The Slippery Slope, part 1

I‘ve been thinking a lot about Intellectual Property these days, what it is, who owns it, how to borrow, cite and use it, and how the lines that separate them are increasingly graying. Maybe you can’t think of a more boring topic to write on, but I assure you for some people in my life, this has become a very interesting topic.

I wonder if it is a thread that runs through everyone’s life, or just mine. For example in Seminary, I knew a guy that used to scan in a section of a book, and then run the scanned words through an aliasing program that reordered them uniquely, but kept the same meaning. Then he put his name on the paper and handed it in as his own. Its how he did the work for two postgraduate degrees. This was mid 1990s, in the early days of the internet when there was not so much content, but today, I am guessing, he just cuts and pastes, reorders the words, and does with them whatever he is doing now (I’m hoping not pastoring).

I think about a close friend who confessed to me when we were both serving our first churches, that he took his weekly sermons from one of the preaching magazines, added a few of his own stories, and preached it on Sunday.

I think about the disadvantaged student who was well known to treat her closed book take home exams from Dr. Dearman’s Old Testament Class, as open book. We all knew it…but she was a disadvantaged student, and needed this advantage to be fair.

My father is an inventor, he and one of his graduate students named Virgil Haverdink invented the Giant Round Baler, this way to put up hay that forever changed the face of rural America. [Read Dad’s article about it]

[round bale inventors, and the product of their invention]

But the Large Baler (as its called now) wasn’t his first invention, or at least the first one that was patented. That happened when we lived in Michigan and my Dad invented a “dis-ting” as they say here, meaning they don’t know the name for this thing. His advisor, or department chair, or someone in authority over him put his name on the patent. It wasn’t a request. Dad shared the credit for his invention. I don’t know how many times that man put his name on other patents, but I do know it was the only time he shared one with my Dad, and we moved to Iowa soon afterwards. Dad always leaves that invention off his list of others.

A similar thing happened to a friend of mine in graduate school. She came up with a process to convert one type of obscure data to another. Eventually it became the basis for the research that she used on her dissertation. At the time she was working part time at a government lab up in the Midwest, but the work she was doing wasn’t that closely related. It was just a job that paid for school. When the lab learned, or more importantly, when her boss learned she had a patentable idea, he wanted his name on the patent and my friend balked, and resigned the appointment.

When I was in seminary, I heard the same sermon, or I should say the same content in a sermon, twice in one month. The first was preached from the pulpit of my home church, and three weeks later, at the my parents church that overlooked a beach in Mexico. Even though it was preached in Spanish and translated into English, I recognized it as one I’d heard the first Sunday of Advent.

Soon afterwards, I went on to my internship year and heard the pastor tell a story, something about burying an aunt with a fork in her hand, told from his point of view of the preacher, as if it was his aunt, and that very night the same story appeared as junk mail in my inbox.

But I am not without sin either. I was on a mission trip to Belize and preached at a small rural church, and didn’t cite a story I told. I figured this is the third world, what do they care who came up with the story about when you pray for rain, be sure to carry an umbrella (a James Moore story). Afterwards the pastor of the church came up to me and said nice story, “Wasn’t that from” (I forget the name of the book) “by James Moore?” Why yes it was…BUSTED!

This week I wondered what would happen if we pastors had to turnitin.com our sermons. Turnitin.com (Turn-it-in.com), is a web service that my kid’s school and Ashesi University uses to catch students who lift content from the internet and include it in their papers as their own (also called plagiarism). How would we do, I wondered, with an old friend, if the originality of our sermons was checked and made public? How would we do, I asked my friend, and he said, “We would all fail.” But I hope he is wrong.

After getting busted in Belize, I vowed never again to tell a story without citing it (or footnoting it in the bulletin). If I was quoting from a book, I would read from it directly. Since the first draft of my sermons was usually written out long hand (thanks, Jim Cloninger) and then transcribed into the computer, cutting and pasting was not an issue. I remember one particularly unappreciative parishioner saying to me, “Don’t you just get your sermons out of a book anyway?” No I don’t. Or another time, “You know, you can get sermons for free, on-line.” No I won’t.

I think about one of the sermons I heard this summer from a young woman who quoted Frederick Buechner or Paul Tillich–I forget which. As she was telling that cited story, I looked around the room and saw this lost look, like the room thinking who is that, and why do we care? It wasn’t that good of a story, the power was supposed to come from the one who authored it, but being told by this twenty something as if she was reading that book right now, that book from the sixties written by some now dead white guy that doesn’t relate at all to what has been happening in the world the last—I don’t know—20 years, just didn’t work for me. I’ve heard stories from that period of time (the 60s) when theologians were celebrities, and even on the Tonight Show. Those days are long gone, and when you hear some pastor quoting them like they are still relevant (with the exception of C.S. Lewis) it’s a sure bet they are preaching a canned sermon. There is nothing fresh about, it has the taste of preservatives to it.

Like canned food.

One time our family was invited over for a home cooked meal. One thing you need to know about Suzanne is that she can’t handle highly processed foods, ones that carry preservatives, or artificial flavorings. Our host served this potato salad, and Suzanne said “this is delicious!” Turns out it was from HEB (the local chain food store), as was all the meal, but it was dressed up as if it had been home cooked, instead of home warmed-up. I guess it was cooked in someone’s home, just not this one. But the feeling we had driving home was an empty one, oh we were full, but there was no love in the food.

Like a canned sermon.

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