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Alex Hutchins

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Plagiarism and what, if anything, should be done about it in our Colleges and Universities.

There is a business simulation that is being played in many colleges and universities where, if a company (team) is ahead of you in points, simply copy what they are doing right with their products and advertising.

Is that plagiarism?

Years ago, I talked with an container manufacturer who took the artwork from a competitor and made 10-12 drawings, each one a little bit different than the previous one but the last subliminally identical to the competitor's design so that business could be stolen from that competitor with the client in question.

Is that plagiarism?

Are we confusing plagiarism with unethical behavior or is copying simply copying without recognizing the source?

Most Colleges and Universities have a third party available to all instructors that will check out papers to see if they have been plagiarized. Many professors use that service but there are some that simply copy and paste sentences from various paragraphs into the Google search engine and press enter and the sources are readily available. Some have been paraphrased and some have been completely copied and used as their own.

So, here is the debate: should we hold students accountable for plagiarism when the "real world" does not or should we simply let it go, realizing that life over time is always self-correcting?

Sometimes, plagiarism is so easy to spot especially when one has in-class writing assignments and can compare them to out-of-class writing assignments and it is sad to think that college students believe that they will not get caught by professors.

Another issue for debate that is tied to plagiarism is: should colleges and universities prepare students for life and the "real world" or should they just acquaint them with the pursuit of knowledge? Can this question be easily answered by reading the Charter/Mission of the school?

Plagiarism is a substantial component of the competitive environment and should not be tampered with at any cost... is my opinion.

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  • Jun 30 2013: Perhaps there is a new market for algorithmic AI here to consider. But firstly I think institutions need to start considering their own assessment procedures as the problem. After all there is no plagiarizing when an assigned assessment artifact expectation is based in an authentic real world synthesis and not solely in replicative application, rote recall, or comparative critique. Results in institutions that value educating innovators need to assess student innovation against knowledge objectives that build or expand upon learned principles in real world applicable circumstances. Just assessing based in knowledge objectives or simple comparison is indicative of a time when the world's knowledge was not at our fingertips. Therefore I think plagiarism is definitely a systemic institutional problem and not a student problem. Authentic tasks are impossible to plagiarize. Students are becoming inherently higher Order thinkers naturally through higher order technology.
    As far a the AI reference perhaps it's time for computers to start doing the comparing using correlative algorithms to determine probable plagiarism to degrees acceptability instead of subjective non standardized opinion thereby creating a data set of originality in the micro and macro institutional scales and plotting scales of innovative thought and attributing credit accordingly. Google Books seems like a good place to start.
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  • Jun 30 2013: Good students copy, great students steal....Paraphrasing Picasso.

    ie just coping is itself not a act of creativity, nor an indication of intelligence. Whereas taking the idea of the paragraph and the meaning, and agreeing with it, but using your own voice to express it is "stealing" the concept, but not the execution.
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    Jun 28 2013: Hi Alex,

    Your question (and other conversations here on TED, and other places) made me think of a couple of things:

    - I once made a research on the aquisition of language. I connected Pinker, Popper and other thinkers. I got a good grade but that was years ago. Times change, eras change. I sincerily do hope that what I did was interesting and could help some people and universities evolve, but maybe my research was not good enough? I think now I should reconsider my conclusions, but then again - a lot of people should. I've learnt so much more since then. Here's a talk on that subject http://www.ted.com/talks/what_we_learned_from_5_million_books.html . It's good that we're all learning.

    - my connection there was imperfect. But I still do hope people who are interested in the subject will learn from that.

    Best wishes.
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    Jun 26 2013: I`ve just catch an idea, if somebody use copying in ideas, style etc as a step to own development, this is a normal one. I have a doubt people claims such work as something voluable made by themselves. It`s just the step, need to understand and then go on and on. Even in could be payed as a step. Parents should grant a child if he or she do attempts that way. But it is not the final point and shouldn`t be payed as the original product from my point of view. However I know several artists, masters to copy great old masters, and they claim their paintings as a COPY, but very well payed.People like it. It`s a deviation for today. Another deviation is trash accepted as something original. I have no respect to Andy Warhol that way. But see - it`s very well payed too!

