Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard A. Posner

How much can you say about plagiarism? Quite a lot if you are Richard A. Posner, a judge in the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Do not let the small size of The Little Book of Plagiarism fool you. There is much to consider.

Posner's book does read a bit like a legal brief. He begins by defining plagiarism and then describing various cases that may or may not fall within the definition. He includes a fairly thorough discussion of the Kaavya Viswanathan's use of passages from Megan McCafferty's books in the writing of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. What Viswanathan did from a writing viewpoint was not much different than what William Shakespeare did in taking a passage from Plutarch's Life of Marc Antony in his play Antony and Cleopatra. The difference is that no copyright existed to protect Plutarch, who was long dead, and Shakespeare did not actually publish his play during his lifetime. Viswanathan's book was in direct competition in the women's literature market with the books of McCafferty. The legal problem was copyright infringement, not plagiarism.

Posner also discusses why students are punished severely when caught plagiarising, while professors who plagiarize in their journal articles and books often get slight reprimands. Also, the cases of Joseph Biden using a British political speech in one of his adresses and Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose using passages from scholarly journals in their popular histories are examined. Biden, who had his speech written for him by staff, suffered far more than the history writers, who certainly knew what they did.

Posner discusses the growth and limitations of plagiarism-checking software, the concept of originality, and the need for fair use in the creative process. The Little Book of Plagiarism is a good little book.

Posner, Richard A. The Little Book of Plagiarism. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007. ISBN 9780375424755

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