The Jonah Lehrer News Hour: Intellectual Property in the New Economy

a no uncertain quantity of obscene matter not protected by copriright in the United Stars of Ourania or bedeed and bedood and bedang and bedung to him, with this double dye, brought to blood heat, gallic acid on iron ore, through the bowels of his misery, flashly, faithly, nastily, appropriately…
-James Joyce. Finnegans Wake

(Y’all ready for a Malcolm Gladwell opening?)

In the autumn of 2010, I began tutoring a young boy in English. His parents were totally committed to the tutoring sessions, and our sessions often lasted for several hours a day, five days a week. He became a better writer and a clearer thinker. His performance on his English assignments went through the roof. Importantly, he improved across the board; he did better on tests, he did better on essays, and he participated more during class. Everything was going well, for a little while, and then he came home with bad news: he’d been accused of plagiarism.

Specifically, the teacher accused me of writing his essays for him. (This was made a lot more sinister by the fact that the teacher gave her own tutoring lessons to her students, then was the one grading their work.) In order to “prove” that he was the author, the boy now had to write the same essays, in class, in a timed setting.

Well, as any teacher can tell you, that’s an absurd stipulation; nobody, and particularly nobody from an ESL family, can do as well under those circumstances. I was one of the best writers in my school, and when I first had to write a timed essay for the SAT, I bombed it. Writing at home allows students to outline their ideas, erase and rewrite as they go along, and then revise and proofread afterward.

In order to appease her, we ended up having to set aside portions of each essay to “grow wild.” We didn’t touch them; he didn’t make even the basic revisions he’d been making before we started working together. In other words, he didn’t have the right to get an “A.” The problems with his writing proved it was his work, even after he’d outgrown some of them.

Such lunacy is characteristic of our situation now: we have to come up with elaborate theories of a student’s writerly persona in order to detect departures from it. We are in fact at a decision point. Communications technology has become so comprehensive, so sophisticated, and so widespread that plagiarism, like piracy, is simply too easy. Student plagiarism is beyond what teachers and schools can police.

Furthermore, it’s not always clear why exactly we should be policing it. Beginning an essay with a story is something I learned from Michel Foucault and Malcolm Gladwell; I am definitely imitating them, and the line between that and plagiarism can be a blurry one.

The solution to plagiarism in the schools is to give students assignments that are hard to plagiarize. One famous example of what not to do is assigning an essay about the “turtle” chapter in The Grapes of Wrath. This is such a common topic — because the symbolism is so blatant — that students can easily find dozens of essays to steal from. Plus, it’s a dull assignment; talk about the turtle in class, but assign something deeper.

If you give a unique, complex assignment, and a student somehow finds an undetectable way to slip some Internet writing in there, it’s no big deal. They’ve actually done something writers do all the time, for any number of reasons.

The way you police plagiarism in the rest of society is, you don’t. Fair use is practically impossible to define; yes, definitions exist in the service of our copyright laws, but in any copyright dispute, the judge has to exercise a lot of judgment — too much judgment, in fact. We protect copyrights in order to protect artists and their exploiters. We then make odd exceptions to protect the public interest, such as the exceptions that make libraries possible. Copyrights can outlive the creator of the work, which makes no sense whatsoever. It endures nonetheless, because renewable copyrights also benefit the publishers, record companies, and studios. Then it expires, after an arbitrary period of time, once again in the name of the public interest.

As debates over piracy have proved, the artist is often a corporate alibi in discussions about copyright; artists see tiny fractions of the overall profits, but serve as the “face” of one side of the battle over intellectual property. I write for free and for pay, and I know this: writers, or the good ones anyhow, write to be read. They also need to be paid, and they should be, but not according to their sales figures. Artists, philosophers, critics (and so on) should be government employees, earning monthly salaries. This has been done here (the NEA and the New Deal programs). It is still done through certain grants, on a temporary basis, including the infamous MacArthur Genius Grant. Sponsoring art has been successful in other countries, too. In Sweden, public investment has created a vibrant musical renaissance. In Canada, a single government grant led to VICE magazine, and, eventually, to an entire VICE empire.

In this vision of American society, the actual texts and works are distributed for free under a creative commons license. Performances are free. New grants are awarded competitively, with the selection process falling to older, established craftsmen, just as it currently does in MFA programs.

Consider how radically this would change the status quo. Copyright, no longer protected by caricatures of starving artists, would go out the window. Authorship would still be protected, but enforcement would not be nearly as difficult, because plagiarists would have no profit incentives. (Obviously, with respect to salaried positions, submitting the work of another applicant would be a pretty easy crime to spot.) J. K. Rowling and Jennifer Egan would earn identical salaries. If that seems unfair to the creator of Harry Potter, just think of all the writers, forgotten today, who reaped enormous profits while poverty was busy destroying Melville. If China began publishing its own copies of A Visit From The Goon Squad, no-one would suffer as a result.

