Every student knows it's now easier than ever to commit plagiarism. Previous generations faced the tiresome job of copying from books but, today, the "boundless textual promiscuity" of the Web (as Thomas Mallon described it in Stolen Words) provides an ocean of material, flowing through cyberspace, waiting to be effortlessly reproduced. The Web takes the handwork, as well as the mental effort, out of going to university.
Alas, it also makes detection of cheaters easier. A cheap anti-plagiarism program, Turnitin, compares a paper to billions of online essays, including papers sold by essay mills. Turnitin searches out resemblances and calculates an Overall Similarity Index, then reports back to the student's university. In theory, Turnitin could be fooled, but that would be very difficult. A student might just as well write an original essay.
Richard A. Posner, a prolific author and law teacher as well as an appeals-court judge in Chicago, takes us through this process in The Little Book of Plagiarism (Pantheon), his shrewd and charming contribution to a much-discussed topic. In amiable, easygoing style, he defines his subject and sorts out its history.
Plagiarism is intellectual fraud, as he says, but it differs from copyright infringement. If you steal without credit a piece of, say, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, you won't violate anyone's copyright; the work is in the public domain. But you will be guilty of fraud, therefore subject (as Posner says) to "disgrace, humiliation, ostracism and other shaming penalties."
It's often pointed out (but hard to remember) that plagiarism is largely an invention of recent times.
Certainly, Shakespeare didn't worry about adapting the work of others; the earliest appearance of the word "plagiarism" in the Oxford Dictionary is dated five years after his death. Author's rights were invented by the Romantic era, with its emphasis on individualism, and book publishing gave those rights money value.
As late as the 18th century, plagiarism remained a bit of a joke among writers. Laurence Sterne pretended to champion originality when he wrote, in Tristram Shandy: "Shall we forever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?" That was Sterne's wonderfully perverse joke. Decades after his death, someone noticed he liberally stole from Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy -- including the attack on plagiarism and even the part about the apothecaries. This ironic example of "intertextuality" helps give Sterne his reputation as the first of the postmodern novelists. (In private, he practised a simpler plagiarism; Posner notes that he included, in letters to his mistress, passages from letters sent earlier to his wife.)
Journalism textbooks call plagiarism "the unforgivable sin." That's quite wrong. Plagiarism is often forgiven, if the writer is eminent enough. But once it becomes public, it's a permanent stain. It's often forgiven, but never forgotten.
Doris Kearns Goodwin's 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, contained substantial sections lifted from Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, by Lynne McTaggart. Goodwin was forced to pay McTaggart a large sum and explain, in later editions, how much she borrowed.
She did her best to cleanse her reputation. She hired a press agent to organize her rehabilitation and got a platoon of celebrity historians to insist on her innocence. She was rehabilitated, in a sense. But plagiarists, Posner argues, are "never completely rehabilitated." A certain odour clings to them. As William Hazlitt wrote in 1820, "If an author is once detected in borrowing, he will be suspected of plagiarism ever after."
In 1988, as Posner reminds us, Senator Joseph Biden's attempt to become the Democratic candidate for president failed because someone pointed out that one of his speeches was partly stolen from Neil Kinnock, then the British Labour Party leader. Curiously, the stolen words concerned Kinnock's life and didn't apply to Biden's. It sounded to me like a horrendous mistake by a careless ghostwriter, but Biden withdrew from the race. Today, as Posner notes, Biden's run for president may be forgotten, "yet the fact that Biden is a plagiarist has not been." He's now campaigning for president again, and every time I see him on television, I remember the embarrassment he suffered nearly two decades ago. My guess is that many others share that response. As Posner says, "The stigma of plagiarism seems never to fade completely, not because it is an especially heinous offense, but because it is embarrassingly second-rate; its practitioners are pathetic, almost ridiculous."
What we condemn as plagiarism in one profession, we consider normal in another. Professors publishing as their own work articles written by students will put themselves in danger of censure and humiliation. Judges, on the other hand, routinely issue under their own names judgements written entirely by law clerks; no one ever calls this plagiarism.
Writers often claim "innocent plagiarism," arguing that they knew some earlier work so well that they reproduced it by accident. This is cryptomnesia, meaning the plagiarist read something, remembered it, but forgot that he read it. "Psychologists have investigated the phenomenon," Posner writes, and found nothing to support this explanation, "no evidence of a photographic memory that forgets the act of photographing."
Wendy Kaminer, the American social critic, has remarked that "Plagiarism, like infidelity, is a habit that few defend but many indulge." Plagiarism, or the accusation of plagiarism, afflicts everyone from the makers of Hollywood comedies to the president of Russia. Rebecca Eckler, the author of Knocked Up: Confessions of a Hip Mother-to-be (2005), sees suspicious resemblances, going far beyond the title, in the current Hollywood film, Knocked Up. She's sued the writer-director, Judd Apatow, and Universal Pictures. Apatow claims anyone who reads the book and sees the movie will agree that, though they use a common experience, they tell different stories.
Beyond question, the most powerful known plagiarist today is Vladimir Putin. Scholars established last year that, to earn his PhD in 1997 at the St. Petersburg Mining Institute, he lifted long sections of his dissertation from a book written 20 years earlier by two academics in Pittsburgh. It's not known if his professors realized this at the time and generously overlooked it when they learned he was a KGB agent. There's no word so far of a plan to take back his doctorate. He committed a sin, but not, in his case, an unforgivable sin.