Paul Carr’s “Angry Nerds” piece is wrong about everything

There is so much aggressively wrong with Paul Carr’s recent “Angry Nerds” piece that it is hard to know where to begin. To summarize: Carr is shocked to see that the very same tech community who rallied against SOPA and PIPA is now rallying behind 37 Signals in a case involving blatant design plagiarism — down to hotlinked images — by another start-up named Curebit.

Clear thinkers have long complained about the hit job the content lobby have done on the language of copyright but rarely has the point been so clearly made that a muddled use of language translates into unclear and outright incorrect arguments. Carr’s accusations of hypocrisy by the tech community in this situation rest on two blatantly false premises. For one, Carr doesn’t know the difference between “infringement”, “theft”, and “plagiarism”. To quote the article:

Is it, as some argued on Twitter when I asked the question earlier, that plagiarism is different from copyright theft? No. And not least because plagiarism is copyright theft.

It would comfort me to know Carr is trolling here, but I’m afraid he isn’t. If you’ve ever been curious about why it’s important to use the correct words in this area, you’ve got a grade A example in Paul Carr. Let’s break it down: plagiarism is wrongful appropriation, and is not a crime. An act of plagiarism can also be copyright infringement, but an act of urination can also be public indecency, and you’d do well to know the difference. As for what “copyright theft” is here? Completely irrelevant to the case, and serves as a clunky malaprop throughout the entire piece. And just to get it out of the way, is copyright infringement theft? No, no, no, no.

Second, instead of examining the premise that “the tech community doesn’t care about authorship” and determining it’s a straw man lobbying tactic, Carr swallows the point hook-line-and-sinker and uses it as evidence that they’re behaving hypocritically.

Think about it: Doesn’t this reaction serve as pretty good evidence that members of this community — many of whom produce creative content all day at their jobs — really do care about authorship? That maybe the MPAA spokespeople were wrong, and the tech community’s arguments against SOPA and PIPA as major unconstitutional free speech violations that would undermine Internet infrastructure and human rights efforts around the world were more than just a fig leaf for the “I like free stuff”?

A gross conflation of terms gets you to the point where you don’t realize that both Hollywood’s complaints and their reactions look very, very different from 37 Signals’. Hollywood’s big problem is with freeloaders, unless I missed something big and they wanted to shut down these rogue sites for their roles in helping distribute scripts for shot-by-shot remakes of blockbuster films. And they’ve chosen to address that concern not by complaining on Twitter, but by pushing for backroom legislation so obviously and outrageously opposed to the public interest that the reaction from the Internet scared the otherwise lobbyist-cowed legislators into retreat.

It’s not like the MPAA studios haven’t tried to just appeal to social norms as a way to stop unauthorized copying, but their messages — “You wouldn’t steal a car” — suffer from the same lack of understanding and contempt for their users that Carr’s piece displays.

It seems simple to me that Carr thought this latest event was noteworthy because he doesn’t understand the issues, so every new twist and turn is unexpected. This distinction between infringement and theft everybody keeps talking about? Don’t worry, it probably doesn’t matter. The tech community’s actual articulate position? Nah, just take the MPAA’s word for what they’re saying.

Published by Parker Higgins

I'm the Director of Special Projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and previously led copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I live and work in Brooklyn, New York. more »

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  1. Isn’t it ridiculous that idiots like Carr are thought to speak for “tech?”

  2. Way to miss the point.

    Thought experiment: if Curebit copied 37 Signals design without permission, and then added a “we got it from 37 Signals” visible at the footer, so it wouldn’t be plagiarism, would that made it OK?

    No, no, no, no (and I won’t even link to four partisan blog posts as if I’m presenting the legal wisdom on the matter).

    It would slightly better, “at least we got an attribution”, but it would change the fact that 37 Signals paid mucho dinero to have the design made, from their graphic designer to the front end developers, and Curebit just took it.

    It’s crap creatives like designers and photographers face all the time. No, adding my name doesn’t make copying my stuff against my will OK. And, no, I don’t appreciate the “exposure” and the “free publicity”.

  3. @foljs, I think you’re wrong about whether the attributed ripoff would be considered plagiarism, but (a) that’s sort of the idea, right? That plagiarism is something defined by social norms of what’s wrongful, not by the letter of the law like copyright infringement is. (I didn’t even mention attribution, or the lack thereof, in this post.) And (b) the point stands about Paul Carr’s piece either way.

    37 Signals and their coterie are upset because Bitcure violated social norms, not because they violated laws. That would still be the case if they took the whole site and gave attribution, because that’s not acceptable in this community. If you think the point of this blog post that attribution reverses plagiarism and supersedes all other factors, I think you’ve missed the point.

  4. “””@foljs, I think you’re wrong about whether the attributed ripoff would be considered plagiarism, but (a) that’s sort of the idea, right?”””

    No, I didn’t mean to say that an attributed ripoff would be considered plagiarism too (I had some typos with “wound’t” and “would” in my comment).

    What I meant to say is that an attributed ripoff would *also* be bad.

    It’s not plagiarism+ripoff that’s bad, a ripoff is bad either way.

    “””That plagiarism is something defined by social norms of what’s wrongful, not by the letter of the law like copyright infringement is.”””

    I’m not sure about this.

    I think the law also covers plagiarism.

    It’s just that plagiarism inevitably comes packed with copyright infringement (while c.i doesn’t inevitably come with plagiarism, i.e a can give proper attribute and still breach your copyright).

  5. @foljs, I can’t speak to the law in the country that the TLD on your e-mail address indicates you’re in, but under American law, there is no such thing as “plagiarism”. So it’s just not clearly defined. Also, plagiarism does not inevitably come packed with copyright infringement: you could easily plagiarize public domain texts, or the “ideas” of a work (which, unlike their expression, aren’t covered by copyright). Before 1978, when notice and registration were required for a work to be protected by copyright in the U.S., basically any instance of a student plagiarizing another student would not have also been copyright infringement.

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