution to a particular individual. Once work is developed by a committee, it is treated as the work of the committee, not a single individual."
I've served on too many committees to count, especially ones drafting policy statements, and this explanation holds no water at all with me. To begin with, the "committee" Geist refers to above is actually three distinct committees - one for C-61, one for C-32, and then a completely different one for C-32. How could the work of committee #1 possibly be considered also the work of committee #3?

Asked to draft policy language for a specific piece of legislation, I would never dredge up past writings on previous legislation from a completely different committee, especially if the writing belonged to a high profile professional writer, someone not on my committee, and to whom the work would not be attributed. In fact, when I was a student (at the University of Ottawa) in the 1980's, I was specifically taught not to quote even my own previous writing without attribution, just to be on the safe side. Have the plagiarism rules at U of O changed? I doubt it.

Corcoran's article notes that a Geistian free-culture ally, Howard Knopf, also served on the C-61 CBA committee and continued to serve on the "secret" committee that used Geist's words to make their points (how Corcoran knows Knopf was on the secret committee, I don't know). Yesterday, Knopf supported Geist's denial of fishiness with a treatise on the meaning of plagiarism, complete with dictionary definitions and funny videos. He pointedly did not provide any explanation for how Geist's words made it into the policy statement. Such an explanation from someone in a position to provide one would sure be helpful right now. But no, we get funny denials. Ha, ha... nothing to see here. Look at the funny video everyone!

To me the letter of complaint suggests the possibility of serious ethical breaches in how the CBA statement was prepared and released. 34 legal professionals signed their names and, essentially, their professional reputations to this complaint. It's hard to imagine any of these folks would take such action without serious consideration of the implications. Rather than responding to it in kind, Prof. Geist calls the complaint the Copyright Lobby's Latest Smear Campaign.

Surely, something is rotten in the state of* the CBA. Let's not be distracted by denials and misdirection. Let there be a full and open investigation, please.

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*References to Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a dude from a long time ago who wrote some plays. See how attribution and proper footnoting adds to our understanding?

1 comment:

Sandy Crawley said...

Professor Geist's identifying the critics of the CBA process as "The Copyright Lobby" is in itself revealing. Is this, finally, an overt admission that the e-commerce expert is anti-copyright? I think so. It opens the door to a more honest debate.