Thursday, February 17, 2011

What the Dustbunnies Swept Under the Rug

by Sarsen

Recently a document was circulated among the Faery community by two initiates; it describes some ten separate instances of plagiarism, comprising seventeen pages' worth of material, in Valerie Walker's The Dustbunnies/March Hares Big Damn Handout, Volume I. In the process of reading through the book, I found those and a few others (and probably missed some). I don't necessarily intend to repeat absolutely all of them here, but will give some examples and talk about the issues involved. I want to remind everyone of these principles:

1) Rephrasing something without acknowledgment of the source is still plagiarism.
2) “Fair use” as an exception to copyright only covers some uses, and does not give blanket permission to reproduce the entirety of a work without permission no matter how short the original work is. It also does not remove the obligation to acknowledge sources. It does provide more protection to educational or non-profit uses than for commercial uses, but again that protection is not unlimited.

If you remain unclear about this, please peruse my previous article or the sources I reference, especially

I would also like to introduce a basic idea here, one that would solve a multitude of problems clearly and clearly and so simply that I cannot fathom why it has not already been universally adopted. It is this:

If you didn't write it, don't publish it.

UNLESS: 1) you have written permission from the original author or current copyright holder,

OR 2) the work is in the public domain.

Note that “public domain” has a very specific definition, involving how long ago it was written (70+ years, generally) and other matters which emphatically do not include “I was told this was traditional” or “I don't know who wrote it” or “somebody put it up on the Internet.” Or even “I want to publish it because I like it and the author is a big meanie.”

The first item, on page 15 of the Handout, is a form of soul aligning meditation. The specifics of the technique are from a particular line of the Feri tradition, but that line (and the people who passed the technique to her) are not named. Here is a point where acknowledging the source would help, at least with the plagiarism part, but this example brings up a couple of issues.

All of us were passed “the tradition” with some common concepts but the specific ways it is practiced vary quite a bit; it is therefore possible to discern where an initiate “comes from” in terms of how they do certain techniques. The simpler versions are almost always the most widespread and represent what most people got from Victor; more elaborated versions often mark that practice as part of a particular line. While no one particularly owns the “rights” to the core meditations and concepts, a person's specific way of doing it could be said to belong to them, if they originated it. A person's written-down version of one does definitely belong to that individual.

Feri is an oral tradition, we keep saying, and it's sometimes odd to juxtapose copyright law onto that. However, there is a precedent for dealing with such issues in an oral culture context. In the traditional storytelling community, the stories are generally from folk tradition and therefore belong to no one. However, the particular way a person tells a story, all of the flourishes and particular turns of phrase, are considered to belong to the teller. You can tell any story you want. But if you want to tell a story the particular way someone else tells it, you ask that person's permission.

Of course, all of that presumes two things: one, that you keep the oral tradition oral, that is you don't put it into print (which invokes a different set of rules) and two, that everyone involved is honorable. Mostly, it works in the storytelling community because while nobody is making big bucks, storytellers are essentially performers and reputation matters. I'm hoping to bring some of that power of reputation here to the Internet, in case you're wondering.

The second problem with the meditation as given in the Handout is essentially this: The people who passed it to Valerie have stated over and over again that they don't want it published. Regardless of their reasons, whether she or anyone thinks those reasons are good or bad, they don't. Whatever she says on the matter, she is absolutely aware of this fact; if she wasn't before somehow, I'm saying so here. She might have a legal right to publish her own version of it, if she attributed it properly. But the ethics of doing so remain murky.

On pages 31-32 of the Handout, there is an Iron Pentacle meditation reproduced in its entirety. Here again the verdict is almost but not quite....that is, the exercise is attributed correctly, but because the whole thing is there it still violates the original author's copyright. He has stated that he did not give permission for it to be published, and since the substance of the work is included (rather than a few quotes or a paraphrase) the reproduction of it is not covered under “fair use.” Here again also we run into a puzzling problem: the Iron Pentacle is nearly universal, reams of material about it have been written, and it seems like it would be no big deal for an initiate (who presumably has worked with the concept at great length) to write her own. It's true that sometimes you see something that is so apt that you just don't think you can do any better...but if someone doesn't want you to use their work, you don't have a choice. And as I say, it shouldn't be difficult. I could write an Iron Pentacle exercise with my hands tied behind my back while falling off a log. So why would anyone ever want to appropriate someone else's?

On page 64, she repeats a list of God and Goddess names, only saying that they are used “by many Feris.” The chants are in fact part of a liturgy written by Victor Anderson. One might be forgiven for not knowing that, even if it seems like an obvious thing for an initiate of the tradition to know. One is still responsible for finding out the source of something before one puts it into print.

