Practice Safe Conferencing: Stealing Ideas and why you really WANT to have your conference presentation filmed

Posted on April 17, 2017


Last week I posted about some reasons why people should not have their conference presentations filmed. I left off one reason I have heard, ‘people might steal my ideas’. An absence that has been noted by several people. The reason I left it off is because it is actually a reason to have your presentation filmed. No, that is not a typo. If you are afraid of having your ideas stolen then you really, really, absolutely, 100%, no ifs, ands or buts about it, want to have your conference presentation filmed.

‘But, wouldn’t that make it easier for people to steal the idea because they can play it back?’

‘When it is up on the internet more people can see it and the internet is full of bad people, like intellectual property thieves.’

Are questions that might be going through your head at the moment, though without my cadence so probably phrased quite differently. The answer is yes, you want lots of people to see it, including would be thieves; let me explain.

Intellectual Property Theft… not a crime

To have something stolen from you, you have to own it. Most people who are afraid of having their ideas stolen refer to it as intellectual property, in my field that tends to be more abstract ideas. Intellectual property – what a strange concept. It is the idea that you can own ideas and it is a relatively recent human construct and throughout the vast majority of human existence it did not exist. That means that there is actually very little legal protection for “intellectual property” and it is very recent. The first copyright law was the Statue of Anne in 1709. Yes, when Hammurabi was writing up his code of laws no one even thought that you could own ideas, and you still cannot with copyright. Copyright grew out of need for government’s need for censorship, can’t have people learning about ideas like freedom of religion, press, life, etc. and then for printers to maintain monopolies, because money.

Here is the kicker, copyright does not protect ideas, any of them. It protects the presentation of ideas. There is a huge distinction there.

‘Jane went to the market to buy some fruit.’

The concept is that there is a person Jane and she went to the market to get fruit and it happened today. Copyright will protect how you represent that concept but not the concept itself. So I could write something like,’Today, Jane went to the market to buy some fruit.’ and it would not be copyright violation. I have not copied word for word what was said, the expression, even though I have repeated the same idea. Copyright only covers the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. Copyright will not protect your ideas.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported Author Kippelboy

The only legal protection you can get for ideas is for the narrowly defined idea of an invention through a patent. Again, this is a recent concept with the first patent law being the Venetian Patent Statute in  1474. What can be covered by a patent will vary slightly between countries but it is very limited. In the US, to get a patent an invention must meet two criteria.

  1. it must fall within one of the four statutory categories of acceptable subject matter: process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.
  2. it must be novel and not obvious and not something like the laws of nature, physical phenomena, or abstract ideas.

That last bit means that almost all of the intellectually property dealt with in the humanities and social sciences have no legal protection, at all… and those are the people who always are concerned with their ideas getting stolen. Talk to an engineer and they are not concerned with their ideas getting stolen because if it was important enough they would get a patent.

Legally speaking, what most people consider their intellectual property in my field, archaeology/anthropology, is not actually property. There are no laws giving you rights to own the very thing that people build their careers on.

Moral Protection

While there are no laws protecting ‘abstract ideas’ there are moral norms and some employer protection. Many Universities have regulations about “stealing ideas” that could result in the punishment of staff or students and some organisations might have morality codes that if violated would get one kicked out of the organisation. There also might be some social pressures. But all of this varies hugely between organisations and even countries because morality is subjective. I was talking to a German student who was telling me that were he went to school the PhD students would write the papers but then the Professors would put their names on it and take credit. I personally see this as unethical, the people who do the work should get the credit, but others may not. In fact, most of my profession, Archaeology, is built around this concept. How many technicians get their names on field reports even though they will do 80-90% of the work? But, I am digressing.

So in terms of protecting your ideas, unless you can file a patent for it, all you can do is put social pressure on people to credit you or hope that the person who “stole” from you is at a university with a regulation against it.

That’s the System

Now I take this into an interesting discussion about people’s misconceptions about “intellectual property”. That actually, they can’t own abstract ideas because we as a culture do not believe they can be owned… except that is not the reality. For academic jobs we require people to gain recognition for the work they do e.g. publish or perish. People’s careers are built on the need to be recognised as the “owner”, at the very least the inventor, of ideas. But, we provide them with no legal protection and very little moral/work protection.

It gets worse, we require people to make their ideas easy to steal. You have to put your ideas into grant applications that will be anonymously reviewed by others. You have to put them into the peer review process, again where they are anonymously reviewed by others. Both of these systems are ripe for abuse. You don’t know who the reviewers are so they can take the ideas and sabotage your work i.e. kill the grant application, not return a peer review for years, while they race to get the idea into print first so they get the credit. Because it is anonymous you will never know it is happening or will have a very hard time proving it.

