A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Issues in Composition Pedagogy in the Age of Internet Writing: Martine Courant Rife’s Invention, Copyright, and Digital Writing

Review of Invention, Copyright, and Digital Writing By Martine Courant Rife 2013; Southern Illinois University Press Rubén Casas, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Enculturation : http://enculturation.net/invention-copyright-digital-writing (Published: April 8, 2014)

Martine Rife’s Invention, Copyright, and Digital Writing (2013) comes to us just as the “writing community” (Rife’s term for the various members of Composition and Rhetoric and Writing programs, including teachers, students, and “others”) are coming to terms with the very real effects of policies and legislation meant to address issues of copyright and fair use. The exigency for Rife’s book is readily apparent to those of us in the writing community: Policymakers, and their (mis)understanding of the work we do are having (and will continue to have) an outsized influence on writing environments and writing pedagogies. For that reason, Rife argues, we should seek out ways of initiating and participating in productive conversations with policymakers in order to inform their deliberations.

Figure 1

Rife, an attorney and a teacher of writing herself, begins from a recognition that a) policymakers and their decisions about copyright and fair use have a direct effect on what we do and how we teach, and b) that we should have a vested interest having a say in these decisions. These warrants are large, but not altogether unreasonable. For those of us who do ask students to write in mostly digital environments, the effects of Digital Millennium Copyright Law (DMCL)—and the ambiguity it leaves copyright and questions of fair us—are quite present. But even for those not using digital environments in their pedagogies, the uncertainty created by the DMCL over what constitutes fair use and what constitutes copyright infringement should cause us to rethink and re-ask “some of the some historical questions regarding composition theory, the teaching of writing, and the work writers themselves do” (4). I can certainly attest to this; asking students to produce video essays and remixes, for example, always comes with a set of complicated questions regarding using existing material and citation, questions for which our current conceptions of synthesis and attribution do little to help answer.1 For this reason alone, Rife’s book is a welcome contribution to this pressing conversation.

Because Rife’s purpose for the book is as much to help members of the writing community make better sense of the shifting ground beneath us as it is to encourage us to take a more direct role in the policy conversations happening around copyright and fair use, Rife spends a large part of the book advocating for and discussing a mixed-method approach to composition research, especially as it pertains to invention in digital contexts. One reason for this is that research that takes up quantitative methods more readily will produce evidence that scholars in policy and legal studies and lawmakers will be more apt to consider. Rife works from the assumption that some of us in Composition and Rhetoric want to do more than wring our hands over the messiness inherent to composing in digital contexts, rather we should want to conduct research that results in scholarship that could potentially inform the policies that most affect our work (58). The second and third chapters of Invention, Copyright, and Digital Writing offer both a discussion of how survey research, participant interviews, and textual analysis can come together to produce data that can be presented to members of the policy and legal communities (although Rife’s entire project could be seen as a demonstration of what this type of mixed-method research might look like).

It seems to me that most—if not all—composition teachers would agree with Rife when she argues that we should be interested in how conversations and policy debates over copyright and fair use play out, but maybe not as many will be as keen on the suggestion that the research of rhetoric and composition scholars should be oriented towards policy. Some readers might resist the suggestion that their research should be intelligible to policymakers even as they might agree that what policymakers do stands to have a direct effect on our work as teachers of writing. At this point it seems as if Rife suggests that the only way to influence larger policy debates over copyright and fair use, at least for rhetoric and composition scholars, is for us to take up mixed methods in our research. The view of policymaking represented in Invention, Copyright, and Digital Writing is one that proscribes policymaking to direct and otherwise official mechanisms; it obfuscates the many other ways people and groups provide input and otherwise participate in policymaking—including direct activism, writing that is not strictly scholarship, lobbying, and teaching. Yet, those of us who might aspire to enter into policy debates over copyright and fair use might ultimately be persuaded by Rife’s arguments.

Rife offers some anecdotal evidence of how this combination of research could result in the type of testimony and evidence that might cause lawmakers to pass legislation that is more sensitive or attentive to the needs of the writing community when she relates the testimony she gave to the tri-annual rulemaking hearings before the registrar of copyright at the Library of Congress in May 2009. As part of her testimony Rife presented both data on her research into chilled speech as well as information gleaned from the interviews and a montage sampling the multimedia work of her research participants. According to Rife, “The U.S. Copyright Office understood [her] empirical data,” and she concludes that the right mix of both quantitative and qualitative data—of multiple types of evidence—is necessary if we hope to be successful in our arguments to lawmakers (59). Although we do not know how or if this testimony affected subsequent policy, it is a compelling example of how someone from our ranks can gain an audience and make a case for the work we do.2 One single instance of advocacy before lawmakers may not be enough to sway copyright and fair use laws one way or another, but Rife’s anecdote does show that it is possible for those of us in Composition and Rhetoric to undertake research that has policymakers as its audience; more importantly, it suggests that our research and expert testimony can be influential. Rife’s argument, even as it assumes that Composition and Rhetoric scholars want to speak to policy and legal circles, is a persuasive one, especially when we consider that it is among the first contributions to the conversation about how to proceed now that we’ve taken the “digital turn,” that is both theoretically robust and actionable; should some of us want to inform and affect policies that have a direct effect on our work, then Rife’s assertions seem both sound and practicable.

