Friday, December 03, 2010

I'm sorry you feel that way

Editor’s note
A few years ago, when I was trying to be diligent about posting regularly to this blog, I tossed off a Seinfeld-style observation about something of no particular import. No, I’m not going to link to it in this post, for reasons that may become clear as you read on.

Unbeknown to me, it turns out that the title I chose for the post is actually a phrase people search on with some frequency. As luck would have it, my post floated to the top of the search listings for that phrase, was then scraped for a while by some miscreant in the Philippines (outside the reach of U.S. law), thus further raising the visibility in search listings of the original post. The way major search engines work, the higher something is in the listing, the more likely it is to be clicked, and the more often it is clicked, the higher it goes in the listing. So here we are, more than three years later, and a little squib I tossed off is still high on search listings.

A couple of weeks ago, in a moment of idle procrastination, I searched for the first sentence of that post. And there it was: my blog post, yes; but also a link to a newsletter published by a small rural public school in an English-speaking country. I clicked the link, and a Microsoft Word document file opened. There was my blog post, presented as the school principal’s letter at the top of the newsletter, over the principal’s signature, with no acknowledgment that the words were not his own.

And thus begins the tale…
Dear [redacted],

The Principal’s Message in your school’s newsletter, [redacted], over your signature, is directly taken from a blog post I wrote on [redacted]. My blog is copyright, with notice of copyright given in the footer of every page. Your newsletter column gave no indication that the words were not your own and in particular gave no credit to me.

I do understand that my article has been posted without my permission on other sites from time to time and that you may have copied the text from someplace other than my blog. Nonetheless, you, or whoever “wrote” the column in your newsletter, knew or should have known that taking someone else’s words and passing them off as yours is both illegal and a violation of one of the fundamental tenets of scholarship.

Whether or not the copyright infringement and plagiarism were the result of your own actions or those of a subordinate to whom you delegated the writing of the column, I think this was a poor example to set for your school’s students. I believe you owe them—and me—a public apology, in language that shows you accept responsibility for this serious infraction.

Thank you for your attention.

The principal replied:
I am very sorry that your article was used in our Newsletter without your permission or acknowledging your work.

I will ensure that this never happens again and an apology will apear in our next edition.

That didn’t sit well with me.
Thank you for writing back to me.

Let me try this again.

[Your country], like the United States, is party to the Berne Convention. Copyright infringement is a serious violation of [your country’s] law just as it is a serious violation of U.S. law, and enforcement is international.

More important—in this case much more important—you are the principal of a school. Plagiarism, which has become rampant in higher education to the point that it threatens the integrity of the whole system (see starts with a presumption on students’ parts that it doesn’t matter. If you, in your role as an adult model for young children, engage in plagiarism, then you are essentially condoning their cheating in their own studies; and that’s a despicable thing to do to them.

Moreover, the public actually takes this issue seriously in many cases: politicians’ careers have been damaged or have ended entirely because of disclosures of plagiarized speeches. Senior scientists have been professionally disgraced and have lost their jobs over this issue.

Now I can see from your photos on the Web that you are a young [person]. And you are further handicapped by being an educator. So I am not particularly surprised at the inadequacy of your apology. Therefore, I’ll offer you another chance, with some friendly editorial coaching.

Let’s look at your first sentence: “I am very sorry that your article was used in our Newsletter….” I don’t doubt that you are sorry (or will be, eventually). However, your use of the passive voice (“your article was used”) serves only to deflect responsibility to some unknown agent. That’s one of the main uses of the passive voice—deflecting agency to an unknown actor. So this is the form people use when they want to issue a non-apology. I’m sure you’ve heard many people say things like “I’m sorry you feel that way [but by implication it’s not my fault]” or “I’m sorry your dog was killed [but the fact I ran her over isn’t my responsibility].” That’s a non-apology, as was yours. An actual apology begins with the words “I’m sorry I,” as in “I’m sorry I killed your dog.”

My work did not appear in your newsletter by magic. Someone put it there. It appears over your signature. So I expect an apology that begins with the words “I’m sorry I” followed by an action verb that tells me what you did.

Now let’s look at your second sentence: “I will ensure that this never happens again and an apology will appear in our next edition.” The first clause promises something quite outside your control to make it happen. The most you can ensure is that you will never engage in this activity again, and I would like to hear that from you. The second clause promises that an apology will magically appear, but it does not say that you will be the one apologizing. I would like to hear that from you as well.

