Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Copyright Infingement, Intellectual Property, and Artistic Plagiarism: Do They Mix?

Canadian authors Wayson Choy, Paul Yee and Sky Lee have launched a $6 million lawsuit against Chinese author Ling Zhang, alleging copyright infringement against her book Gold Mountain Blues, a family saga about Chinese immigrants to Canada originally written in Chinese. The lawsuit not only includes Zhang, whose also the author of Aftershock,, but also Penguin Canada’s parent company, Pearson Canada Inc., and translator Nicky Harman.  The details of the case are available for all to see.

Although Zhang contends Gold Mountain Blues is the result of years of research and several field trips to China and Western Canada, the Chinese Canadian authors believe the book contains numerous elements copied from their work, including characters, plots and descriptions.  As the four Chinese Canadian authors articulate, their stories are not clichés and they are certainly are not common.

This is precisely why this case is so unique and fascinating.  According to Canadian copyright laws,  plagiarism isn't a concept that easily fits under the Copyright Act.  In Canada at least, copyright covers words of the same sequence, but does not extend to ideas.   To complicate matters, proving similarity of expression between Gold Mountain Blues and the other works may be particularly difficult since the English text is a translation of a Chinese one.

As Kate Taylor points out in the Globe and Mail
Copyright cases can be difficult to win: Infringement is a narrow legal concept that involves direct reproduction of a substantial part of the original – compared to the broader academic or journalistic notions of plagiarism that can involve unattributed borrowing of ideas or sentences.

Points of comparison

Examples of plot and character similarities between several Chinese-Canadian novels and Zhang Ling’s Gold Mountain Blues:

1. Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Café (1990): In grave danger, a young Chinese man is rescued and then cared for by a beautiful girl, Kelora, of rare Chinese/Native heritage.

Gold Mountain Blues (2011): In grave danger, a young Chinese man is rescued and then cared for by a beautiful girl, Sundance, of rare Chinese/Native heritage.

In Disappearing Moon Cafe, Wong Gwei-chang is searching for bones, is discovered by Kelora Chen who speaks to him in Chinese, and meets her father, a Chinese man. In Gold Mountain Blues, Kam Shan runs away from Chinatown after talking to anti-Qing revolutionaries, including Sun Yat-sen . . . falls into riverbank, and is rescued by Sundance, who speaks to him in broken English. While Gwei-chang leaves Kelora on the heed of his mother, who told him to go back to China to dutifully marry, Sundance voluntarily permits Kam Shan to leave as she catches him trying to run away as her Chinese grandfather did the same thing many yrs ago (pg. 285).
  • This seems to be a common theme in other artistic works. In Dances with Wolves, John Dunbar rescues Stands With Fist, and eventually falls in love. In fact, it was said that Avatar stole from Dances With Wolves as Jake Sully is rescued by Neytiri, and also falls in love, with her and the tribe. On another note, Aboriginal-Chinese relations and marriages were quite common in BC. Larry Grant, Howard Grant, Cedar and Bamboo did a whole documentary on First Nations-Chinese relations).
2. Disappearing Moon Café: The Chinese man is old now. Full of regret for his long lost love, Kelora, he dies after a visitation from her.

Gold Mountain Blues: The Chinese man is old now. After searching for his long lost love, Sundance, he dies after a visit from her.  However, in Disappearing Moon Cafe the context of the visits are quite different.  While Kelora shows up in Wong's Gwei-chang as he is in the last moments of his life; Kam-shan is visited out of the blue by Sundance, who later indirectly reveals to him that she borne him a son. When he asks her, she is annoyed, expecting that he wants to ask her out on a date.

3. Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony (1995): Wong Suk is disfigured after working on the railway. He rescues a white foreman who becomes gratefully indebted as well as a good friend. When the foreman dies, his son passes along a precious piece of gold.

Gold Mountain Blues: Ah-Fat is disfigured in a fight while working on the railway. He saves the life of his white foreman. They become good friends over the years. When the foreman’s wife dies, her will leaves money to Ah-Fat’s son.

While Jade Peony's relationship between the white foreman was purely platonic, the relationship between Kam Shan and the foreman (Rick Henderson) and his wife are much more complex. Ah-Fat sends his son Kam Shan to work for the Hendersons upon which Kam Shan and Mrs. Henderson is bound in an illicit affair. Upon her death, she leaves him $4000, half of which was supposed to go to her daughter (which already passed away after an accident, when she runs away from her mother's affair with the boy).

