Copyright laws are easily broken... hang on, that book looks familiar

Plagiarism expert finds his work published illegally on a website, writes Hannah Fearn

March 19, 2009

An academic expert in copyright law discovered that his own work had been illegally distributed on the internet while researching a paper on the problem.

John Biggam, a lecturer in the department of strategy, innovation and enterprise at Glasgow Caledonian University, was undertaking research to show how easy it was to break copyright laws on the internet, when he discovered that one of his own books had been circulated for free without his knowledge or consent.

"I do a lot of work on plagiarism, so I was writing a paper for a conference on the issue," Dr Biggam said.

"The very point I was writing about was how plagiarism and digital piracy was easy to do through the internet. I happened to write that you can take somebody's book, digitally copy it and pass it off as your own."

Dr Biggam was looking for a copy of one of his earlier papers to cite when he stumbled across a complete copy of his book, Succeeding with Your Masters Dissertation, on the web.

"I was trying to find one of my own papers, and couldn't find it, so I typed the title into Google. I made the same reference in my book, and up (it) came," he said.

A copy of the entire text had been posted on the website Scribd.com, normally used by authors to share their work or post e-books, where it can be downloaded for free by registered users.

It appears that the original poster of the material, a lecturer with the username Dipanjan Majumdar, at the Rabindra Bharati University in India, had intended for it to be accessed only by his students.

"I think it's a legitimate site, but my book is not free," Dr Biggam said. "Somebody has taken something I own and is allowing others to have it."

He approached his publishers, the Open University Press, as soon as he discovered the problem.

Lin Gillen, product manager at McGraw-Hill, the publishing group of which the Open University Press is part, said it had begun looking into the issue as soon as it was informed of the problem, and a legal challenge had been made against the website.

"We are taking this matter seriously ... we're concerned to stop it as soon as possible," she said.

The publisher said it understood that materials were often expensive for students outside Western universities, but added it had a pricing structure relative to the market in place, meaning Dr Biggam's book would be cheaper to purchase in India than in the UK.

Ms Gillen said differences between the academic culture in the UK and India could have contributed to the problem, as discussing and distributing someone's work is akin to flattery in India, although rules about citation and copyright law may be breached in the process.

"There is no point having copyright rules if people are going to take that information and put it up (on the internet) in ways it was never meant to be broadcast," she said.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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