So let’s look at what an appropriate remedy would be at this point.

1. It is absolutely necessary that you remove the contraband newsletter from the server where it resides. There should be no way for a search engine to locate that document on the Internet. It is up to you whether a link returns a 404-not found error or redirects to a substitute document. My preference would be that it redirects to a substitute document that explains why the original newsletter was removed (referencing this incident).

2. I expect a rewritten apology that takes into account the editorial advice above.

3. I want to see and approve in advance the apology you will issue to your community. And I want you to send me directly (by email) a copy of the newsletter in which it appears.

4. I would like to be invited to address a school assembly on the subject of cheating (in an age-appropriate way), specifically with regard to plagiarism and copyright infringement, at your personal expense (rather than out of the school’s budget). I will be in [your area] in May 2011 and could speak at your school the afternoon of 10 May. My fee for this engagement will be US$___ plus round trip travel between [large city] and [your town].

My hope is that this will become a learning experience for you and that you will rise to my challenge to take this incident as seriously as I do.

When nothing further came my way, I wrote to the head of the regional education department. After a bit of bureaucratic buck-passing, I received a letter last night from the principal’s boss and responded as below (italics are what I wrote).
Dear Mr Margulis

I refer to your previous emails to [redacted] (“School”) regarding the use of some material posted on your website in the School Newsletter, the [redacted].

Thank you for responding.

As it appears that you have not fully accepted [the principal’s] apology, [she/he] has asked me to respond as School Education Director for the [redacted] area.

Here we differ. I do not accept that [the principal’s] response was an apology. As [she/he] never offered an apology, there was nothing for me to accept. This is a point of some importance in public life, and it’s worth dwelling on for a moment. As I tried to convey to [the principal], the essence of apology is the acknowledgment of responsibility. The basic form of an apology is “I’m sorry I did that.” That implies remorse for having done something injurious to another. The form [the principal] used, “I am very sorry that your article was used,” lacks any acknowledgment of responsibility. I am very sorry that tyrants kidnap children and turn them into soldiers in Africa; I am very sorry the world’s economy is in recession and that a great many people are unemployed; I am very sorry that tuberculosis still kills millions of people. None of those statements implies remorse for my responsibility in causing any of those terrible conditions to exist. “I’m sorry I stepped on your toe” is an apology. “I’m sorry your toe hurts” is a non-apology. [the principal] offered a non-apology.

See, for example, for analysis of this point by a world-renown linguist.

[The principal] has advised me that [she/he] does not remember the website where [she/he] accessed the material, however [she/he] has provided an apology to you on the 22 November 2010 for any inadvertent use of your material without receiving your permission. In addition, I understand that the Newsletter was removed from the School’s website on 1 December 2010.

Your understanding is incorrect. The following link still retrieves the document(I just checked). Hence it is still available on the World Wide Web and is available on a Web search, which is how I found it in the first place.

[link redacted]

You have a legal obligation to remove the document from the server where it resides. I’m reasonably certain that there are enforceable statutory penalties for leaving it up there and that such penalties accrue daily. I’m not the sort of nasty person who goes around launching international lawsuits over such matters, but someday you may run into someone who is. As I said in my email of 22 November, “It is up to you whether a link returns a 404-not found error or redirects to a substitute document. My preference would be that it redirects to a substitute document that explains why the original newsletter was removed (referencing this incident).”

In any case, “provided an apology…for any inadvertent use” doesn’t come close to acceptance of responsibility.

[The principal] has learned a valuable lesson from this matter and the importance of respecting an author’s copyright. [She/he] has assured me that [she/he] will make every effort to comply with copyright requirements in the future and has again expressed [his/her] sincere apology to you for [his/her] actions. As previously advised a formal public apology will be made in the next School Newsletter which will be sent to you.

It’s nice to hear from you that [the principal] has learned a lesson. It is completely opaque to me why [she/he] wasn’t able to write back to me asserting as much for [him/her]self, thus saving you a great deal of time and trouble. But I will take you at your word on that point, as I imagine the cost in administrative and legal time [she/he] has caused the department has been impressed upon [him/her] to [her/his] everlasting regret (if not, please don’t disabuse me of my fantasy).

