This is the age of cut and paste. Word processors have made plagiarism feasible on a wide scale; at the same time improved plagiarism detection software is making it harder to get away with this ‘unoriginal sin’ for long. Richard A. Posner’s book, The Little Book of Plagiarism, is by far the best treatment of plagiarism I’ve read. His strengths are clarity, sensitivity to the variety of activities that get clumped under the heading ‘plagiarism’, balance and brevity.
Posner opens with the case of the Kaavya Viswanathan, the chick-lit novelist who at 17 landed a two-book advance of 500,000 US dollars and had sold the movie rights to Dreamworks for an undisclosed sum. She was then exposed as a probable plagiarist: her first book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, contained over a dozen passages that overlapped significantly with the work of other writers of this genre, notably Megan McCafferty. Posner goes on to explore the subtleties of motivation, reception and culpability of a range of literary, student and academic plagiarists and near-plagiarists as well as the phenomenon of ghostwriting, and the difficulties of writing textbooks without borrowing ideas. Throughout he distinguishes plagiarism, which involves adopting other people’s expression of ideas and passing them off as if they were your own, from using other people’s ideas but expressing these in your own way. In the process he explores the related phenomenon self-plagiarism typified by Laurence Sterne’s preposterous re-use of his own love letters to his wife: he later copied them out and sent them to his mistress. If this is culpable, it is very different in its effects from standard cases of plagiarism, particularly in the age of copyright (though Posner makes the important point that copyright infringement and plagiarism overlap, but are not congruent: copyright infringement is ‘the invasion of a property right’ (p.46) and reduces the income of the owner of whatever is copied – student plagiarism, for example, hardly does this).
As Posner points out, typical cases of plagiarism are a kind of intellectual fraud that can cause serious economic harm to those whose writing (or other creative work) is copied unacknowledged. He is also interesting on its historical relativity: ‘The demand for originality’ Posner writes (p.72) ‘is an economic phenomenon anchored in time and place.’ It is now tantamount to trademark infringement, and should not be subject to exemption on grounds of ‘fair use’; in Shakespeare’s age, the premium on originality was different, as were the economics of authorship, and the audience’s expectations, so his unacknowledged borrowing should be judged differently from Viswanathan’s.
Posner is excellent on the distinction between originality and creativity. ’Originality’ is not a normative term; ‘creativity’ is. To say that something is creative implies that it has value because of its novelty. Posner writes (p.96): ‘An original work is simply something that is different enough from some existing work that it could not be confused with it. From an aesthetic standpoint the work might not have been worth making.’ (This is analogous to George Dickie’s point about ‘art’ used in a non-evaluative way, where to label something a work of art implies nothing about its value to humanity whatsoever, but merely categorises it and distinguishes it from non-art).
Most exposed plagiarists use one of two defenses: sloppy note-taking or ‘unconscious copying’ (cryptomnesia). Posner quotes the American Historical Associations line on the former, that ‘the plagiarist’s standard defense – that he or she was misled by hastily taken and imperfect notes – is plausible only in the context of a wider tolerance of shoddy work.’ (p.94). Well put. And on the latter, whilst he accepts that unconscious copying of an idea or a tune is possible, Posner is reluctant to accept its genuine occurrence in the literary case, declaring (without citing the evidence):
‘Psychologists have investigated the phenomenon and have found no evidence that people can recited entire passages written by someone else yet believe they are their own – no evidence of a photographic memory that forgets the act of photographing.' (p.97).
In response to Posner, absence of evidence does not prove that it couldn’t or doesn’t occur: but it reduces the plausibility of this defense significantly (assuming, of course, that the uncited psychological research was genuinely scientific). Posner is surely accurate about motivation in this areas: the exposed plagiarist’s payoff for using this excuse, is clear: unconscious plagiarism is a lesser sin than conscious.
Although Posner touches on the impact of the Internet and on plagiarism software on this topic, the most obvious omissions are in this area. There is far more to be said. Nor is the challenge of the Creative Commons movement addressed. Unlike some contemporary commentators on this area, however, Posner recognises the creative stimulus provided by enforced copyright law, rather than treating it as an anti-creative curb. The book suffers from lack of chapter titles, contents page, and index, though it makes up for this somewhat by providing an intriguing list of books and articles for further reading. At times, reading this feels like entering the stream of consciousness of a sophisticated and interesting thinker. Without the signposts or an index, it is hard to relocate a topic, and the same topics resurface in different versions throughout. But Posner is such a good writer and the book so short (116 small-format pages), and so stimulating, that I’m prepared to forgive him.