    So... I strongly believe people should make attempts to growth, sometimes by copying. But it`s normal to make the next step and try to overcome late beauty of a copy and try to create something above it. And analise the work, of course.
    As I saw, in plagiarism such analysis doesn`t exists, stolen work just presents as a price or as a bribe, in order to close the case and stop the process.
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      Jun 28 2013: I wish I had a thumbs-down to click right now.
      Ask me for the details.
  • Jun 26 2013: First, reduce the competitive model for academic performance as much as possible. In the real world, outside of the perverse society of academia, the vast majority of people with jobs that actually need college education will do those jobs as part of a team. They may be in competition, but it will be against other groups, not individuals. Even the "lone PI" is not really alone (unless said PI is not at all successful). When students get the idea early on that they're not in a death-match but actually have to work together.

    Second, teach the difference between plagiarism and legitimate appropriation. It is a flat-out lie that anyone or anything is "original". Stop teaching that lie. There is nothing original, everything is derivative. The key is proper attribution and the amount of derivation that is legally and socially permitted--and this changes.
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    Jun 25 2013: A syllogism:
    There is nothing new under the sun.
    Plagiarism is the act of writing something which is not new.
    Anyone who writes is guilty of plagiarism.
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      Jun 28 2013: Just a little challenge for you, Edward:

      igjoknviwinvown/visnvis¤jnvsnvisu=nvinvinvioun!bviubviubvu''''jn viadjfkvnoinuv`;;;ouidfvniubviuea&&&&&kibnmionbaiebSSSSofobnoenboe,,jkvnoinvuivi..........t....h.....ibv8uibn.bvaaebak....aebebtherefore....fgabbi-----------am----,uvi-j-.nuvniaenb

      I could do this forever, what I'm trying to say is this - when you're writing, you're doing a lot. You're expressing something, you're trying to show or reveal something. What you're expressing may be emotional, scientific, pseudoscientific, nice, true, factual... depends on the angle, knowledge, capacity, expectations and so many more things.

      Maybe you've heard of the phenomenon called hypergraphy, an urge to put all you know and feel in writing. The world has benefited from this phenomenon, but it should never be confused with truth/plagiarism/analysis/science-art spectre and many more.

      There are a lot of questions to be asked here. I will not write 'trust me' although I feel a hypergraphic urge to do so.

      What I wrote above is not hyper, it is not a code and not a language. In a language you have a 'assert true' function. In a code, you don't have that. Just to let you know.

      On the other hand - a language (i.e. human communication, not programming) is a sort of a code. Go figure.

      Best wishes.
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        Jun 28 2013: I usually run from a challenge but in your case I made an exception. If you are implying that you have written something new, I must take exception. Here is a quote from something someone somewhere at some time long ago wrote: "igjoknviwinvown/visnvis¤jnvsnvisu=nvinvinvioun!bviubviubvu''''jn viadjfkvnoinuv`;;;ouidfvniubviuea&&&&&kibnmionbaiebSUSSofobnoenboe,,jkvnoinvuivi..........t....h.....ibv8uibn.bvaaebak....aebebtherefore....fgabbi-----------am----,uvi-j-.nuvniaenb". As you will undoubtedly notice it is almost identical to your piece. Clearly we have a case of wrongful appropriation" and "purloining and publication" of another author's "language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions," and the representation of them as one's own original work. Unless you can PROVE you have written something new under the Sun, you are guilty of plagiarism and my syllogism has survived your challenge. For the omniscient everything is a deja vu. Cheers and Palpitations. :-D
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          Jun 28 2013: I respect your analytical and pedantic comments and let me add the following:

          kjnfwjbiwbiubibnvialnfjknafjbPIFGuipgbapiuhguPBGUPIAHGPabgpiabnxcmn smfhkjdfnwkh

          I hope that will not be misunderstood or used against my creative, innovative and so on person ;-)

          I cannot prove I have written anything "new under the sun" in my studies according to your criteria, I can prove that I have written something to add to all that, that I have written new things, academic or not, and that...well, I can prove a lot of things. Just ask me! :)

          Cheers! :D
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    Jun 25 2013: Wikipedia has a good article on what plagiarism is. It isn't the same thing as copyright infringement.