The [redacted] (“Department”) does not consider that it would be appropriate for you to address the school on plagiarism and copyright infringement. The Department has a Copyright Unit which provides a broad range of information and advice to staff on these issues. In addition there are learning programs for students in the Kindergarten to Year 6 range which includes an awareness that deliberately copying the work of others and claiming ownership is plagiarism.

Well, that’s a bit of a disappointment for me, because I think it would have been a fun presentation for me and for the students, as well as an opportunity for [the principal] to appear contrite in a constructive way. However, I’m glad that you do teach young children that cheating is wrong, as it’s a fundamental lesson.

I have asked that all staff at the school include a component on copyright and plagiarism in their next Staff Development Day.

These are two separate concepts, and I hope the teaching component clarifies the distinction. Copyright infringement injures me. Plagiarism corrupts the institution. The first consists of taking property that is not yours. It is a commercial tort, and yet we make fair use exceptions so that teachers can often get away with wholesale copying—of almost anything but a textbook—for educational purposes, without threat of penalty (so long as they acknowledge their sources). The second consists of claiming credit for someone else’s work. This is a critical concept in all academic settings, and those charged with the education of children should understand it in their bones. We, as a society, entrust educational institutions to award diplomas and degrees to people based on the work those people do. We expect those institutions to police their students with regard to plagiarism; to the extent that they fail to do so, their integrity—and our trust in them—is undermined.

On behalf of the [Department], I offer a further apology for the use of your copyright material without first obtaining permission.

Permission would have freely been offered had it been sought. And, frankly, if [the principal] had merely cited [her/his] source, I’d have been happy to be quoted even if permission had not been sought. I will gladly accept the department’s institutional apology once the document is removed from the web server. I don’t see how it substitutes for a simple and direct apology from [the principal], though.

Yours sincerely

Please let me know when the department’s IT administrator has successfully quarantined the contraband document against public access over the Internet. And I would still appreciate a simple and direct apology from [the principal], as evidence of lesson learned. I know some people are constitutionally incapable of remorse, but I should hope that’s not the sort of person you would place in charge of schoolchildren.

If you feel I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, well, I’m sorry you feel that way.


Kristi said...

In early 2009 I edited a great book, "Effective Apology" by John Kador. It's one of those "everyone should read" books. I learned a tremendous amount (and I have put it into practice). Dick, I can see that you already knows your stuff, apology-wise. You may not get the ultimate satisfaction you seek from the offender (and his/her apologists), but you have produced a deeply satisfying record and commentary of this, er, episode. I'm going to share the link with John Kador. I know he'll appreciate it!

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...


stylinjulie said...

Thank you for standing up and holding your ground for ethics, integrity, accountability, and truth.

Jane Mackay said...

Bravo indeed! Thank you on behalf of all creators for fighting this fight.

The Book Doctor said...

Hear, hear! Dick, your effort is heroic; I hope it has some effect.

Stephen Lacey said...

I think I recognize the country, mate, and greatly admire the way you dealt with the situation.

RedHeadedQuilter said...

I hope you update us if they reply again. It's a shame you can't tell us exactly who this is and how to reach them. I think a letter-writing campaign from several editors and writers might impress upon "him/her" even more that this *is* a serious incident.

Dick Margulis said...

@RHQ: I'll provide updates when I can. I may reveal identities if the situation isn't resolved to my satisfaction. I've also considered contacting the local newspaper, in which case names will be named. For now, I'm trying to resolve this privately. I'd like to encourage the principal to behave like an adult and I'll consider myself successful if that happens.

Peter Marquis-Kyle said...

Dick, thank you for recounting this disturbing story. Please let us know what happens next. But don't hold your breath waiting for a proper outcome.

It reminded me of an experience I had.

John Kador said...

It's a revealing apology tale. As the author of a book on apology, I would have accepted the educator's first letter. See my analysis of your situation in my blog at

Dick Margulis said...

@John Kador: I appreciate your taking the time to comment. Obviously you and I differ about this, but as my mother used to say, that's what makes chocolate and vanilla.

WriterRuth said...

Good on you, Dick!

I'm guessing you're talking at a much higher level and in far greater detail, at greater length, than either the principal or school representative can or will follow, but it's still worth the effort.

Sarah said...

Great post, Dick! Very rarely do I experience people who are called out for plagiarism giving an apology for plagiarizing. And in a world of copy-and-paste, plagiarizing is that much easier. Let us know if you make it any further with these guys.