Thursday, March 13, 2014

Playing Chess with Pigeons in the Cursed Earth | The assault on professional heritage writing

Hi there! I’m Robert M Chapple and I’d like you to read my blog.

If you like the articles I write, or those by the guest authors who pop in from time to time, I’d love it if you’d consider sending me a small donation via PayPal (it’s down there on the right – you can’t miss it!). Failing that, I’d be immensely grateful if you could use the Amazon search portal – it’s down there on the right, too … again, ya can’t miss it! I particularly like that one because every time you use it Amazon pays me (literally) a few pence in advertising fees, but it doesn’t cost you a penny! It's totally optional - I make no demands for payment! That said, I’m not in it for the money – I just love writing and this gives me a great means of remaining connected to the world of archaeology, even though I no longer make my living there. The thing that really keeps me going on this blog is knowing that there are people out there who’re interested in what I write and the work of the other like-minded individuals who’ve trusted me with their own writing. I love seeing when people share my work on various forms of social medial, like Facebook, Twitter, +Google, or Reddit, etc. When we are so overwhelmed with interesting and exciting material coming at us from all directions, it truly humbles me to think that there are people out there who liked what’s on my blog enough to share it with others. Occasionally, I even get emails or messages to say that people enjoy or appreciate what I’ve written and published. I must sound like an idiot when I reply to some of these as I gush my thanks back to them, but it’s an honest response – I’m utterly delighted and amazed that someone has liked it enough to write and say ‘thanks’. When you think of all the fantastic writers out there – in archaeology alone – and someone thought enough of my contribution to send a message … it blows me away every time!

The delicate art of playing chess with a pigeon (Source)

But, do you know what I don’t like? It’s when someone tries to take that away from me! Without indulging in profanity, I can say that it irks me greatly. Thankfully, my experience has been that issues of the theft of intellectual property are few and far between on social media. Sure, there’s plenty of sharing of material – that’s what social media are all about. Post a link here, share a post there … it’s a fantastic way of getting your work seen by those outside of your immediate social group. I’ve benefited immensely from this, and my mission is to be as generous in the promotion of the interesting work of others as they have been to me. I’ve rarely encountered a situation where enough of a post has been reproduced as to make reading the original on my blog unnecessary.

That situation changed for me last week (Friday March 7th 2014). In looking at the statistics that are available on the ‘back end’ of Google’s Blogspot site, I noticed a small spike in views (about 50) on T. G. Fewer’s paper ‘The archaeology of the Great Famine: time for a beginning?’. As I say, I’m grateful for all and any views that come my way, but I did wonder at the sudden resurgence in interest in this paper that first appeared on my blog the best part of two years ago. With a little bit of sleuthing and tactical guess work, I traced the source to a Facebook page called: Irish Holocaust-Push to Educate the Facts. I might have expected to find a link to the blog with a short note saying ‘look at this, folks!’ … or ‘check this out’ … maybe even ‘this does not fit the narrative we’re pursuing, but let us respectfully critique their approach’ … ok, maybe not the last one! Instead, what I found was that they’d done a ‘copypasta’ and lifted almost the entirety of Fewer’s article. They’d removed my introduction and the notes at the end, but otherwise it was pretty much the whole text. It’s just shy of 5,000 words and is a smidge over eight A4 pages of text. True, they did insert a sentence at the beginning noting that it came from my blog … well they would have, if they hadn’t misspelled my name. Anyone looking for ‘Chappelle Blog’ will find a whole lot more about the comedian Dave Chappelle than they will about me. I’m sure the gentleman has many fine qualities, attributes, and achievements, but running a blog mostly dedicated to Irish archaeology doesn’t appear to be one of them. They did actually provide a link to the blog … but it was right at the end of the piece. I may be vastly alone in this, but I find that after reading a 5,000 word post, I’m somewhat under inclined to begin it all again from the top in another form, no matter how attractive that may be. Greg Fewer’s an excellent author, and this is a fine piece of writing … but I’m not going to read it twice in one sitting. Their post had quite a few ‘likes’ (I can’t remember exactly how many, but fairly respectable) and 175 ‘shares’ from the page, along with over 20 comments. One of the comments even said ‘I read the whole thing on this page’ (words to that effect – It’s not an exact quote). Even if we imagine that the 175 ‘shares’ were the only reads, that’s still 3.5 times more than the post got directly on my blog on that day.