The first chapter of Rife’s survey allows her to reach a significant conclusion regarding the levels of understanding of copyright and fair use among various members of the writing community, and how these understandings might be affecting invention and composing practices. According to Rife, of the 455 survey respondents (which hailed from 155 randomly selected writing programs across the U.S.), 63% reported having a “decent understanding” of copyright law and fair use; more significantly, perhaps, is that less than 3% reported experiencing “very chilled speech as a result of their understanding (8). These findings go against my sense of how much students (at least) thought they knew about copyright and fair use, and certainly about how much this was causing them to play it safe. These conclusions do not necessarily say whether or not this understanding was accurate or not (and it was not Rife’s ultimate purpose, to find out how accurate people’s understanding was), but they do show that most of us within the writing community are, at least, aware that there are laws governing what we do and how we do it, and that, regardless, issues of copyright and fair use are not necessarily preventing us from saying what we want to say.

In the first chapter Rife describes the survey design, stopping to explain why she asked certain questions, and what she hoped to get from the responses. In chapter 3 Rife explains why surveys can be useful to researchers in Composition and Rhetoric, and how Composition and Rhetoric scholars can be instrumental in the making of better, more effective surveys, a genre she says could be understood rhetorically. Then, in chapter 4, Rife explains how she selected seven of the survey respondents to interview. Her interviews center around “vignettes” she constructs out of samples of online writing she ask for from each of solicits of the participants. These vignettes are meant to offer a “single, coherent piece […] representing the interviewee and his or her work” (67). Rife’s analyses of the vignettes adheres to a rubric when creating each of the vignettes that considered the context for the writing or composing, the writer’s motivations, the multiple roles of the writer, a description and rhetorical analysis of each of the digital compositions, the writer’s aspirations, the writer’s general attitude about copyright law in regards to their own composing processes, and any information that the writer wanted readers to know.

From a methodological perspective, Rife understands the vignettes to be a “method of data analysis” that “allows [her] to bring a standard research method in the twenty–first century,” one that takes into account that writers in digital contexts do multiple kinds of writing and composing (67). One assumes that this statement is meant to demonstrate how a teacher of writing might undertake similar methods in their own research or maybe even the classroom.

Rife’s discussion of the choices writers make when they write in digital contexts and within the influence of copyright law grows out of the rubric she uses to construct the vignettes, starting with an examination of the writers themselves, and their motivations and purposes in composing the texts they offered as samples. Given the variety of samples Rife received, it’s no wonder that her conclusions about how the notion of “writing” changes when we place the act of writing in digital context. These conclusions are important because they get at the core of what Rife hopes to do in this book, which to offer insights and the makings of theory of how to continue teaching, learning, working, and researching in light of these changes.

The research participants offer samples of web writing that is diverse as they are: Leslie, for example, is a Ph.D. candidate who offers a course webpage she made for her first-year writing course. The course webpage mimics the style and layout of a Sony PlayStation. The content of the webpage is organized by a remix of the popular videogame franchise, Grand Theft Auto, and a more standard lined notepad. The videogame aspect of the website serves as a navigation menu, while the notepad displays the content of each webpage. Rob, an international Ph.D. student in Composition and Rhetoric offered a variety of websites he constructed both in the U.S. and while still in his home country. Some of the websites were made for a profit and some of them were representative of his work as a Ph.D. student. Sarah, a recent graduate of a professional writing program, offered samples of websites she constructed for family members and for church organizations. Sarah considered her work “gift writing,” as she did it for little or no charge. Jessie, a student setting out to start a Ph.D. in Composition and Rhetoric, offered a digital portfolio showcasing the many types of web writing she does as a student, a teacher, as a graduate school applicant, and as a copyright/fair use activist.

From the vignettes Rife creates out of what the participants shared and said during the course of their interviews, Rife arrives at some useful conclusions regarding how student-writers/teachers do writing or composition in light of copyright and fair use laws. From Leslie, for example, she gets confirmation of some of what she found through the survey, that participants are not generally concerned about copyright and that they do not let the law stop them from inventing or being creative (70); from Rob, Rife concludes that student-writers/teachers consider multiple audiences and negotiate multiple purposes when writing in digital contexts, and that copyright and fair use plays a different role in each particular settings—writers in digital contexts are not necessarily affected in the same way across all instances; Sarah’s vignette extends this conclusion in demonstrating how web writers also consider the potential effects of copyright law and fair use on the reputations of those for whom one writes. In some cases, writers make decisions on behalf of their “clients” that are based on their own understanding of copyright and fair use; Because Jessie’s vignette demonstrated a deep ethical commitment to fair use, Jessie’s web writing underscores the gray areas that appear in particular writing contexts, and for which even one’s teachers and other scholars in the field may not be suited to help us negotiate. Jessie agonized for months over whether to publish a video she adapted from a conference presentation advocating for an expansion of fair use after two professors gave her competing advice. Ultimately, Jessie makes a choice and, at least at the time of publishing, is not affected by it, but her vignette demonstrates her motivation for doing the type of web writing she does: “It’s the students who are suffering. They are the ones who are getting in trouble” (82).

