So Are We All Crooks, or What?

I’m actually writing this on the 4th of July holiday weekend but the intention was not to “work” (although I don’t view blogging as work). We were going to get away this weekend and so I wrote several posts and scheduled them for publishing several days ahead of time, a nifty thing really, which WordPress allows me to do. It’s too hot to do much of anything outside. So I sat down with a book by Malcolm Gladwell I’ve been reading in a not so very industrious way, “What the Dog Saw and other adventures”. I read the chapter “Something Borrowed” and it made me think a little harder than I usually like [1].

As most of you know who may be regular readers, I’m a sort of collector when it comes to this blog. I comb the internet for free stuff, mostly educational materials about evaluating and managing delirium, and post it for everyone to use. I think of this site as a sort of  yard sale for information about delirium, except it’s really not a sale because you don’t have to buy anything. When I don’t think I have to ask permission to use something, I still try to attribute the original author or creator of what I find. Virtually everything I’ve tacked up here you can find somewhere else, also for free. I hope I’m being careful enough.

Anyway, Gladwell’s chapter about plagiarism and intellectual property got my attention. I’ve given a fair amount of space material about the Sweet 16, a brief cognitive assessment tool that anybody could have free and open access to on Dr. Sharon Inouye’s Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP) web site, the link for which is on the right hand side of this page. Just type the words “Sweet 16” in the search box  and you’ll learn more than you want to know about this controversy about whether the Sweet 16 is stolen intellectual property of Psychological Assessment Resources (PAR), Inc. I suspect it’s very similar to the Min-Mental State Examination (MMSE), the copyright to which is owned by PAR, Inc. The Sweet 16 is likely very much like a product PAR, Inc. sells, the brief version of the MMSE, which happens to have 16 items. A brief reminder about this issue can be found at shortlink,

Anyway, Gladwell writes of his own experience with being plagiarized and notes that he really didn’t feel that angry. He considered the “borrowing” to be a compliment. Evidently, PAR, Inc. doesn’t share this sentiment. This reminded me of my own feelings when the donated bound copy of the book (Psychosomatic Medicine: An Introduction to Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry) my colleague, Robert G. Robinson, edited was stolen from the staff office of our psychiatry consultation office. I secretly harbored, then publicly expressed my pride about the book being good enough to steal. This was repeated when an alert medical student notified me that our entire book had been available for an unknown period of time for free on the internet at a website page which was quickly shut down by our publisher for engaging in this form of on-line piracy.

Gladwell reminds us that copyright laws protect for a specified period of time, after which something can be copied without restriction. The purpose is to both protect intellectual property temporarily to provide an incentive for us to make innovative creations that improve society, and to then let others build on the creation, improve it, and make it more broadly available to the world at large.

I remember being a little miffed a few years ago about not being able to get a copy of a new rating assessment tool for evaluating patients for organ transplantation. I sent repeated emails to the author indicating that I would like our consultation service at our academic center to participate in using the scale in order to assess the performance as a way of improving clinical service delivery to both patients and transplant teams. I never got a copy of course, and I’ve always guessed that it’s probably because the instrument is copyrighted. It didn’t seem to matter that I would have made proper attributions to the author. Now, of course, my other speculation about the reason for not having access to the scale has to do with the risk of spoiling a creation before it has been finished. In this case, it is critically important to conduct validation studies before releasing assessment tools to the world at large.

However, I liked Gladwell quote from Thomas Jefferson, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

1. Gladwell, M., Something Borrowed: Should a Charge of Plagiarism Ruin Your Life?, in What the Dog Saw and other adventures2009, Little, Brown and Company: New York. p. 222-243.

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