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Intellectual Property

About once a year or so, I have an academic integrity case in my class where a student, usually with the best of intentions, innocence and/or naïveté, will give/email his/her work to their partner. Usually, it is to ‘help them out,’ to check their work or the like. In most of these cases, I believe them, usually because when I talk with the partner, they admit they used the work inappropriately and apologize to the source partner.

The betrayal on their faces and in their responses is sad. However, collusion is explicitly forbidden in my syllabus, but they often don’t realize that is what they are doing. So we have a chat. I usually take points off, but not as many as from the thief.

I have a great opportunity at that time to teach them a lesson in intellectual property. They aren’t used to thinking about their work in that way, until it is stolen from them. Many of our students have no clue about intellectual property—what it is, how it works, how to protect it and the importance of doing so.

But in this teachable moment, it clicks, hard and fast. I explain it to them and how it goes beyond school work and into their careers.

A late great-uncle of mine was a cartographer. To protect his work from being stolen, he deliberately introduced minor inaccuracies, usually in the form of adding a fictional tiny, street, one-block long named after his wife. Any time a new map came out by a competitor, he’d buy a copy and pull out a magnifying glass and see if that street was there. If so, he knew his work had been stolen.

Christ taught us to be both innocent as doves, and as shrewd as serpents (Matthew 10:16):  innocent of wrongdoing ourselves, but able to guard, protect, and prevent most attacks by disreputable types.

Our students are growing up in a relativistic, increasingly anarchic world, yet have the naïve belief that the negative consequences either don’t exist or will pass them by. They are shrewd in surprising ways and the ways in which their innocence survives is even more surprising, and usually counterproductive. We educators need to remember that and help them find a healthier balance proactively.

Lagniappe:  Ok, grammar wizards, I have a writing question for you. English does not have a singular neuter personal pronoun. Use of ‘they’ or ‘their’ is patently incorrect, but I admit that I freely choose to use it over the pedantic, awkward s/he, simply for flow and ease. However, I would love to find a more acceptable solution. Please feel free to leave a comment with your advice. Maybe I will invent one. Maybe we can use “frank,” as in “Even though I teach an advanced lab, any given student has no clue what frank should do.” Ok, so that won’t work. Ideas, people! I need ideas!



  1. I think you can get away with "they" or "their" as a singular neuter personal pronoun in informal writing, such as on a blog. Grammarians wrestle with this question. I agree with Grammar Girl, though, in her prediction that "they" and "their" will eventually pass into accepted use:

  2. By the way, I was sidetracked by your grammar question. What brought me to this post was your topic, "Intellectual Property". It's a concept we struggle with in K-12, too, most usually in the form of respecting others' copyrights. Posts I've made on the topic of copyright on my own blog are visited often. I appreciated your thoughts on this from a higher ed perspective. It's interesting to see that the struggle to communicate the concept continues through college.