Prep-Sharing and Intellectual Property in Debate
Article by Christian Tarsney
A couple weekends back, in the first flight of an elimination round I judged at Harvard, a debater read a case in front of me 80 percent of which came verbatim from a position I’d written more than five years ago for the last domestic violence topic. The student was someone I had never met, had no connection with, and certainly had never given permission to use material I had produced. And the case itself, despite (a very few) cosmetic changes, was still quite clearly written for the old topic—with an entire framework of arguments about justice and “justification,” rather than moral permissibility, for instance. I was sufficiently annoyed and insulted by what happened that, rather than giving an RFD at the end of the round, I spent about five minutes chewing the debater out for running the case, and made my decision on the basis of that choice rather than any argument on the flow. (I should note that I’ve since received a very contrite letter of apology from the debater in question, which I appreciated.)

Before I could really savor my moment of righteous outrage, however, I was reminded of the fuzziness of the ethical boundaries which govern these sorts of practices in debate: in the second flight of the same round, I saw an AC which contained two or three analytic arguments, copied from another case I’d written on a different topic the same year, five seasons back. These particular arguments, in fact, were ones I’ve seen lifted several times in the past without particularly minding. It struck me as interesting that I was so intuitively offended by the behavior of the first debater, but not at all by the second.

I would guess that most people who have been coaching (and writing arguments) in LD for any length of time have had similar experiences—though hopefully not too many as extreme as the first. Over the last couple years, however, “prep-sharing” between teams and between debaters had become so much more extensive and widespread that the (albeit vague) ethical limits on acceptable use of other people’s work have been stretched and (in some cases, I would claim) simply and egregiously broken.

It’s worth asking, therefore, what these limits ought to be, and how they should be policed. By the standards of academia, even (what debaters tend to regard as) relatively benign practices, like copy-pasting a couple sentences of analytic arguments, would count as fairly serious ethical lapses. If academic standards for crediting other people’s work were to be rigorously applied in current, national-circuit LD, it would either drastically slow down the diffusion of cards and arguments, or result in cases overflowing with credits to a menagerie of coaches and debaters. (What percentage of teams running metaethical frameworks, for instance, have found and cut all their framework cards themselves?) Perhaps this would be a good thing—it is, after all, a little strange that even basically well-intentioned debaters might go into rounds with no idea who originally cut a given card or wrote a given argument in their case, and I’ll admit that a certain petty part of me finds it annoying that debaters might be winning rounds on arguments I wrote, without anyone involved knowing where they come from. But there’s no question that, by this point, stuffing the genie back in the bottle presents a bit of a challenge.

A more modest hope is to develop a set of minimal, agreed-upon norms for what sorts of exchanges and appropriations are seen as acceptable, which could be made to correspond to real incentives for debaters in the form of collective censure or disapproval for those who break them. Here are three questions on which, as far as I can tell, there is not at the moment any solid agreement, and where settled norms might be helpful:

(1) Is it ever acceptable to use someone’s writing in a case without their (explicit/direct) permission and without credit or citation? If so, how much and under what conditions?

(2) What about cards? Is it generally acceptable for debaters to just copy-paste cards from someone else’s prep, do they have to redo the internal cutting, or do they have to return to the original source and find/cut the card from scratch?

(3) What sorts of obligations do debaters have to verify the origins of prep they’re using in rounds? When debaters or teams are exchanging prep, is it enough for them to simply take each others’ word that they have permission to share everything they’re sharing?

There’s room for reasonable difference of opinion on these questions, but it does seem to me that at least this much should be clear: Debaters should never read a position in round (meaning, a case, DA, CP, kritik, theory shell, philosophical off-case position, etc.) unless they (i) know who wrote it and (ii) have that person’s permission, at least indirectly, to be reading it. Taking someone else’s position and adding arguments to it, or changing words here and there, does not give you any more right to run it than you had at the outset. And with respect to these sorts of appropriations, mistakes are not generally exculpating—debaters (and coaches) must do their due diligence, if they want to run positions that they themselves have not produced, and simply grabbing a case off a shared dropbox where there’s some nominal commitment to avoiding plagiarism does not count as due diligence. (This also means that debaters/coaches should not see themselves as automatically at liberty to “share” prep they haven’t produced—something you didn’t write should not be included in an exchange with someone else, unless you have the explicit permission of the person who did write it.) Finally, stealing entire positions and reading them without permission should not be regarded as something merely questionable or borderline. It is on a par, I would suggest, with other (much less common) forms of cheating in debate, like fabricating evidence. The same sort of stigma ought to attach in the eyes of the debate community, so that there’s a penalty for plagiarism which goes beyond the outcome of a single round.

One last thought: Over the last several years, quite a bit has been said about openness and transparency in debate. Certain forms of openness, at least, are obviously desirable in debate, especially given the current competitive structure of the LD circuit: for instance, debaters who did well at the TOC posting the positions they read as examples for up-and-coming debaters to look at. However, nothing is more antithetical to any form of openness in debate than the thought that people may simply appropriate anything that’s put online for themselves without permission. If we want a debate community in which people feel free to help each other and do things which are good for the community at large, it’s important that we stop doing things that actively punish and discourage openness. How to disincentivize these choices is a difficult question, but it’s one that we need to take seriously if we have the educational and competitive health of the activity.