4. Paul Yee’s The Bone Collector’s Son (2003): Fourteen-year-old Bing works as a houseboy for a white couple in Vancouver. He becomes a target of white bullies but his employer Mrs. Bentley rescues him.

Gold Mountain Blues: Fifteen-year-old Kam Ho works as a houseboy for a white couple in Vancouver. He becomes a target of white bullies but his employer Mrs. Henderson rescues him.

  • The idea that the houseboy is saved by his master is not an unfamiliar scene. In fact, this occurred often during the pre-Civil War America. When Frederick Douglass was about twelve years old, Hugh Auld's wife Sophia started teaching him the alphabet despite the fact that it was against the law to teach slaves to read. Douglass described her as a kind and tender-hearted woman, who treated Douglass like one human being ought to treat another..

5. Paul Yee’s Dead Man’s Gold (2002): Hard-working Shek buys a farm while younger brother

Ping hates farm work and goes to the city to gamble. Shek pays everyone but Ping. Ping is unhappy. Ping kills Shek.

Gold Mountain Blues: Hard-working Ah Fat buys a farm while his son Kam Shan hates farm work and goes to the city to gamble. Ah Fat pays others but not Kam Shan. Kam Shan is unhappy. He disappears.  The context is completely different. While Ping and Shek are in the same farm together, Ah Fat's two sons (Kam Shan and Kam Ho) are never physically together at one time in Vancouver although both do work for their father Ah Fat at different times. Unlike Ping's killing of Shek, Kam Shan does not kill his father, Ah Fat. Unlike Kam Shan who gambles in Chinatown with the money from his father's produce sales, Ping actually stopped gambling after working for his Shek, who never gives him any money.
  • This scene of a farmer with a son who gambles his wealth away only to be forgiven by the father, is so common in literature that stretches back to the times of the bible. In fact, Luke 15:1 "Parable of the Lost Son" has been one of Christianity's most famous stories. (One which Tim Kelleher has written an entire book on, The Prodigal Son). I don't think it can be argued that this is an entirely unique scenario.

Much has been written about the situation.  Part of the controversy stems from whether the Chinese language from Gold Mountain Blues has been plagiarized from original passages of these original Chinese Canadian English literary works. This episode highlights the transformative nature of the Internet.  A virtually unknown blogger who referred to himself simply as “Changjiangalleged that Zhang had taken advantage of a "literary conundrum," one that Canadian Chinese writers cannot read Chinese, while Chinese readers and critics do not understand English.  So as a result, the lines are drawn and the legal and literary worlds clash intimately together over the results that will eventually set some precedents in the translation, publishing, and writing worlds.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Digital Scholarship Librarian - Simon Fraser University Library

Digital scholarship has been an emerging if not critical area in academia for the past decade.  From areas such as data management, to intellectual copyright, to digital humanities, almost every facet of intellectual inquiry has been somehow affected by the rise of digital scholarship.  It's not surprising to see academic libraries rising to the meet the needs of its users, namely that of faculty and researchers.   Simon Fraser University Library has posted a brand new position.   I'm salivating at this position - it seems to cover the gamut of what makes the new areas of librarianship so exciting.  Here are the details:

The full-time continuing position will support SFU faculty, graduate students, and other
users across the three SFU campuses and beyond.The incumbent will have the skills necessary to advance digital scholarship initiatives at Simon Fraser University by providing consultations, support, and project management for faculty, librarians, and students engaged in technology-rich scholarly projects. In conjunction with liaison librarians, Library Systems and others, he/she works directly with faculty, students, and others in identifying and facilitating the deployment of appropriate tools and technologies to meet research and/or publication needs.

The incumbent will also plan, implement, and promote scholarly communications services and increase campus awareness of author rights, Open Access, and new and existing funding mandates.  The Digital Scholarship Librarian will deliver or coordinate the delivery of individual and group instruction on scholarly communication and digital scholarship topics as a member of the Research Commons team.

This position will be attractive to adaptable individuals with excellent communication and collaborative skills and interest in developing them further. It will appeal to those who have an understanding of discipline-specific and interdisciplinary research methodology and are highly motivated to provide innovative and responsive services to faculty and students.