How do you copy pasta? (Source)
I probably should have let it go. I probably should have clicked away to some other part of the internet and forgotten all about it. Unfortunately, I did not. Just as I was about to report the matter to Facebook for theft of intellectual property two things occurred to me. The first was a memory of Joy Lynskey’s article ‘The Real Story Behind Facebook Moderation and Your Petty Reports’ on The Internet Offends Me blog that reminded me that there are much bigger evils out there that the people behind the scenes at Facebook are battling with than my little issue. The other portion of this was the belief that, if you approach people reasonably and politely, they’ll respond in kind.

Apparently the old saying ‘there’s no fool like anold fool’ is right! … or, at the very least: ‘there’s no fool like a middle-aged fool’.

This was my message:
Hi there, You have copied and pasted virtually the entirety of the post by TG Fewer posted on my blog ( I appreciate that you have provided a link to the blog, but this form of cut & paste is simply not fair. Rather than report your actions to Facebook for violation of intellectual property rights, I'd ask you to edit the post so that only a small portion of the test is available on your page. Anyone wishing to read the whole piece should read it on the blog where it was legitimately published.I hope we can resolve this in an amicable manner.
Robert M Chapple
The three sentence response I got was to remind me that my name was mentioned and that there was a link to the post. There was no offer of action, nor any words of contrition, merely: ‘Hope this will cover acknowledging your blog and you will get new members’.

My feeling was that this was insufficient. Nothing of substance had changed from before, so I reckoned: in for a penny, in for a pound!

My reply:
Hi Mary Lou,
I'm sorry, but I must insist that you do not quote the vast majority of the post as you have done. Adding a link to the blog is fine and much appreciated, but the format you have chosen ensures that the vast majority of the people on your page read the post there and not on my blog. This explicitly denies me visitors to my blog. I don't propose to continue this discussion any further, and ask you again to delete the vast majority of the text you have taken from my blog. If you do not wish to do this, I will reluctantly have to lodge a complaint against your theft of my intellectual property with Facebook.
Robert M Chapple

A little while later I received a message saying that they’d originally deleted half the post. Maybe they had, maybe they hadn’t, but half was insufficient. I was told that they’d never (actually: ‘NEVER’ … because if it’s in capitals you’re shouting!) received a complaint like this before and that they were now deleting the whole thing. I probably should have left it there. That’s what a sane grown-up would have done. I should have shook my head, run my fingers through my greying locks and ruefully ‘tutted’ at the silliness and incivility in the world.

I’m not that guy!

My reply:
Thank you for removing the post. I'm sorry to have been the first to complain about your policies, but I'm sure if you continue to steal content from legitimate sources, I will not be the last.
Reading it over now, it does seem just a little petulant and bitchy. However, I stand by my use of the term ‘steal’. My name and link may have been broadly attached to the post (though Greg's name - the actual author - was not mentioned at all). But I was being deprived of the legitimate benefit of having placed that piece of work on my blog. I don’t want to turn into the quintessential barrack room lawyer, but I would propose that this assessment is not incompatible with the definition given in the Theft Act (1968). I then received two messages in quick succession. The first denied that there was any theft involved, and suggested that the ‘gentlemanly approach, instead of threats, could have been to say thank-you in the comments and issue an invitation to the members to join your blog’. I was also reminded for the second time that they have ‘NEVER’ had such a complaint as this. I can but presume that the intention here was to demonstrate that the issue lay with me and not with them. I will be frank and add that the characterisation of my messages – either in language or tone – as ‘threats’ angered me. This is the point where I ran my fingers through my immaculate locks, gently shook my magnificent head and thought: this is like playing chess with a pigeon! The adage goes: ‘Debating X on the topic of Y is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon - it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory’. I decided to leave well enough alone and just drop the topic – no good could come from this. My resolve lasted a full 13 minutes! The first message had arrived at 20:40 and a second one made its joyful appearance into the world at 20:50. The tone was unabashedly aggressive, instructing me to ‘read the beginning of your own blog’. Just in case I’d forgotten the little rubric I stick at the front of almost everything on there, I had it quoted to me:

[** If you like this post, please make a donation to the IR&DD project using the button at the end. If you think the post is useful, please re-share via Facebook, Google+, Twitter etc. **]

I was also told that ‘I went further than posting...I gave credit and the link’. I feel that the fact that this person had obviously ignored the ‘please make a donation’ piece is ripe for mockery, but may just come off as a little mean. I’m not going to do that, but you can bet I’m thinking it! I’ve read and re-read that simple sentence, and all I can see is a request to ‘re-share’ the post, not cut and paste the whole thing in a manner that denies my blog or the original author any benefit from it. A wiser guy would have contemplated his amazing hair, produced a manful sigh, maybe even engaged in a bit of lightly sarcastic eye-rolling and gotten the heck on with his life.