Since one could earn a salary as an artist, there would be inherent demand for the arts and humanities. It would no longer be necessary, at the university level, for scholars in the humanities to become defenders of composition (right now, they defend it because they need the work). Students in other disciplines could take as much, or as little, “writing” instruction as they desired. Departments might establish internal writing programs, or they might just evaluate students on a case-by-case basis.

Even if the royalties system was not outlawed, as I think it should be, this would be an attractive option for many people. (That’s proved by the enduring popularity of becoming an MFA for a tiny salary, in the hopes of teaching for a small salary.) Copyright would still apply to privately released works, but the public domain would grow by leaps and bounds in the meantime. This is particularly true since few artists can really predict, in advance, when a book will sell so well that it’s worth risking a paid position. Even today’s Hollywood studios, with their immense technologies for predicting and shaping public opinion, constantly guess wrong.

All the objections to the plan, which I can already imagine echoing around me, refer to phenomena that happen already, right now, in our privately run system. Bad artists get popular and stay popular. Good artists are ignored. Good artists become pale imitations of themselves, yet still continue to outsell up-and-comers. Artists lose their inborn appetites for innovation and perfection. Meanwhile, all sorts of other problems, from critics getting bought and paid for, to artists selling out, to scholars being denied access to important archives — these would vanish from the earth. Piracy would lose traction. Matters of intellectual property would occupy our justice system less and less.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
-“Imagine,” John Lennon


Of course, none of this speaks comprehensively to what Jonah Lehrer has done. None of it is quite irrelevant, either. Lehrer wanted to move volume; that’s why he pretended to interview Bob Dylan. Dylan’s not a major figure in the book. (Since it’s all fabrication, really, how could he be?) He is, however, a nice tidbit to include in every promotional blurb and press release. His fictitious presence probably didn’t change what Lehrer wrote, but was instead tailored to what Lehrer already wanted to write, and was only a part of the sales pitch. Yes, if he was pulling down a salary, Lehrer might still lie about Dylan to get famous. But one enormous incentive for fraud, financial gain, would be a thing of the past.

Furthermore, these same incentives influence the behavior of editors. What editor really wants, intensely, to purge every reference to a personal conversation with Bob Dylan from a hot new book? Yes, she might do it in fear of the consequences, but if she has to notice the fibbing, our whole economic system is yelling at her to ignore it instead. When these were isolated incidents, they seemed simply eerie and amusing, and we enjoyed a film like Shattered Glass (at least I did) because the grand old values of editorial integrity are restored by the end of the film. At this point, however, there’s no comfort in catching the cheaters, because we just don’t know how many more of them are out there. There was the Oprah-approved memoir, by James Frey, that turned out to be fictional. Then there was the recent scandal over at This American Life. Now a member of the editorial staff at The New Yorker, a bestselling author, has been exposed and disgraced. These authors absolutely deserve the scorn they receive, but their editors deserve just as much censure. Well, they would, except for one thing: the cutbacks. Oh, the cutbacks.

For years now, publishing houses and news publications have been downsizing. We’ve seen it on television, in shows like The Wire or Boss, and we’ve read about it in newspapers, as well as in books like The Imperfectionists. Still, when we have endured these scenes of “the death of journalism,” hasn’t it always been a matter of the bad, corrupt editor and his poor, hapless victims? The editor is always in league with the dark forces of Corporate, while his reporters stand around like death row inmates.

The reality, of course, is that every part of the workforce gets downsized, including editorial staff. This is, unquestionably, partly responsible for the recent flood of dishonest reportage. Editors simply do not have the time to check everybody’s sources and facts, and the writers know it.

Jonah Lehrer should give pause to anyone who thought it was possible to do more with less. It is not possible. Sacrifices are made: there is less content, or there is less truth. This is nothing but the bill coming due for all of the people who work with words, and were simply let go.

It’s important, but it’s not enough for a pardon. A writer like Roxane Gay, in her article for Salon, wants to blame Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine on the cult of genius — more specifically, young white male genius. While I know, from personal experience, that nothing is worse than a grandiose young white male, she’s still not making herself useful. First of all, we don’t need this scandal to take action against discrimination and sexism in the workplace. Second, you can’t change the economic realities by hiring more women or minorities; in fact, to suggest that they will somehow be nobler is an insult to their intelligence. Jeremy Irons let us off easy with “Be smarter, be first, or cheat.” The logic of the market is really this: “Be smarter, be first, and cheat.”

The only people who have infinite regard for the truth are people who have nothing immediate at stake. My recommendations are extreme because they have to be. For the time being, what sells is rarely proven untrue. Crooks like Lehrer? They’re the canaries in the coal mine.

We are not too enamored of genius; quite the contrary. We do not care about it nearly enough. If we did, it would not be a comfortable shelter for such petty thieves.