That is a pretty messed up system we have got, right?

Conferences are Feeding the Beast

Conferences are just another cog in the abuse machine. Except for small regional history and archaeology conferences, where most of the of participants are just there to listen, at almost all conferences almost everyone there is presenting a talk or a poster. Take any large conference and look at the number of attendees and the number of papers/posters presented. Usually those numbers are very close. This is because no one can get money to go to conferences unless they are presenting.

My dream is to one day go to a conference where I am not presenting or filming. I ran into Don Hensen the other day at a conference. Guess what? He was just there to be there, he was not presenting. He used words like ‘existential’ and ‘fantastic’ to describe it. Ah, one can dream.

You have to present your ideas at conferences to be able to go to them. However, this is usually before you publish and have yet to get credit for your work. Again, the system forces you to put out ideas with almost no protection.

So Why Filming?

In the messed up system we work in there are only really three options you have to protect yourself against someone “stealing” your ideas, because the law won’t unless it is an invention or they copy you word for word.

  1. Hope every person is good, honest, and moral.
  2. Hide away your ideas and let no one see them until you get them published. This is not perfect as you could still be sniped during the peer review process. Also, the downsides are that you can’t apply for grants or give conference presentations, basically foregoing other career boosting activities. Moreover, this would not protect PhD students from having their advisors, who they are required to share their work with, from stealing it.
  3. Make sure everyone knows it is your idea.

Essentially, the only protection you have is social pressure and some moral codes but, social pressure only works if enough people in the social circle are aware of the issue. Moral codes only work if you have a paper trail showing that it was your idea first and that they did not properly acknowledge it. This last part is much harder to do than you think because multiple people will be working on the same idea at once. There is such a thing as independent invention. As archaeologists, we are very familiar with the idea of different people inventing different ideas, at different times, independent of each other i.e. agriculture. It is much harder to prove that someone stole your idea than you think, they can claim independent invention. If they are dishonest enough to not credit you then it is a pretty good chance they are also willing to lie about it too.

So you need both a paper trail and lots of people to know about your idea and that it was you who had the idea. Blog, publish, tweet, Facebook, and most importantly video record your presentations and then tweet/Facebook/Instagram/whatever it is the kids are doing these days. You need to build up such a critical mass that when someone goes to submit your ideas to peer review the person reviewing it will say, ‘hey, you did not cite so and so, cite them mothe*()^&(“%’s. Or that when they are taken before their Universities committee on ethics it will be very hard for them to prove they could not have known about it. You want the committee to be saying things like,

‘Prof so&so, this committee finds it hard to believe you were not aware of this when there is a YouTube video with 100,000 views talking about it. You apparently are the only person in (insert field) to have not seen it’

A video is also a particularly great paper trail. Can you remember word for word every presentation you have ever given. Even if you do can you prove it? Imagine you are called into one of these review committees to testify and you say you gave a conference presentation that was copied. They ask for proof. What are you going to give them? Maybe you wrote it out but if you didn’t what are you going to do? A vague abstract? With a video you have all the evidence you need to show you presented the material. Yes, with a video it is easier for people to copy you but it is 100x easier to show that it was your idea in the first place.

Writing out your paper is good but they could claim you faked it… not something that is as easy to claim with a video- especially if it was filmed by the conference organisers who would be independent.

It may seem counter intuitive but if you are concerned about your work not being credited then get it filmed and blog about it, a lot. Your work may only count if it is getting into a peer reviewed journal but blogging and conference presentations will not stop that. Obviously, the content presentation will be different enough that publishers will not think you are double dipping. A peer-reviewed article will sound very different from a blog post. Also, a blog post or video be cited so even if you have not published in a peer reviewed journal yet you will still be getting credit for the work e.g. so & so discussed this on their blog, discussed this at X conference.

Not Risk Free

I don’t want to mislead people and say there are no potential downsides to this approach. You could have you work rejected from journals because you have ‘already’ published. However, I have personally talked with Publishers at Ubiquity, Springer, Maney (before becoming part of T&F) and many others, not one has said a videoed conference presentation would ever disqualify a paper. They treat it like a conference presentation – something that is part of the system and a realisation it has not been peer reviewed, the “value” publishers provide. Ask before you do this but as of yet I have not been told no by a publisher.

Make a Decision

Ultimately, the choice is yours. You will have to weight up the risk of being scooped or presenting at a conference. However, if you do decide to present at a conference, practice safe conferencing, use protection.

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