Just so we’re clear: I’m not that guy (except for the amazing hair!)

At just after 9pm on a Friday night – when I should have been spending time with my family, maybe even opening a decent bottle of wine – I sent a final response in the hope that any lingering misapprehensions could be cleared up and, if not, the conversation was going to end one way or another.

My response:
I asked nicely the first time.
When you chose not to comply, I merely offered to send the matter to Facebook for them to deal with. That is hardly a threat. As for posting directly to your site, I felt that the more 'gentlemanly' approach was to contact you privately, as opposed to calling you on this in public. Turns out I was wrong.
Please allow me to be clear on one point - the definition of 'sharing' on social media is to post the link, not cut and paste the entire article. You make much of your generosity in ensuring that my name is mentioned. However, you appear to neither notice nor care that you misspelled my surname on both occasions.
I realise that there is no way that I can convince you of the impropriety of your actions in this matter. For this reason, I think that it is best that we terminate this conversation. Any further communication from you will, I'm afraid be reported to Facebook as harassment. This is not a threat, it is a promise.

Right! Honestly – that was where I was going to leave it. Truly, no good could come from pursuing this any further. I had spoken about it to a few friends in person and had a general discussion about the issues of plagiarism on Facebook that weekend (though no names were mentioned in public). I certainly never intended to write about this for this blog. That was until yesterday (March 12th 2014). One person with whom I had discussed the issue emailed me to say ‘take a look at this: I think it’s you they’re talking about!’ … you know what? … I think it is!

Here’s the full text of what they published:
“Irish History behind bars on the www. They are invisible bars protected with copyright laws and so forth. This is to protect bloggers, organisations et al from losing money it seems whilst protecting their rights to their material published. Has our history now become a revenue generator for such individuals and organisations? Is this what it's all about? All should have free access to history. History is just that, it's already happened, its been written about by many people over many generations, books have been published, it has been regurgitated to the point that the source has disappeared into the mists of time, yet anything newly published of the old history under a new name is subject to copyright. It might be worth considering a suggestion that Bloggers and organisations publish excerpts of their works for free distribution to all as a taster and if the reader wants to pursue more information they be invited to pay a fee to an individual or blogger or website owner to access the rest of the information or an invitation to purchase the book or publication. Allowing ready access is causing lots of difficulties to amateur history lovers and explorers and sharers which is a new concept on the superhighway as information is spread across the globe.More responsibility should be put on those who wish to publish their works on an open forum such as the www in respect of applying restricted access to their sites. Of course, there are a small number who are happy to share their works with the public because of their own love of history and their wish to allow free access to all.
*** We are a non profit, non financial generator, we have no selling traps on our page. Our team spends many hundreds of hours over many years voluntarily to bring you information on the Irish Holocaust/Genocide and on many other areas of Irish history and we will continue to do so.”
As I see it, there are two issues here. One is the nature of this page in particular, and the other is the assault on what may be termed ‘professional heritage writers’. I would define this latter group as people with a formal, university-level training in archaeology, history, and any allied fields that contribute to our understanding of the past. Their mode of writing may be blogging, but extends to formal publications in books, peer-reviewed journals, and popular magazines.

However, first we have to address the elephant in the room – the nature of this particular page. I am of the opinion that this is nothing less than a hate speech site. From what I have seen, their stock in trade is a blend of that form of Irish and American nationalisms that seek to blame ‘The British’ for all ills, both real and imagined. It is true that not everyone agrees that this form of narrative constitutes ‘hate speech’, possibly because the legacy of Empire casts a long shadow ... but that’s what it is. Their central argument is that the use of either the English word ‘Famine’ or the Irish term ‘an Gorta Mór’ is an inaccurate means of describing the failure of the potato crop in the years 1845 to 1852, along with the attendant mass emigration and large-scale death from disease and starvation that went with it. Instead, they prefer to see this period as one of a concerted genocide, or holocaust, against the Irish people by the British state. The means by which they seek to promote their message is through emotional appeals to crude nationalistic forms, frequently relying on obsolete historical thinking, carefully screened and selected facts, along with simple historical inaccuracies. All of this, in my estimation, is conducted without any genuine knowledge or care for actual history, but is a smokescreen for political sentiment. In short, I find it abhorrent and repugnant. No matter how they choose to dress it up, it is hate speech pure and simple. However, that’s not the issue here. In the quote frequently misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” My concern here partially with that form of delusion that seems to be prevalent amongst extremist groups of victimisation and censorship by anyone who doesn’t hold their particular set of views. For example, a recent post on the page attempted to frame Facebook attempting to wring a few quid out of them to promote their posts as a form of censorship (IS OUR TRUTH BEING CENSORED BY FB: ‘Censoring or money....either or both are keeping our message from being spread’). This form of world view, while repulsive, is well known and well documented.