She quotes Starhawk's creation story from The Spiral Dance in full on page 74, along with ones from Francesca de Grandis and Brian Dragon. I am willing to assume she did get permission from Brian Dragon who is usually very generous with his work. The other two are dubious; they are from published material and do not include permissions which would be required; I still have to acknowledge previous publications when reprinting poems and stories that I wrote and own the rights to. The stories are part of larger works, but the quote is substantial. At least she gets the attribution correct this time.

She also quotes a poem by Gwydion Pendderwen in full; I don't know which of his heirs owns the copyright to that particular poem, but no acknowledgments (other than his name) are given. His poetry is used as liturgy by many people in the tradition, and he clearly intended for that to be so; however, only specific people have the right to publish his work.

On pages 82-84, there are quarter calls written by Steven Hewell; not only did he never give permission to publish, Valerie was specifically asked (more than once) to remove them. They are unattributed. At one point she claimed that she had removed them, but both versions I have (from 2008 and 2011) have them. She also reproduces the quarter calls used by another line of Feri; I am told those were written by Alison Harlow, possibly in collaboration with Gwydion Pendderwen. They are in any case based very closely on quarter calls from Paul Huson's book Mastering Witchcraft, a matter of common knowledge and much previous discussion.

Additionally, the Guardian descriptions on the same pages are obviously drawn from the Korythalia material which was co-authored by Steven Hewell and Gabriel Carillo; the Guardian material in particular was mostly written by Hewell. Again, unattributed.

On page 89 she repeats the God and Goddess chants, and again doesn't attribute them to the founder of the tradition, even though she quotes him quite a bit elsewhere.

Pages 97-99 give a version of circle liturgy originally written by Victor Anderson. Unattributed, also printed in full without permission.

On page 100 are some lines added to the five-fold blessing that appears on page 191 of The Spiral Dance. That in turn was based on a blessing from page 222 of Mastering Witchcraft.

Valerie has claimed at various points that no one ever said anything to her about anything in her book; this is not true. She has been spoken to by a number of different people over the past several years, by report and in my own direct observation. When confronted with that fact at one point on an e-mail list, she responded that they hadn't asked nicely enough. When asked very politely would she please not publish material written by other people, she simply refused and then left the list. Subsequently she has complained about being “talked about” in her absence, not bothering to mention the fact that she chose to withdraw from the conversation and could have re-entered it any time she wished.

I will say that the Handout is somewhat representative of the kind of stuff that has been passed around the tradition for years, and Valerie sometimes indicates that material in her book was not written by her even if she doesn't say who did write it. The difference is, it's one thing to hand someone a stack of copies of material you have collected (with or without good notes and provenance) and quite another to publish it under your own name with a copyright statement. The former is perhaps sloppy and deplorable; the latter is asserting a false claim to the work. It is also, as I have just demonstrated, not that difficult to find out who wrote something.

There's more here than just the purely personal ethics of it; what happens when you obfuscate the origin of a piece of Pagan liturgy or practice is not just that the original author is not credited, but the true history of it is lost; the circumstances, the influences, the historical moment. The development of Pagan religion in the United States has been rapid, and in some cases we know less about what really happened forty years ago than we do about what happened one hundred or five hundred years ago...Sometimes because people just didn't keep track, but also sometimes because people were more interested in creating a false aura of antiquity or asserting a claim to material they didn't write. Things that were written only a handful of years ago become "traditional"...thus lifting them neatly out of the hands of the rightful author, who is likely to have more good work in him or her but who is much less likely to share it henceforth. Just as bad, sometimes actually traditional material gets overlooked because it doesn't suit modern sensibilities so well as the faux tradition. All of this is inextricably tied up with the question of the true origins of modern religious witchcraft, and it does real harm to cloud the issue further.

The tragedy from my point of view is that some of what Valerie says in her book is both interesting and insightful. I cannot, however, in good conscience recommend it to my students or to anyone, because I can't know how much of it she actually wrote herself and how much she took from someone else without bothering to make note of it. Therefore even her original work, however much of it there is, becomes lost in a morass of deceit and carelessness.

Anderson, Victor. "The 'Little' Feri Ritual." Unpublished mss. (prior to 1968)*

Carillo, Gabriel and Steven Hewell. Korythalia class handout, unpublished mss. 1983.

Huson, Paul. Mastering Witchcraft: A Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks, and Covens. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1970.

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. San Francisco: Harper, 1979.

"The Long Night of the Night Hares." Unpublished mss. February, 2011.

Walker, Valerie. The Dustbunnies/March Hares Big Damn Handout, Volume I. 2007.

*I'm giving it this date because that's the earliest version of it I personally have. I would also like to point out here that while we all feel a sense of attachment towards this liturgy in particular, and it was clearly meant to be used...we still don't own the rights to publish it, as individuals or as a collective. Only Victor Anderson's heirs do.