Sometimes the universe can be funny in how one subject will suddenly seem to come up everywhere. Within the past week several incidents have occurred that have had me reflecting on the nature of owning information; what should belong to everyone, for free, to be shared freely, and what should cost? How important are clear sources in a world of muddy uncertainty?
Twice in the past week I have seen people post online direct quotes they did not write. One was a prayer and the other an excerpt from a book, but in both cases no source was given, nor was it even mentioned in the original post that the person posting the information wasn't the author of it. In the first case when asked if it was okay to share the prayer the person said they had not written it and could not remember the source so, in a move that totally baffled me, the second person replied that they would simply credit the original poster as the source, even though that person admitted they had not written it. A quick Google search turned up the name of the author but even when that was known people continued to credit the poster, I assume because they ignored the discussion under the post. In the second case the person posted a paragraph long excerpt from a book under similar circumstances, but in that case I actually was familiar enough with the book that I immediately recognized it and mentioned the source. The response by the poster was that they liked the subject and just wanted to share. Along those same lines a friend had her entire blog re-posted without attribution by someone who seemed equally baffled as to why that mattered. Sometimes the person may genuinely not realize that it does, and sometimes the person may want other people to think that they did write those words, so they can enjoy the praise and compliments generated from it. And this morning I woke to read a link to a blog talking about yet another site making the rounds that offers free pdfs of many popular pagan books, something that should clearly be against the majority of neopagan morals yet rarely fails to appeal. (yes I admit it mystifies me that the same person who argues to the death that any magic for personal gain is wrong will turn around and cheerfully download over 100 still-in-print pagan books without seeing any issue with it).
Maybe this is a sensitive issue for me because I have experienced it in the past, opening an email to see my own words - my reading list, my spell - under someone else's name and fought back only to get the same reply - who cares? As if I was the one who was wrong, because they say, information should be free for everyone. I have been told that anything spiritual should be free, should be shared, that sources don't matter, or in one case that knowing the true source was the responsibility of the reader not the poster, like some sort of test. Well I will never agree that it doesn't matter or that we shouldn't care. Plagiarism is a big issue in paganism, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose, but it will never get any better as long as we as a community put up with it. Now I don't mean things like chants and songs which can be more difficult to track back and spread like ink in water, although it's still worth trying to find sources on those as well, but most other material can be found, and in our online age can be found fairly easily. I would like to hope that it was obvious that any book under copyright - anything under copyright at all actually - should be respected.
On the other hand there are some things that I do agree belong to everyone. Ritual structure, general meditations, things that truly cannot be traced back to any one person. Mythology. The old beliefs themselves. No one person can claim these things and they do belong to all of us.
I think it presents an interesting challenge to the community at large to decide how we are going to deal with the ethics of information. There seems to be a pretty wide spread belief that sources, and citing sources, doesn't matter, and that can only change if we as a community change it. The idea that everything should be free - including books - will only change when the people thinking that way stop and realize how much work and effort goes into that book, or article, or what-have-you and decide that supporting the author (or in the case of deceased authors the family) is better than the quick fix of a free file. What value do we place on something that is free, compared to something that we had to work and save to get? What value do we place on our community itself and it's integrity if nothing matters but instant gratification?