    [Wikipedia] Plagiarism is the "wrongful appropriation" and "purloining and publication" of another author's "language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions," and the representation of them as one's own original work. Plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics. It is subject to sanctions like expulsion. Plagiarism is not a crime per se but in academia and industry it is a serious ethical offense, and cases of plagiarism can constitute copyright infringement. [end Wikipedia]

    Wikipedia also gives examples of how Brown, Oxford, Princeton, Stanford & Yale define plagiarism.

    I learned about plagiarism writing research papers in college. If you quote an author, you need to cite the author. I went to college back in the 70s (Stone-age: we had no word processors or lap tops! HOW did we ever manage!). Back then, I always assumed that "sticking-in-the-footnotes" was proof that I actually did the research! I had to prove that I wasn't just reciting a bunch of random stuff I heard in class.

    But then, I discovered that one of my 14-or-so RANDOM clone twins -- somehow got my papers, retyped them, & turned them in at another university under his name as his own work! I'd already gotten my grades back from them. I'm not even sure how he got them! But the facts did come to light.

    He attended a state university. All that was uncovered incidental to a law enforcement investigation into other, serious, crimes. The plagiarism was not a prosecutable offense. But the State University concerned took action. They stripped him of his degree & forced him to replace all the plagiarized materials - with his own, original work. This was 20 years after graduation. There may have been a court case. He was at that time serving as an officer in the U.S. military. The scandal did not help his career. I don't know of any other consequences.
  • Jun 25 2013: there is something more in reallity "not everyone is an inventor" things get copied but as long as they are encouraged to enhance what they copy
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    Jun 25 2013: In my understanding "copying" and "plagiarism" are used in different context though in meaning these are same or very close.
    "Plagiarism" is more used in case theft of creative writings, while in all other cases usually it is being called as "Copying"
    In business world companies that lacks innovation tend to copy "actions" of competitors for quick win. Action is somthing visible and easy to copy, but "STRATEGY" behind action is not visible and difficult copy. Moreover when business develops STRATEGY they develop it considering many points from short to long term perspective and there needs the innovation.

    If students are only copying to pass or get a good grade (unfortunately our education system is such, to my felling it just certifies students , seldom can educate them) , they are just ignoring their own creative ability...so in long run it might not bring great success for them in real life.

    About your 2nd last para , I would like to say universities should prepare student for both that means "Goodies of Life" & "Real World" otherwise they will find themselves the real world to be alien one and struggle.
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    Jun 25 2013: Perhaps everyone who has an own idea want to protect it. Mine was stolen many times so I feel it by myself, and my feelings is not so good. But look at anothers. People live to save glukoze in brain activity. If they have no ideas, even no wish to try, but sucessful in using.. successful because when and original author exhousted giving birth of a project, they are fresh to use it.
    If they could vote, they vote to opposit.
    Where is the border between such interests?
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    Jun 25 2013: Alex, We are progressing rapidly into a very controlled educational environment. The federal government has introduced CORE and STEM and has sought to write all textbooks and develop all tests per Arne Duncan US Secretary of Education.

    So as this occurs the "state" opinion will be the official answer to all questions and all studies. In effect there cannot be plagiarism only "state" acceptable answers and not acceptable answers making this question moot.

    If I write E=MC 2 does anyone think it is mine ... do I need to give credit. If I sing Happy Birthday ... do I need to give credit? I have worked with some very successful people who have never had an original thought. If I take your basic idea and improve on it ... have I stolen your idea?

    Want to protect it get a copyright on it. Otherwise industrial spying, cheating, coping, and all the rest are just a part of the game.