  • Foster collaboration on the creation and curation of digital objects for research.
  • Collaborate with Special Collections, University Archives, and other campus stakeholders in the access and preservation of digital assets.
  • Work closely with Library Systems to scope, develop, and support digital projects
  • Partner with faculty, graduate students and librarians to incorporate analytical tools, digitized and born-digital resources into research and teaching activities
  • Provide project management expertise to liaison librarians, faculty, and students
  • Track current issues and trends in scholarly communication
  • Support the development of liaison librarians' knowledge and understanding of scholarly communication issues
  • Plan, implement, promote scholarly communications services including increasing campus awareness of Author Rights, Open Access, Funding mandates/compliance, etc. with faculty, graduate students and applicable campus units (Grant facilitators, VP Research, Office of Research Services, Ethics, Teaching and Learning Centre, etc.)
  • Increase campus awareness of SFU Library Digital Scholarship Services (OA Fund, Scholarly Digitization Fund, Public Knowledge Project, SFU’s research repository - Summit, and new developing services, with stakeholders).
  • Manage operations of OA Fund – funding requests /criteria /eligibility
  • Develop and deliver or coordinate delivery of online and in-person instruction sessions for bot students and faculty.
  • Participate on Library project teams and committees.
  • Develop professional knowledge and skills on a continuing basis.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Search: The Final Frontier

Search as we know it now is based on words and text, but this is limiting in many ways.  Merely searching the web of links and URLs no longer works in the sophisticated evolution of the Web.   How do we push out of those traditional boundaries of search?   Bing Director of Search at Microsoft's Bing Stefan Weitz has come out with an excellent book called simply Search predicting the world of search engines in the future, particularly when "every device, every object that surrounds us, and every person is connected and we have systems that can distinguish patterns from the noise."

Of course, when we think of  search, it is language-based.  The problem of our current search is the "low resolution" approach of describing things.  The statement a picture is worth a thousand words in this aspect is really apt: it literally takes at least a thousand words to precisely to define the attributes of even the most basic object as a table (such as dimensions, materials, country of origin, date of purchase, etc).  This is for a simple object, too!

According to Weitz, searching and describing the world required a method that both search engines and humans could process: words mapped to pages, and those same pages mapped to information.  Even audio-visual information are associated through text.  

What if search is described by very fine details not by human language but by things?  What if  sensors through a billion connected devices become an Internet representation of a physical object?  No longer do we have to rely on language as a universal descriptor, but suddenly the world can be modeled in seemingly endless detail using facets that have little relation to language.

The boundaries between digital and physical worlds blend into each other and complement one another.   In this new search world, the increasing digitization of the world means that everything can be described at higher resolutions than ever before.

Timing is everything, too, as the Web has moved away from being an information repository to a bridge that transports data and enables services to happen in real life.  Weitz likens this transformation of search from a large library into a digital proxy for the physical world.   Just as humans are unable to think about things isolation, the Web needs to perceive the world holistically, away from a Web of words to a Web of the world.  When search understands every characteristic of every object on the planet, it will be finally able to make those connections.  I've written about this in previous posts about the current evolution of the technology and how it shapes our thinking as information professionals.

These connections are called graphs.  By linking these disparate graphs, the commonalities that emerges will assemble a complete picture of the world and everything in it.  Every person and object can be described in hundreds of ways, from photos from Facebook to your personal weight when you're on a scale, to the energy consumed by your smartphone.  In this smart-world, machines build models that re-create reality, becoming aware and sensitive to our needs and inquiries.

Such machine learning - an area of artificial intelligence (AI) - allows search systems the capability to make sense of the world.  Whether we call this brave new world a Web of Things, Web 3.0, smart web, or intelligent web, is still to be determined.  But the potential for for the interconnectedness of this system that will change the way we search is almost as exciting as when the Web first became ubiquitous.  The future of search feels bright indeed.  

Monday, January 05, 2015

Class Hierarchies and the Ivy Leagues

In Excellent Sheep, the author, essayist, and literary critic Bill Deresiewicz writes about the state of American education: the the entitled and the elite.  Examining the decaying state of education in the United States, the author pulls no punches in his disparaging assessment of how Ivy Leagues have shaped American higher education for the worse.

A professor of English at Yale University, there is no other with such insider knowledge of the intellectual factory than Deresiewicz himself, who ironically is himself a product of the Ivy league privileged class (whom he comfortably acknowledges) before he decided to abandon his faculty position in favour of freelance writing.

In 2008, Deresiewicz published a controversial essay in the The American Scholar titled The Disadvantages of an Elite Education which criticizes Ivy League and elite higher education institutions for supposedly coddling their students and discouraging independent thought.  Deresiewicz asserts elite institutions ultimately produce students who are unable to communicate with people who don't have the same background as themselves.

