Tag Archives: attribution

my disagreement with authorship attribution

I’m torn: I’m very interested in stylometry, but I have issues with the fundamental questions that are asked in this field, in particular authorship attribution.

In my research, I’ve thought and written quite a bit about authorship. My dissertation looked at changing concepts of authorship – the singular, cohesive, Romantic genius author as established in collected editions in Japan at the turn of the 20th century – and also at actual practices of writing and authorship that preceded and accompanied these developments. My conclusion about authorship was that it is a kind of performance, embedded in and never preceding the text, and is not coextensive with the historical writer(s) behind the performance – pseudonymous, collective, anonymous, or otherwise.

These performances are necessarily contextualized by space, time, society, culture, literary trends, place of publication, audience. They are more or less without meaning if one doesn’t take context into account, even if not all relevant contexts at once. For a performance takes place within a historic, cultural, and literary moment, and does not exist independently of it. I see that place of performance as both the text and its place of publication, its material manifestation; and it is a performance that is inextricably linked to reader reception.

I also don’t see these performances as necessarily creating a unified authorial identity or unified author-function across space, time, and texts. This may sound extremely counterintuitive given that many performances of authorship share appellations and can be “attributed” to the “same” author, and I recognize that my argument is downright bizarre at times. I blame it on having spent too much time thinking about the implications of this topic. But in a way, our linking of these performances after the fact is artificial, and these different author-functions are, for me, so linked to the time and place of both publication and reading – whether contemporary or not – that they can be seen as separate as well. This is why I concluded that collected literary anthologies are constructing – inventing – an entirely artificial “author” out of the works associated, after the fact, with a historical, individual writer, whose identity and name may not have coincided with that of the authorial performance at all in the first place.

So, that said, let me get to my disagreement with authorship attribution. It’s fundamentally asking the wrong question of authors and authorship: who “really” wrote this text? My argument is that the hand of the historical writer “behind” the authorial performance is a moot point; what matters is the name, or lack of a name, attributed to the text when it is published, republished, read, and reread over time. It’s the performance that takes place at the site of the text, coinciding with and following the creation of the text, deeply associated with and embedded in the text, and located within reception rather than intention. It takes place at a different site than the hand of the historical writer holding a pen or the mind creating an idea. And so the search for the “real” identity of the author is beside the point; what is happening here is really “writership attribution” that is something separate from authorship.

A colleague recently asked me, too, what the greater goal of authorship attribution is – what is it beyond finding out the person behind the text? What is it besides deciding that the entity constructed with the name Shakespeare “really” wrote an unattributed or mysterious text? And I couldn’t answer this question, which brings me to my second fundamental problem with authorship attribution. I don’t see an overarching research question guiding methodology, besides the narrow goal of establishing writership of a text. This could be my own ignorance, and I’d be happy to be corrected on it.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

the internet is free for the taking

Right? Right?

As I sometimes find when I check out my Flickr statistics, I’ve got a picture with an abnormally high view count and that means only one thing: it’s been posted on another site with a link to mine.

Usually, I am totally thrilled. I love links back to me. I love for people to see my work and that anyone liked it enough to put it up on their own personal space. Good!

And 9 times out of 10, there is a nice caption with my name under it. For, this is the only thing I really ask of someone using one of my photos. I hold the copyright, but I use a Creative Commons license.* I am leaning toward changing everything to a more lenient one, but in any case, the real point of it is the “BY” clause.

You can use my photos without permission as long as you credit me (and I appreciate a link back to Flickr, which all of the people so far, good and bad, do – this is how I find their postings). I’m sure there are people out there who posted them with no link, but it seems that they generally want to not host the image themselves, and also want to post a small version with a link to the gigantic ones (and mine are non-watermarked full-size images). So I find them in my stats.

This is only the second case of someone borrowing an image, placing it on their site with absolutely no credit at all, and totally making me annoyed at 7:30 am in the morning when I see it happening.

The first time, it was an architecture blog and site, which will remain nameless because they rectified the problem after I commented on the photo (there was no other way to contact!) asking for credit or to take the image down. I never heard back, but lo and behold, after a few months someone must have saw the comment because now it has a very nice caption. I get a fair number of hits from this site so it makes me very happy.

Well, now some person on Tumblr has stuck one of my images in their blog, at least with a link back to the original, but with no caption at all. I hate that. But what makes it really bad is that I can see visibly how many people “liked” and shared the post. “Great, others are seeing my work!” Yes, there is this part of it. I’m not the kind of person who wants to hide my stuff unless I personally am showing it. Far from it!

But here’s the thing that really upsets me. The people sharing this post are sharing it as the work of that blogger – at the very best, as an object found by that blogger. They may be sharing it because they like the photo, but the implied attribution stops at the blog itself. I’m thinking big-picture about “authorship” here, as I am wont to do. I have stopped being the author at this point, without an explicit caption marking it as not the blogger’s work, and not as some anonymous, possibly public-domain thing that he or she happened to find. Something pointing out that the hard creative work was not, in fact, looking on the internet and finding something interesting and sharing it, but was rather my finding the scene, situating myself, taking the picture, editing in Aperture, and creating more metadata than you can shake a stick at. (As usual.)

And on top of it? As you can see from the two screenshots below the cut, these are not only being viewed quite a few times, but they’re being shared – ie., reposted as-is on other Tumblr blogs, also with zero attribution.

A reaction that I have gotten in the past to someone lifting my artwork (including selling it on a T-shirt without permission, even though they defended it with “but we’re not making a profit) is that I’m getting bent out of shape over nothing, or that I can’t expect my work not to be stolen and re-used as people see fit because I’ve put it online.

Here is my response to that: Of course I can’t. But that doesn’t make it right, just, or legal, and I don’t give up my rights the minute I upload something. I am well within my moral rights to address this as a problem and to take polite action to correct the situation. We need a lot of calming down these days: We don’t need laws like SOPA and Protect-IP (I am getting nightmares), and I don’t think the DMCA is an appropriate law either, but that doesn’t mean that taking others’ work and reposting it without attribution – or passing it off as your own, or selling it without permission – is okay.

I think we academics know a word that comes quite close to describing all of this: plagiarism. Mixed with copyright infringement. What a fun situation.

Conclusion: The internet is not free for your taking. But the majority of it is, especially from those of us who are rabidly pro-Creative Commons, if you just ask us.

 

* I toyed once with making all of my photos public domain, but while I’m still alive and while they’re still taken within the past 5 years, I don’t think I can emotionally deal with it yet.

Screen shot 2011 11 17 at 8 44 43 AM

Screen shot 2011 11 17 at 8 44 24 AM

Screen shot 2011 11 17 at 8 37 25 AM