    I wish you well. Bob.
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      Jun 25 2013: That's my point exactly... All knowledge is in the public domain and expressions and phrases and should be free for anyone to use at anytime.
  • Jun 25 2013: The identification of plagiarism is really not as simple as we may think. For example many term papers involve mathematics, may be copied using the exactly same procedure in the proof, but all the explanations are changed in wording. Unless it is a dissertation where even the the proofs must be original ideas, then of course it would be identified as plagiarism. Even for that, when this identification is checked by a computer matching in word by word, if a wicked plagiarist changed most of the explanation and changed the symbolic representation of the variables in the equations then, the computer may never be able to find it.
    By the way, I have never been such a plagiarist, but have been a victim of it.
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      Jun 25 2013: Computer couldn`t find plagiarizm correctly the same way it couldn`t think. If the freshness of an Idea blongs to precious play with meanings and context, a computer could lost it.
      On the other hand it should be algorithms to determine the border between half-copied and original matherials. Something used by patent organizations or registration of an images.
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      Jun 25 2013: But, how does one know if it is an original idea just because they cannot find it in another book or online. Do we actually think that Edison was the only one that invented the lightbulb? And, what if I copied 20% of a painter's painting, do I need to give him/her credit?
      • Jun 25 2013: The only party who could discover the plagiarism in this case is the original author or his relatives/colleagues/students, but also someone who is making a thorough survey of the particular topic. That's why there were lot of discoveries many years later by accident. However, in modern days, if someone decided to scrutinize some public figures and pick out a particular publication or academic dissertation, then it would be easy to search the particular topic, and find out the original publication that was plagiarized. In other word, the common routine in general screening of plagiarized contents can't be very effective, but a pinpointed examination using modern searching tools could do wonders. Only humans could identify which field and sub-field, etc. where the passage or formula likely belongs, and attempt to the search there.
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    Jun 24 2013: "When students cheat [plagiarize] on tests or exams its because our school system value grades more than students value learning" - Neil deGrasse Tyson
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      Jun 24 2013: Agree.
      Also I saw students found tests and exicizes not interesting so even don`t try to do something by themselves. If they try result is desaster sometimes... so they prefer to copy online.

      It`s an interesting question how to live all life in the world full of information in Internet. They could feel like everything was appeared as God created it. So use it as we use nature.
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    Jun 24 2013: There is a difference between copying something with attribution and copying something while representing it as ones own idea.

    Painters learn their techniques, often, by copying works of the masters. What then is not accepted is to claim these are originals and particularly to sell them as originals.

    In the classroom, when you ask students to write an essay, you probably want to know what the student is thinking rather than what the student sitting next to him was thinking or what he could find online.

    A related issue, I think, is making false attributions. Plagiarism is taking someone else's product as ones own and claiming such ownership or suggesting such ownership. The flip side of this is taking one's own ideas and attributing them to someone credible or well-known as a way of increasing people's willingness to accept them. It amounts to putting forward false evidence.

    In terms of schools' charters and mission statements, I don't think these necessarily offer an up-to-date representation of what the school means to do or that the various schools and faculties at an institution are necessarily aligned with any one mission statement, unless it is extremely broad.
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      Jun 24 2013: I think you have made some valid points. But, if I write a 500 word essay and 50 of those words came from someone else and were not my original thoughts, should I still give that person credit because I captured some of their thoughts, that could have been captured by someone who wrote them before him because that person plagiarized?

      I copy 10% of a work of art by a Master and the other 90% is mine - how should I define the ownership? And, is not that similar to a student copying a sentence from a 1500 word thesis that someone else wrote?

      I mentioned a school's charter/mission statements because I have worked for traditional colleges as well as proprietary colleges and their charters and mission statement are dramatically different. Proprietary schools has as their mission to find their graduates jobs and they are measured on doing exactly that; whereas traditional school are not measured on finding graduates jobs but they are measured on providing opportunities to gain knowledge and conduct research. Consequently, the roles of the professors in the classroom is completely different. In proprietary schools, professors are measure on the transfer of knowledge, so the responsibility is more on the professor than on the student. In traditional schools, the responsibility is more on the student than on the professor.

      In proprietary school we make sure our professors know how to teach adults - in traditional schools, it is assumed because of the PhD, that professors know how to teach adults. In most colleges and universities, professors use ppts and lectures to get the information across to the students. Research shows that students retain 10-15% when that method is used.

      Students who graduate from traditional school do in fact find employment but the awarding of the degree was not so they could find employment based upon their Charter and Mission Statements.
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        Jun 24 2013: Why could the student not have put those fifty words in quotation marks and cited the source?

        As a professor, wouldn't you consider that the norm for how work is done by professionals in the field you teach?

        I am not familiar with the terms "proprietary college" and "traditional college." I don't think I have ever read the charters or mission statements of the institutions where I have taught, and I have a hunch many faculty have not either.
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          Jun 24 2013: A proprietary school is one like ITT Technical Institute or Phoenix or Strayer. These schools guarantee by their mission statement to place students in jobs as a part of their degree funding arrangements. They are typically on average about 80-90% effective at doing that.