These insights are useful as they corroborate much of what Rife finds through her survey, and in that they echo a lot of what those of us who ask students to write in digital contexts constantly contend with. But the larger implication of Rife’s analysis seems larger than the anxieties students and teachers feel when composing in digital environments. What Rife’s vignettes demonstrate is that writing in digital contexts in light of copyright and fair use requires us to think some of the basic assumptions we have about writing and about writers themselves. This rethinking might be especially useful when we assume new audiences for our research in the form of legal scholars and policymakers, since they may not think about people writing within digital environments—even if they do it for a class or an academic assignment—the same way we do. If we are to make persuasive arguments on behalf of the writing and the processes we encourage student-writers to do, then we do well to consider the conclusions Rife reaches through her analysis of the work these writers do, and about how they negotiate the various aspects (legal and ethical) of their writing contexts.

The seven survey respondents could all be described as students as they were all enrolled in or had just graduated from a writing program and because many of them actually offered online writing that they wrote for a writing/composition class or within the context of coursework. This description is rather conservative in that these writers occupied a much bigger role than that, both in how these writers positioned themselves and in how they negotiated the various ambiguities that come with writing in digital environments. Clearly, these “students” occupied and composed from subjectivities much larger than those afforded by our traditional nomenclatures.

Rife achieves these conclusions by employing both Actor Network Theory and Foucault’s Author-function, a methodological orientation that does a lot for those of us in the writing community most directly interested in issues of copyright and fair us navigate some of the historical and long-standing theories of invention and composition theory. According to Rife, copyright law itself fulfills an author-function in that, through its presence, it creates discourses that were not here before, discourses like plagiarism, attribution, and permission-seeking (100). Copyright law functions through “a series of specific and complex operations” that deeply affect how writers and teachers of writing do what we do. It’s these operations that order “certain cultural activities and operations,” and for that reason members of the writing community should want to speak more directly to policymakers at the same time that we rethink our ideas about who is a writer and what writing is or can be within digital environments (101).

When we think about the actual contexts in which students write—when we acknowledge that these are comprised of various actors or “nodes” into which human actors (like our students) must fold in their competencies, it becomes difficult to simply refer to someone merely as a “student” (112). Given the variety and sophistication of the work our “students” or “student-writers” do, we have to realize that these terms are not capacious enough to include all the rhetorical acts in which they engage. Rife’s seven research participants exemplify this. Given the samples of their work each of them offers Rife, and their discussions of the contexts in which they composed and the choices they made within these contexts, it becomes quite apparent that these writers are much more than “students” or “student-writers.” We do better to realize that “compositions are sites of cultural collision, or commonplaces, were writing students occupy sometimes conflicting positions” is an astute one, especially as it asks us to think critically about what we ask students to do in writing classrooms (112). Doing so will allow us to more fully conceptualize copyright as a network in which multiple nodes step in and out of author functions. That understanding—a realization that copyright is itself an author within a network in which we and other members of the writing community also step in and out of author roles at various moments—will permit us to evade potential pitfalls while also seizing the opportunities to discover and make—to invent—new arguments (113).

The emergence of certain technologies and the advent of intellectual property make for anxious times in our profession. Therefore, it is understandable that some readers might not be as eager to take up the suggestion that we, members of the writing community, take up research methods that may be unfamiliar to us. But we should at least consider the affordances of taking them up, especially if it means that they will allows us to make successful arguments to lawmakers. In any case, Rife’s assertion that the decisions of policymakers are having a direct effect on what we do and how we do it cannot be denied. It should be incumbent on some of us to, like Rife has, think about how we will continue to do our work—and as our students do work—within the uncertain contexts of copyright law and fair use. Even if some of us in the field are not ready or willing to take up quantitative methods more readily, we can still benefit from taking up some of Rife’s conclusions in regards to how we think about writers and writing in digital contexts and in light of copyright law and fair use. To do so would mean that Composition and Rhetoric will remain at the forefront of twenty-first century writing pedagogy and scholarship.


1 And because so much of this writing for digital environments will exist online and on third-party platforms, students are right to ask about the e-mail they get from such-and-such a service notifying them that they’ve uploaded copyrighted material.

2 Rife does cite the extension and expansion of protections granted by Pete Churney on behalf of media studies and film professors at Penn State in 2006, suggesting that “educational stakeholders” can be intelligible and successful in arguing to lawmakers (59).