I will have to leave it to the future to address some of their more egregious twisting and manipulation of historical sources to spread their extremist agenda. Here I must confine myself to some comments on their apparent views of heritage research, copyright issues, and heritage professionals generally. As noted above, their contention that Irish history is being held behind bars is a common misrepresentation among this type of group to show themselves as victims of oppression and intolerance by external forces bent on suppressing their particular brand of ‘truth’. This is nothing of the sort. No one has demanded money from them, merely clear and appropriate recognition of the sources they have used. This is – or should have been – a minor and insignificant internet spat that they now contrive to blow up into another tale of persecution and suppression. Their contention that ‘All should have free access to history’ is ostensibly commendable, laudable, and reminiscent of George Santayana’s phrase that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. However, the following sentence shows either a comprehensive lack of understanding of history, or of a philosophical depth that I am too intellectually limited to comprehend:

‘History is just that, it's already happened, its been written about by many people over many generations, books have been published, it has been regurgitated to the point that the source has disappeared into the mists of time, yet anything newly published of the old history under a new name is subject to copyright.’

On the balance of probabilities, I’m thinking that it’s not the latter. Because the events described have already occurred, they must by definition be in the public record and free for all to use - that much we all can agree on. However, my understanding of the next part is that each new book and research paper only serves to further obscure the reality of these events … apparently. Throughout this, historians appear to be part of some secret and oppressive cabal to impose a myth of ‘copyright’ on a sleeping population. I presume that this is just a ruse to maintain those lucrative academic positions and keep the sweet, sweet nectar of continued grant money flowing. Their suggestion that ‘Bloggers and organisations publish excerpts of their works for free distribution to all as a taster’ just strikes me as insane. Oh ... hang on a minute … that happens already! Some academic papers are locked behind pay walls and you can’t get your hands on anything beyond an abstract or synopsis without handing over cash. It’s not always nice, and it’s frequently expensive, but it’s the way that it is. In the same way that books aren’t carefully stacked on shelves and marketed by publishers and bookshops just so they can be given away – they too expect you to hand over your cash before you can have a read. Yes, that’s terribly inconvenient and (again) quite costly, but crying out that your ‘truth’ is being oppressed is not the answer.

In any event, this is a total red herring as the majority of the material that has been copied and pasted en mass on this page (it’s not just stuff from my blog that’s being lifted) is material that is freely available on the internet by the authors and publishers … it’s just that we require and deserve the correct recognition for that work. What no one affected by this issue deserves is to have their work purloined and extracted to appear in total on someone else’s page. The contention of this group that “More responsibility should be put on those who wish to publish their works on an open forum such as the www in respect of applying restricted access to their sites” is simply wrong-headed. It’s saying that ‘we took your stuff, but it’s your fault for allowing us near it’. I have two young sons that fight together as much as they play together. They’re quite adept at creating faux-logical arguments such as ‘he started it – he hit me back’ … I don’t accept that from two under-10s and I don’t accept it here. This is a nonsense argument that, once again, seeks to place the blame on external oppressors, rather than take any responsibility for their own actions. Not only that, but there are clear and well-established precedents for referencing both printed and online resources.

Dredd (Source)

Approximately 4,000 words into this post and I am acutely aware that I am still engaged in a futile game of chess with that proverbial pigeon … no matter how well I perform here, there is little chance of convincing these people that either their view of history is based on political prejudice, rather than any true understanding of the actual events, sources, of broader historical context. Neither will I be able to convince them that their manner of sharing material freely available on the internet is unfair, abusive, and amounts to theft. However, as heritage professionals – archaeologists, historians, genealogists, and affiliated disciplines – we owe it to ourselves and our respective areas of study to take up the fight with those who seek to obscure and distort our history, and use it for their own shameful ends. In the face of ignorance and prejudice, we must strive to promote a genuine understanding of our past, based on documents, sources, and a full comprehension of the broader cultural context. Like the retired Judges in 2000AD, we must take The Long Walk and go out into the radioactive wasteland of the Cursed Earth not to ‘bring law to the lawless’, but to meet these gross distortions head on, to challenge these divisive and fabricated narratives, and to speak out as a voice for real truth and sanity. I don’t imagine that it will be a particularly successful or pleasant excursion, but it is the right thing to do. As Don McLean sang in Starry Starry Night: ‘They would not listen, they're not listening still. Perhaps they never will’ … but we’ve still got to try.

No comments:

Post a Comment