Fast-forward to 2014 and in Excellent Sheep, he continues the argument:
. . . the problem is the Ivy League itself - the position it and other schools have been allowed to occupy.  The problem is that we have contracted the training of our leadership class to a set of private institutions.  However much they claim to act, or think they're acting, for the common good, they will always place their interests first.  They will always be the creatures of the rich.  The arrangement is great for the schools, whose wealth and influence continue to increase . . .
Credentialism -  Colleges have become inundated with job fairs and the two most coveted: consulting and finance.  It seems as if the number of degrees and the most prestigious jobs have curtailed society's sense of worth - and this has crept up and in fact this mindset is being cultivated early in the student's mind.  

Corporatization - In many ways it is the fall of Humanities and the rise of a technocracy which thirsts for fame and wealth.   The results of this has been further monetization and privatization of  higher education; whatever cannot be measured as an "outcome" for the institution's bottom line is cut and slashed in the name of efficiency and global competition.  What are MOOCs but further watering down of quality instruction, less face-time with professors, and further reduction of adjunct instructors altogether?

Class Privilege - In conspiratorial fashion, the system is fixed (but not flawed) in that it's designed specifically to sustain the class hierarchy, mirroring many of current society's problematic income gaps.  Deresiewicz points out an appalling fact: the majority of American presidential candidates since 1984 had been educated from the Ivy Leagues.  On the surface it appear as if the "best of the best" rise to the top to be a nation's leaders; however, the underpinnings of how the structure of such a rigid class system sustained by the (wealthy) elite for the elite is troubling to say the least.

Cynical, you say?  The situation is more pronounced in America than it is here in Canada (although Deresiewicz praises Canada, Finland, and Singapore for their egalitarian systems not yet tainted).  However, I already do see symptoms of this higher education vortex.  Each year as funding is reduced is one year closer we move the needle to the meritocratic hierarchy that Deresiewicz so despises.   We can only hope that Deresiewicz's early warning signs are just an exaggeration.  I fear not.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Welcome to New Beginnings, and New Endings in 2015

This site started as an experiment in 2006 during a professional practicum with my now colleague and mentor Dean Giustini at the Biomedical Branch Library at the University of British Columbia.  My first assignment?  To create a blog and keep track of my experiences through concise and succinct written reflections.

An exciting time 2006 came to be -- Web 2.0 emerged as a force to be reckoned with and the possibilities and opportunities for implementing these new technologies had just begun.  New positions within organizations were ripe within a booming economy and the rise from the ashes of the dot-com crash.  It seemed like the right time for the beginning of many things.

Well, nine years later, and we find that the evolution of social media has not quite changed the world, but it's certainly made a difference.  Mobile technologies, semantic web, and Internet of Things, have all surfaced as potentially game-changing technologies that will impact the world.   My site has attempted to follow these important trends and help me keep abreast of these rapid changes.

But when does one begin to turn the corner?   I have found that a passion to connect and inform with my audience has waned at times and the quantity of posts has dipped to levels that I am not comfortable to continue the site.  Has it become a hobby or a burden?  

2015 is a new start.  A re-branding is in order.  Here are three things I pledge to work on for my resolution in this upcoming year:

1. Focus on liaison, reference, and collection building work. This site will be situated as a canvas on which to paint new ideas, experiment, and synthesize experiences together on a coherent and continual basis.  The convergence of technology and demographic shifts has brought librarianship into uncharted territory - open data, open education, digital humanities (just to name a few of many) mean the landscape of academic libraries will be shifting tectonically in the next few years.  There's much listening and watching to do.  This site will aim to follow those trends and conversations.

2.  Curriculum - speaking of which, there is also an Asian Canadian & Migration Studies program in development at UBC - a unique program that encourages students to explore the rich history, culture, and contemporary development of Asian communities in Canada by supporting co-creation of knowledge with community-based organizations.  In a multi-culturally diverse country we live in here in North America, it's one of many that are evolving in the academic ecology.  Where is the academic library's place in this knowledge creation, especially in community-based research?   I hope to add to this developing discussion with my own experiences and insight throughout the process.

3.  The Personal & the Professional - I've been asked why this site doesn't show more of me.  It doesn't, but it should.   There are book reviews to be written; film reviews to be articulated; news stories to analyze.  So onward and so forth.