          A traditional school is typically a non-profit college although there are some for profit colleges that fall into that category as well.

          Proprietary schools take those students that are not accepted by traditional schools.

          According to MLA or APA guidelines, those 50 words should be cited, but that is not the point I was trying to make... Should they be logically, not according to APA or MLA guidelines... Just because we have guidelines does not mean that are right.

          Civil Disobedience.
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        Jun 24 2013: I wasn't referring to such guidelines. I was suggesting, rather, that the standards for students studying a subject should represent the standards that professionals in their field would hold to in their professional capacities. A history student, for example, would do his work in the same spirit as a historian.
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      Jun 25 2013: Fritzie . . . I don't like where this conversation is going. Plagiarism is important & wrong! Plagiarism is not right! Plagiarism is not correct behavior in a student. We are kind of drifting around here and these opinions expressed here are NOT always helpful. High School students in particular, need to KNOW that plagiarism can hurt your grades seriously! Plagiarism demonstrates a lack of academic integrity. And THAT won't get you into graduate school at all!

      There is so much available on the internet. I wrote a major paper in grad-school more than 10 years ago. Only ONE published work had the kind of information in it that I wanted. So I cited that work extensively. But I had to cite it with on-line footnotes referencing the web copy that I got access to. That was a real pain because I had to make up my own footnote form. The citations proved my research and strengthened those few ideas that were truly mine. I made it work.

      After I turned in the paper, THEN the library went out & got a copy of the book in question. Faculty had requested it. I got a good grade on my paper.

      But whatever unhelpful comments might be made here on this issue, Proof of Plagiarism will take an otherwise A+ paper & earn you a failing grade for your work. No reputable University will tolerate that.
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        Jun 25 2013: I agree with you that in scholarship, lifting text from others without attribution is a violation of intellectual integrity in any field in which I have worked or taught. This would have been just as true in the (non-academic) workplace.

        I think what the host of the thread is thinking about is that in the field in which he is training people, the custom may be to grab other people's material without attribution. When someone programs in Python, say, the program may involve importing modules that are available as part of Python in a bank of ready-made programs. The programmer would never-the-less consider the program his work.

        As you can see from my posts, I think the field and its standards should be represented with integrity in the classroom.
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    Jun 24 2013: if i want to tell a better story our of a state symbol in my country, i bet you that peoples work on symbols help me define my work in a sense that is african in nature and full of maturity...
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    Jun 24 2013: Plagiarism is best for young writer who have the idea and can use the grammatical layout of the authors writings to perfect his, am a good example of someone who uses plagiarism alot, and it makes me feel so good to the extent that, for a moment that is my talent, trying to bring my work out of others work.
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      Jun 24 2013: I see your point... and, if I use your ideas to incorporate within my ideas, it makes me a better writer...

      Van Gogh has a unique brush stroke when he painted, so is it plagiarism to use his brush stroke to make my painting better, even though my paintings my look like his?

      I also hear a phrase that I like somewhere that someone said in a conversation and I like that phrase so I use it in my writing to make my writing better, or I use that phrase as the core phrase in one of my poems...
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    Jun 24 2013: What is the base of copying?
    I was told about mirror neurons which responsible on. Also I was told by neuroscientist our brain was designed to make so smart operation so it will be able keep stay and save glucose. So to copy anothers decisions is in human nature - it seems in nature of 80-90% cases.
    Than have a glance to professional field. Profession of writing, designe, also to be an artist or a scientist strongly requires to be unical. Several neuronet effects support it, in physiology it calls Uchtomsky dominant and ultra-strange behaviour. But not everyone could perform it.

    In biology exists nice instrument calls Severtsev plane. It split all creatures into 3 levels:
    the middle, about 80% of persons, forms statistical norma, a genetic pool to stable breeding. This is no revolution here. A little bit funny style is OK, but no inventions.
    About 10% goes upper the middle plane, it`s evolutional and revolutional models. Such way nature tryes variants. If a half of that pool will be mistakes, 80% fro the middle level could reproduct the population. If 10% successfull, it will be spreaded to the middle population and becomes a new norma that way.
    ...And the low part of the plane is for parasits. To those who degradated and lives off the middle level.

