Monday, December 5, 2011

"Wrongful Appropriation": Bad Karma?

It's been a while since I got my knickers in a twist.

No... wait... that's not the correct metaphor. That's too polite and girlish for what I felt the other day when I commented on Alive in the Fire's post about yet another Bikram lawsuit. More like, it's been a while since my guts got so heated they could roar fire.

I think most avid Bikram yoga practitioners have weighed in on Bikram's tendency to go after studio owners that use his series without receiving training or paying their monthly dues. I'm writing here not so much with the intention of offering my opinion on the matter, although, as you'll see, I do have one. It's more like I just want to... complicate the discussion and make some connections between this yoga and what I do for a living.

I am a writing teacher. Right now, our semester is winding down, and I'm commenting on final drafts of research papers. One of the things we writing teacher diligently teach is how to avoid plagiarism when citing. Using sources correctly is a tough skill to teach, and contrary to what you might think, teaching students to avoid plagiarism is NOT as simple as reviewing the rules and telling them about the horrifying consequences (reporting to the dean, a black mark on your spotless record, possible expulsion! Life sentence in jail! OK, not the last one). Most of the plagiarism teachers see is unintentional, and there are also cultural differences that can make source management trickier for some folks than for others.

And then, to complicate matters, what I do in my daily life runs counter to hard and fast rules about plagiarism. I manage a file-sharing website for our department that allows teachers to post and download handouts to use in class. I make it clear to anyone who submits something to the site that it is for sharing. Don't expect the instructor who uses your cause-and-effect paper idea to cite you when they distribute it to their students. They might think it's the perfect assignment to share with their students--making little changes here and there as needed to make it their own. Who benefits? The student, as does the instructor who doesn't have to freak out thinking they have to start from square one. Talk about good karma!

(For more on this reeeally interesting issue, check out Feralchick's blog--she taught me all I know about plagiarism (look, I'm citing my source! ;-) or look up plagiarism-obsessed scholars Rebecca Moore Howard or Nick Carbone.)

Look at any aspect of the media, art, culture, etc and you'll see examples that complicate copyright law. In hip-hop music, sampling is often celebrated. And what is art but a graceful amalgamation of other artists' ideas and techniques? No wonder students come into college befuddled, anxious, and even surprised about our rigid guidelines for using sources correctly.

All my gooey, share-the-love goodness runs dry, however, when I read a student research paper on education that begins with this "hook" for their introduction: "Education is often being confused with schooling, relying on the premise that time spent in school is directly related to education. Somehow, by osmosis or some other magic force, spending time in school will lead to an educated person. This is one of the biggest lies and misnomers that is pervasive throughout our society." Wow! Sounds great, right? I've done such a great job teaching my students this semester! Look how much this guy's improved. Aww, wait... "misnomer"? "Osmosis or some other magic force"? Waaaait a second.

Do a quick Google search on one or more of these sentences and you'll see the passage is lifted directly from a blog on education. What follows a teacher's discovery of plagiarism is an odd--and frustrating--range of emotions. Did this student think they could trick me? Did they think I was stupid? How could I not notice that their writing was suddenly of a level publishable by the New York Post? The action of lifting a few sentences to use as a lead for one's research paper is suddenly a full-on assault of a teacher's ego.

I bet my fire-breathing reaction to plagiarism is a little what Bikram must feel when he realizes that yet another studio is teaching something akin to his series without crediting (*cough*paying*cough*) him for its proper use. I'd be pissed, too. If I designed a series of yoga postures and breathing exercises, added a dollup of hot, and remained convinced that this could significantly improve people's well-being, my ego would scream I did that, you cocksucker motherfuckers! (Sorry for the profanity, kiddos. I'm just using the words of the man himself that he was screaming into a phone the one time I approached him for a photo.)

It's a perfectly human reaction. The first time I saw chunks of one of my syllabus in another instructor's syllabus, I thought, "Hey! That looks familiar. I'm not sure I dig that." Aaaaaand then I remembered I pretty much stole most of my syllabus from other teachers when I first started. Once again: who benefited from the instructor who used excerpts of my syllabus? The students. The instructor. The only one who was momentarily hurt? My delicate ego.

But it only hurt for a few seconds.

I totally get the very legitimate reasons for why Bikram would want to copyright the series. As I said on Alive in the Fire's blog, I want to take a Bikram yoga class. I want my Pranyama followed by Ardha Chandrasana followed by Padahastasana.  I don't want the teacher to ask for "requests" at the beginning of a yoga class. Don't mess with the order, dammit. Don't touch that dial. Bikram doesn't need a copyright to keep people coming to his studios. I'm not going to other studios because when I want McDonald's, I'm not settling for Jack-n-the-Box. Or Hardee's. Or whatever else y'all have on the east coast ;-)

And before I finish my little tirade, what gets me most of all is that it seems like Bikram (or his handlers?) are proud of the fact that they go after every studio. Check out this self-congratulatory note on his copyright page on his website: "The asana sequence copyright registration joins Bikram’s growing portfolio of registered copyrights and trademarks that lie at the heart of the proprietary Bikram Yoga system.   Bikram can now easily and effectively enforce these rights."

Yay! He can now sue easily and efficiently. Phew. Now that his portfolio of lawsuits is growing steadily, surely no one will dare to bait his wrath!

That's just what I keep thinking my plagiarizing students will realize. Hmm. We're not quite there yet.

Please note that I am not pro-plagiarism, nor am I pro-copyright infringement, or pro-badness in any way :-) I am not a legal scholar, so take my comments on copyright with a grain of salt. I know it takes a great deal of critical thinking and due diligence to use source material responsibly, and I am definitely pro--, uh, that!

If I could offer up a paltry piece of advice, though, it would be this: Let the karma yoga you preach about actually be your karma yoga.