Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research rips off writer, threatens to sue him for plagiarism

Since at least 2001, Colin Purrington, a former Swarthmore Evolutionary Biology prof, has been publishing a great guide to conference posters that is widely read and linked. It's also widely plagiarized, and Purrington sends notices to people whom he catches passing it off as their own work, asking them to remove it. Normally, this works.

But not in the case of The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc., a company that receives millions in federal grants to fund biotech research. When Purrington sent CPBR an email telling them off for plagiarizing him, they responded by accusing him of being the plagiarist, threating him with massive damages, and demanding that he remove his own work immediately and permanently.

Purrington responded with a pretty good note about the whole awful mess. Though I think he overstates the copyright case here. In particular, he discounts out of hand the idea that reproduction in educational contexts can't be fair use; this is just wrong -- fair use is fact intensive, and educational use tilts the scales in favor of a successful defense. On the other hand, plagiarism (though not illegal) is a cardinal sin in education, and educators who pass off his work as their own may not be breaking the law, but they are unambiguously violating a core ethic of education and scholarship.

But back to CPBR. This is not only plagiarism, it's also copyright infringement, and it's copyfraud -- claiming copyright on something you hold no rights to. It's unethical, it's illegal, and it's fraudulent. CPBR president and chairman Dorin Schumaker (also sole employee -- who, according to its most recent 990, receives $213,964 a year) is not available for comment, and both its attorneys and whomever answers its phone hung up on the Chronicle of Higher Ed when called for clarification.

So: crooks and cowards.

I called the main number for the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research and was told that the president and chairman, Dorin Schumaker, was not available and might not be available for weeks. Schumaker is the only paid employee listed on the nonprofit’s most recent available Form 990 tax filing (her salary, according to the filing, is $213,964). I then called a number listed for a Dorin Schumaker in St. Simons Island, Ga., where the consortium is based. The person who picked up the phone declined to answer questions and hung up when asked if she was Dorin Schumaker. The consortium’s lawyer, David Metzger, also hung up on me. In a follow-up e-mail, he said he was abiding by his client’s wishes.

If they can explain how they created, in 2005, a document that Purrington posted online years before, they’re keeping that explanation mum for now.

Too often in plagiarism cases, the victim never really gets satisfaction. Maybe the offending passage is taken down. Perhaps a footnote is added. The plagiarist might even manage a mumbled apology. But the penalties are often piddling. This is the first case I’ve heard of in which the apparent victim may be the one who gets punished.

Purrington also states that he prohibits "paraphrase plagiarism, which is when you copy sentences and phrases but make minor word changes to mask your theft" -- which, again, overstates the scope of copyright. Paraphrasing material, quoting, and transformative adaptation are, in fact, classic fair use, despite Purrington's statement that he's "lost my patience with people claiming that Fair Use allows them to bypass my copyright. Really, folks?" Well, yes, really: fair use is the right to make uses and copies without permission from the copyright holder. It's not without limits, but it's also not nothing. Incidental copying, copying for the purposes of commentary and criticism, format-shifting, archiving, adaptation to assistive formats, etc -- all potentially fair use. Scholarship depends on fair use and other limitations in copyright, and while Purrington's poster is a great and informative work that greatly assists scholarship, his statements about the scope of copyright and its limitations and exceptions are greatly harmful to it.

I applaud the good work he's done in his guide, and am firmly on his side when it comes to the terrible treatment he's gotten at the hands of the CPBR. But I wish he'd check out some of the equally excellent guides to fair use so that all of the information he disseminates was just as accurate and useful as his conference poster piece.

Adding Insult to Plagiary? [Chronicle of Higher Education/Tom Bartlett]