The Ethicist: Copyright Rights

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The author of The Ethicist column for The New York Times Magazine addresses a debate between two friends over copyright laws and the creation of a textbook.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

We're trying not to spoil your summer vacation, but this week we do have a rather scholarly question from New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen.

Hi there, Randy.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (The New York Times Magazine): Hi, Jacki.

LYDEN: Well, we have with us today Kimberly Wetzel, and she's on the line from Anchorage, Alaska.

Hi there, Kimberly.


LYDEN: What's the problem?

Ms. WETZEL: I was visiting my friend, David, and he just finished up his PhD. And he was describing how he earned a little extra cash by writing lesson plans for a for-profit educational center. And he described that he mostly took the structure of one college textbook and then used that in creating this high school lesson plan.

LYDEN: Well, we have Kimberly's friend David on the line now from Letherbridge in southern Alberta.

Hi there, David.

Mr. DAVID LOGUE(ph): Hello.

LYDEN: So I understand that you and Kimberly had quite a debate about this.

Mr. LOGUE: Yeah, we talked about it over tacos for about a half-hour. I've taught several classes before, but this is the first online class. And since it's a little bit out of my subject, I did rely pretty heavy on some textbooks. In particular, this one textbook I'd say probably 65, 70 percent of the content and the structure was derived from this textbook.

LYDEN: Hmm. OK. Well, I guess that the question will last a lot longer than the tacos.

Randy, we're double-teaming you today, bringing you in. What's your opinion?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I assume that you gave credit to the author of the textbook and asked his permission before relying on it so heavily and, of course, send him whatever fee seemed fair. Do I understand that correctly?

Mr. LOGUE: No, sir, I have not sent him any fee. He would be acknowledged, but I did not contact him directly.

Ms. WETZEL: Well, I want to jump in. David, I feel like you lowered your initial--how much of the textbook did you use down to 70 percent. And I feel like when we were talking over tacos, it was more like 80. And what I remember was Chapter 1 was the basis of the way that you designed lesson one. I just remembered this kind of joke someone had told me, which is, `If you copy, you know, one person, it's plagiarism, but if you copy a lot of people, it's research.' What do you think, Randy?

Mr. COHEN: I think if you are--if what David is doing is essentially just outlining this book and using this other person's work without consent for his work, then he's out of line. But if he's doing research that involves drawing on the works of others, it's not just exploiting a single person's work and he properly credits everyone, it is research and it's legitimate.

LYDEN: Randy, I'm just wondering if we're getting into an area here that really isn't about ethics but maybe is about copyright law, which can be fuzzy.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, it's possible that--again, it's this quarrel over numbers. I would, first of all, like to know what was in those tacos, which I think may account for the disagreement, because if we believe David's version--and I live taco-free, so I'm uninfluenced by this. If we believe David's version, then he did legitimate scholarly work, he properly cited his sources, no problem. If we believe Kimberly--and I want to believe you, Kimberly--then what David did really flirts with unethical behavior and may, indeed, be a copyright violation. You'd have to check with a lawyer. But...

Mr. LOGUE: I actually have talked to a lawyer about it, as it turns out, and he said it's sort of a fine line and has to do with whether it's recognizable as such. There's certainly not a direct plagiarism issue here; I didn't copy anything word for word. I guess it's a matter of degree. I mean, there was a lot of my own stuff that I put in here, and I did use several different texts, but this one text was certainly the most important for designing these lesson plans.

Mr. COHEN: It is a matter of degree. I think you're quite right about that; that there's certainly nothing wrong with drawing on the work of other people. That's how all intellectual progress is made. That's what a culture is; it's a conversation among various people. But if you would be simply boiling down one person's work and presenting it as your own, that would be improper. But as much as I've come to admire and respect Kimberly, I think she is wrong here and that you are right. If there were any risk of copyright violation, if you felt you were near the line, you have an ethical obligation to alert your client, just so they can be aware and they could protect themselves. But from what you've said, there seems certainly not to be any kind of ethical transgression.

LYDEN: I think Kimberly--Randy, I think Kimberly was right to just point at least towards a possible ethical issue here.

Mr. COHEN: Oh, yeah. It was certainly interesting to discuss, and I love getting to side with one friend over another friend and perhaps undermine their entire relationship. Isn't that what ethics is all about?

LYDEN: Well, Kimberly Wetzel in Anchorage, Alaska, and David Logue in Lethbridge, southern Alberta, you two were really lively, and I hope that your friendship is only strengthened by this spirited debate. And thanks a lot for joining us.

Ms. WETZEL: Thank you.

Mr. LOGUE: Thank you.

LYDEN: Randy, as usual, it was a lot of fun. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: If you'd like to ask Randy Cohen a question, go to our Web site,, and click on Contact Us. Please put the word `ethics' in the subject line, and don't forget to include a phone number where we can reach you.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from