Sunday, June 18, 2006
While at first glance it appears to be about a narrow area of intellectual property law, in the end there is much to interest a legal writer in Peter K. Yu's article, Of Monks, Medieval Scribes, and Middlemen, available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=897710. Professor Yu explores what happened to scribes in the days when the printing press was the newest technology on the scene. He explains the role of scribes as middlemen in the recording and transmission of information and knowledge, from ancient Mesopotamia to 18th-century Europe. He uses this history to raise some questions and add some perspective on the displacements caused by the new technology of the Internet.
The article provokes readers to think about the much broader issue of the impact caused by the specific ways that information is recorded and distributed. The example of the huge shift that the printing press caused in how people knew things and what they knew might well caution legal writers to be prepared as similar changes are taking place around us in the Internet age.
Of more specific interest to legal writing professors: because the article focuses on the history of how copies were made, it explains the origins of the word "plagiarism" and outlines the evolution of the concepts behind the word. Professor Yu describes different cultural perceptions of copying, using ancient Rome, medieval Europe, and Chinese Confucianism as examples. While there is evidence that some ancient Roman authors had a sense of proprietorship about their work, the whole concept of where the value inherent in a copy lay was very different among the medieval monks and Chinese Confucians. This article suggests that the Internet may be causing a shift in our culture's perception of the copying of recorded information, moving more towards that of one of these other cultures. The implications for the meaning of plagiarism are profound.