Written and Narrated by
Deni Elliott, Ph.D., M.A.
Department of Journalism & Media Studies
College of Arts and Sciences
The University of South Florida at St. Petersburg
“As young children, we learned that everyone has the right to control the use of their property. Keep it, share it, give it away; it seemed that simple. But as adults, we find ourselves trying to navigate through physical and virtual worlds, where issues of intellectual property and ownership are much more complex. Much of what is ethical and unethical in the area of intellectual property has to do with following the law. While laws governing appropriation and attribution are struggling to keep up and add clarity in our rapidly evolving world, ethical analysis can help guide the way.
Attribution means giving credit where credit is due. In theory, the author of any published work has a right to control how his or her intellectual property is used. But in practice, most people click agree when signing on to websites such as YouTube without ever being aware that they’re signing over their rights to their material to the corporation that owns the site.
We all know that we’re not supposed to plagiarize our papers. But what about artists or musicians who learn their craft by copying famous predecessors? Would we call that stealing? Or influence?
Music professor and computer scientist David Cope created a computer program that produces “original” compositions in the style of Mozart or Bach, for instance, but it’s not. Two CDs have been produced and sold with no legal action taken because the copyrights to the individual works expired long ago.
In another case, Composer John Oswald created sound collages, using samples of previously recorded works. He claimed that the sound collages were original compositions. He listed all his sources, but did not get permissions to use them. Record companies filed lawsuits, and ultimately, unsold copies of his albums were destroyed.
Ethically speaking, using others’ intellectual property for one’s own gain without permission is stealing. But appropriation is more complex. Appropriation can mean borrowing ideas, images, symbols, sounds and identity from others. Many would argue that progress in art, music, and architecture wouldn’t even be possible without incorporating important artistic developments of the past.
Sometimes appropriation is ethically permissible and other times not. For example, many of our government buildings and banks have appropriated ancient Greek architectural features, such as columns and capitals, to project images we associate with democracy, wealth, and freedom. On the other hand, controversial instances of cultural appropriation abound, such as the NFL’s use of Native American symbols like the logo for the Washington Redskins.
When it comes to appropriation and attribution, the laws may still be murky, but ethical behavior doesn’t have to be. If what you want to use doesn’t belong to you, then use it only in ways that the owner permits. If it’s impossible to ask for permission, then ask yourself how you would want the creation to be used or attributed if it were your own. And if ownership itself is the subject of debate, then the use should be subjected to a systematic moral analysis to determine what harms the appropriation might cause and whether they are justified.”