Thoughts on Watson and Plagiarism

Last week Jeopardy featured a match between two of their most successful champions and Watson, a computer system developed by IBM.

The final score  from Jeopardy’s IBM challenge.
No copyright infringement intended

From a librarian’s perspective, Watson’s ability to seemingly understand natural language (well, most of the time) is very intriguing.  One of the challenges facing humans who are searching for information is figuring out which search terms to use, and the ability to discern meaning could make searching much more effective.  While entering a few terms into a search engine works for some queries, there are times where basic searches don’t do well that require some human ingenuity to find an answer.

Another interesting thing is that as of this writing, you can watch the Watson’s Jeopardy appearance on Rashad8821’s YouTube channel. Rashad8821 self-identifies as a 22 year old college student, and I am somewhat surprised that Jeopardy Productions or Sony has not asked YouTube to remove these videos (yet?).  I find it hard to believe that the lawyers saw the “NO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT IS INTENDED” message and decided that it was OK as long as the copyright violation wasn’t intentional. Maybe the copyright owner sees value in such exposure from fans.

However, surprising this is, I was even more surprised by this excerpt from Edward Glaeser’s  new book, Triumph of the City.:

“Following common practices, Wikipedia is not listed in the bibliography or citations, because any Wikipedia fact was verified with a more standard source. But I still have a great debt to the anonymous toilers of Wikipedia who made my research much easier at many points in time. I apologize if any phrases from that, or any other source, crept into my prose – one research assistant was assigned the explicit task of purging such inadvertent borrowing – but mistakes do sometimes get through.”

According Harvard University, Dr. Glaser’s employer, lack of intention to plagiarize is not a sufficient excuse, at least not for students:

“Even if you don’t intend to copy the source, you may end up committing [mosaic] plagiarism as a result of careless note-taking and confusion over where your source’s ideas end and your own ideas begin. You may think that you’ve paraphrased sufficiently, or quoted relevant passages, but if you haven’t taken careful notes along the way, or if you’ve cut and pasted from your sources, you can lose track of the boundaries between your own ideas and those of your sources. It’s not enough to have good intentions and to cite some of the material you use.”

While one cannot draw conclusions from two examples, I wonder if this is somehow indicative of a trend towards less rigid intellectual property enforcement.  Is it OK to post copyrighted material to YouTube as long as the copyright owner doesn’t protest?  Is it OK to plagiarize a little bit, as long as it wasn’t intentional. Does apologizing in advance make it OK?

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