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Excerpted From: Kim D. Chanbonpin, Legal Writing, the Remix: Plagiarism and Hip-Hop Ethics, 63 Mercer Law Review 597 (Winter 2012) (208 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KimDChanbonpinI begin this Article with a necessary caveat. Although I place hip hop music and culture at the center of my discussion about plagiarism and legal writing pedagogy, and my aim here is to uncover ways in which hip hop can be used as a teaching tool, I cannot claim to be a hip hop head. A hip hop “head” is a devotee of the music, an acolyte of its discourse, and, oftentimes, an evangelist spreading the messages contained therein. One head, the MC (or emcee) KRS-One, uses religious discourse to describe hip hop culture, naming his community organization, The Temple of Hip Hop. In this sense, I count myself as one of the faithful, but if hip hop is a temple, I confess that I am not a regular attendee. As a result, the cases that I cite below are drawn from a well of limited knowledge. I encourage readers who are dissatisfied with these limits to “dig in the crates” to summon their own favorite examples.

In this Article, I focus on hip hop music and culture as an access point to teach first-year law students about the academic and professional pitfalls of plagiarism. Hip hop provides a good model for comparison because most entering students are immersed in a popular culture that is saturated with allusions to hip hop. As a point of reference for incoming law students, hip hop possesses a valuable currency as it represents something real, experienced, and relatable.

Significant parallels exist between the cultures of United States legal writing and hip hop, although attempting direct analogies would be absurd. Chief among these similarities is the reliance of both cultures on an archive of knowledge, borrowing from which authors or artists build credibility and authority. Whether it is from case law or musical recordings, the necessary dependence on a finite store of information means that the past work of others will be frequently incorporated into new work. The ethical and professional danger inherent in this type of production is that one who borrows too freely from the past may be merely copying instead of interpreting or innovating. In the academic world, this is plagiarism. Members of the hip hop community call this “biting.” In neither culture is this mode of production celebrated.

My goals for this project are two-fold. First, as a professor of legal writing, I want to ameliorate the problem of plagiarism that I have seen growing worse each year. Second, as a scholar, I would like to contribute to the growing body of literature on hip hop and the law. This Article marks the beginning of my attempt to theorize a hip hop ethic and develop its application to the teaching, the academic study, and perhaps eventually, the reform of the law.

In Part II, I set out by providing preliminary definitions for the terminology used in this Article. I describe the key term, “plagiarism,” and identify three types of the offense that occur frequently in the legal writing classroom. In doing so, I also provide cases demonstrating that plagiarism in the academic setting is not without adverse consequences in law practice. Next, I assert that hip hop music is based in a tradition of borrowing from prior works. The custom of borrowing, as in the use of samples and the creation of mixtapes, is not completely unrestricted, however. Hip hop maintains an internal system of regulation, guided by the principle of “no biting.”

Part III is a comparative analysis of the shared and divergent values of the legal writing and hip hop cultures. Social constructivist composition theorists frame the writing process in terms of a writer's relationship to language using groups or “discourse communities.” As a discrete discourse community, hip hop incorporates a citation system that is certainly distinct from, but that is also comparable to, the system of citation that lawyers use. Drawing on the work of social constructivists, I argue here that by studying hip hop as a comparative citation system, professors can facilitate a law student's acculturation to an insider's position in legal writing and also help students avoid the pitfalls of plagiarism.

Part III also aims to reconcile the two seemingly oppositional value systems of hip hop and legal writing. I suggest that the objectives of good hip hop music and good legal writing are similar. In both forms of production original thought and innovative analysis are celebrated and rewarded. Consumers of these products value an active (versus passive) exchange between original formats and remixes. Part IV concludes.

[. . .]

In the Prelude, I called my credibility as the author of an article on hip hop and legal writing pedagogy into doubt by warning the reader about my lack of expertise. I have attempted to rehabilitate myself in the intervening pages by citing examples designed to display the breadth of my knowledge, to reclaim for myself some credibility as a type of hip hop insider. My references to songs and artists deliberately span the spectrum of hip hop music-from underground to mainstream, from the East Coast to the West and the Dirty South, from old school to contemporary-with the intention of proving myself to the reader.

Ultimately, my goal in the first-year legal writing classroom is to empower students to confidently use legal authorities when composing memoranda and briefs. In this Article, I have argued that millennial students can become stronger and more proficient legal writers when they have engaged in a study comparing the cultural products of hip hop with the cultural products of the law. Both hip hop music and legal writing are at their best when they demonstrate the author's depth of knowledge of the subject matter by showcasing the author's skill at weaving existing sources with new, innovative ideas and arguments. Although ongoing litigation about hip hop's unauthorized use of sampling might mislead the uninitiated, hip hop culture actually maintains and enforces its own system of citation and authentication. Hip hop citation comes in a different form than citation for academic or legal writing, but it nonetheless serves the dual purposes of announcing the artist's musical sources and contextualizing that artist's work within the culture, thereby authenticating the artist's status within hip hop. The uniform system of citation used in legal writing reflects those two aims. When a lawyer cites case law or statutes in a trial brief, she is calling the reader's attention to the existing legal authorities in support of her argument. By using correct citation form, the lawyer is also subtly communicating to her audience that she is a credible legal “insider.”

Assistant Professor of Law, The John Marshall Law School (Chicago). University of California, Berkeley (B.A., 1999); University of Hawaii (J.D., 2003); Georgetown University Law Center (LL.M., 2006). Member, State Bar of California.

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