    If we go back to the problem described, we can see all of that natural mechanisms here. Computers made everything visible and so sharp we can`t deny it.

    As an artist and scientist (in past) I represent 10% of the evolution plane. I feel myself vulnerable in front of the problem because copypasting grows as a forestfire and as I see made people more vulgar. They save their glucoze all time. I think the base of teaching should be changed now. So copypast matherials to common subjects will not be required. Ask students for analysis, not for referats. But it`s the risk because not everyone could do analysis well.
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    Jun 24 2013: Alex, what do you mean, the real world doesn't punish plagiarism. We had a columnist in our local paper, a guy in his '40's teaching at a local high school also. He was caught plagiarizing his columns, and fired from the paper, and, I think, really publicly humiliated.
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      Jun 24 2013: I should have qualified my comment by saying 90% of the time, the real world does not punish plagiarism. Because you are right, especially in the field of journalism and writing for Trade Journals, plagiarism is not tolerated, and also in the field of music and writers, and no doubt a few other places as well, so maybe I should drop down to 80% just to be on the safe side.

      When Dean Smith conceived the idea of a 4 corners offense in basketball at UNC, other schools copied his direction with no credit ever been given. Actors have copied gestures that they have like and even comedians steal each others materials.

      OPEC oil has copied American modification of the supply and demand curve by holding back on the production of oil to increase the price.

      We have copyrights and patents in the US for protection but they are not observed in Asia or other countries. Businesses reverse engineer products so that they can build copy cats. Lawyers copy legal tactics that work in courts.

      I am sure there are other examples, but these are the ones that come to mind right now.

      Thanks for your input...
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        Jun 24 2013: Well, it's harder to copyright an idea, or a practice than something that's more concrete, or specific. For example, I don't think Smith could copyright the 4 corners offense...well, come to think of it, it's kind of hard to say why. Well, I'm sorry, Alex, the best I can say at this point is that because it's a practice it's hard to copyright, and that seems correct to me. Part of it might be that even if other people employ a four corners offense, they're still going to modify it to meet their own needs, well, even that doesn't explain it, well, I'll have to think about it. Is it possible that it's really hard to "prove" at any one moment that someone is running a four corners offense, sports has a lot of movement, people move around, jockey, in basketball they set screens. I don't know, even that answer doesn't do it for me, it sure feels right to me that he can't copyright that, and it has something to do with it being rather intangible, I think. I'll have to think about it, sorry, I thought I knew but thus far I don't. Do you think he should be allowed to copyright the offense?
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        Jun 24 2013: One thought that occurs is that there's a fairly limited number of ways five people can arrange themselves on a basketball court. If you allowed people to copyright those ways, and people couldn't go to those arrangements without getting sued, you'd pretty soon have almost noone playing basketball.
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          Jun 24 2013: I think you have given me something to think about. You cannot copyright an idea but if you put that idea into an advertisement, you can copyright the ad, but the copyright lasts for only 26 years I think and then it falls back into the public domain.

          Can knowledge be copyrighted or patented? Is there anything new about having knowledge? Does it not seem like knowledge should be free to everyone? But, we have to go to College to get a piece of paper that says we have knowledge, but then, isn't our knowledge just like everyone else's knowledge?

          So, when we write a paper that draws on other people's knowledge (that happens to be in the public domain I would think?) why do we need to give them credit when in actuality they deserve no credit because someone else had the idea before them. And, it we believe in Creation, then all knowledge and all ideas and all usages of those ideas have been given to us by our Creator, so should we not give Him credit - if in fact, He is a He...

          I wrote a book of poetry back in 1977 and it was copyrighted to protect my writings but those poems are now in the public domain because I did not renew the copyright, so anyone can use them, even though I was the one who wrote them first... Is this plagiarism? Or, does plagiarism, like copyrights, have an expiration date?
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        Jun 24 2013: Thanks for replying, Alex. Still trying to figure it out. It seems like you can't copyright the general concept of music, but you can copyright particular pieces of music. No one has copyrighted the idea of television, but they can copyright particular television apparatuses, systems, circuitries. All this "feels" right, but I'm still working on putting it into words.