by Richard A. Posner
Pantheon, 128 pages
Some fifth graders want to be doctors, teachers or astronauts when they grow up. I wanted to be Liza Minnelli. No, not because I longed to suffer from substance abuse or participate in an ill-conceived and ultimately unaired VH1 reality show, but because I knew that Liza Minnelli is one of the few artists to have won the Quadruple Crown of entertainment awards: an Emmy, an Oscar, a Tony, and a Grammy.
Even though I was only ten years old, I knew one day I'd share that distinction with Liza. After all, how hard could it be? I didn't plan on getting my statuettes for acting and singing though. I was going to be a writer (and maybe produce some kind of spoken word album to secure the Grammy—hey, it worked for Audrey Hepburn in 1994). So, in order to get a leg up on the competition, that year I wrote my first play. It was called, creatively enough, The Ellis School 5th Grade Variety Show, and was about (guess what!) a group of people called the Variety Society putting on a show where nothing went right.
My favorite part of the whole ten-page play was its big finale, in which the Variety Society staged a retelling of Snow White with a twist—all of the characters, from the Wicked Queen to the "Narrorator," rapped their dialogue. I remember how proud I was that I had thought of such a unique idea; the Snow White skit was my favorite part of the whole show.
Imagine my surprise when I recently caught a rerun of Saved by the Bell in which the drama club put on a play called Snow White: The Rap. At first, I was shocked. What were the odds that the sitcom's writers and I had had the exact same idea? Then I realized what had probably happened. I must have seen the episode, forgotten about it, and later appropriated its plot for myself without realizing that the Snow White skit wasn't originally my idea.
Believe it or not, there's a word for this kind of accidental plagiarism—cryptomnesia. As judge and law professor Richard A. Posner explains in his new book, The Little Book of Plagiarism, cryptomnesia occurs when "the plagiarist had read something and he remembers it without remembering that he had read it." An explanation of this questionable "sin of neglect" only makes up a small portion of Posner's treatise on plagiarism though.
Throughout his small but dense and topical book, Posner examines what plagiarism means and why it has suddenly become such a hot-button issue. He "analyze[s] these issues from a perspective shaped by [his] longstanding interest, both as a judge and as an academic, in the law and economics of intellectual property." Don't be reluctant to read this Little Book because its author seems a little too cerebral and dry, or because he appears to be treading on overly well-worn territory, like immensely popular authors, including J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown, who have recently been accused of stealing other people's ideas to use in their bestsellers. Although Posner discusses issues that may appear familiar, his conclusions are anything but typical, and his writing, notwithstanding that introductory sentence, is accessible and captivating.
Lately it seems as if there has been a new plagiarism-related scandal every week. Think Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard student who quickly became a literary sensation last year after publishing her first novel and just as quickly became an even greater sensation after it was discovered that much of her book had been copied from authors as different as chick lit queen Megan McCafferty (CC '95) and controversial lit king Salman Rusdie. However, Posner argues that plagiarism is not any more prevalent now than it ever has been; it is simply easier to detect because of computers and electronic tools like Google, which allow vigilant plagiarism-spotters to identify copied phrases instantly with the click of a mouse.
Strangely, well-known and beloved authors like Vladimir Nabokov and William Shakespeare have both been identified as "plagiarists" in the strictest sense of the word, although their "crimes" have not affected their statuses as two of the best writers of all time. Posner drives this point home with a side-by-side comparison of Sir Thomas North's description of Cleopatra on her barge and a strikingly similar description found in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Unsurprisingly, the Bard's version is notably more poetic and beautiful:
North: ...the poope whereof was of gold, the sailes of purple, and the owers [oars] of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sounde of the musick of flutes...
Shakespeare: ... The poop was beaen gold;
Purple the sails and so perfumed that,
The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were silver.
Which to the tune of flutes kept
stroke and made
The water which they beat to follow faster...
"If this is plagiarism," Posner quips, "we need more plagiarism." T.S. Eliot undoubtedly would have agreed with Posner. The poet believed that plagiarism was not only common but an asset when used properly; he once wrote, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."
The concept of making "something different" is at the heart of modern plagiarism controversies, according to Posner. He explains that "as society grows more complex, creating more differentiated roles for its members to play, and as the spread of education and prosperity frees people from the shackles of custom, family, and authority and encourages each person to be an individual, a 'cult of personality' emerges." This emphasis on individuality and uniqueness leads to a plagiarism being denounced more because it involves one person appropriating another person's unique work. The realm of plagiarism is one place in which the "everybody's special" mentality that pervades pre-schools across America backfires; sometimes, it's okay to make something similar to something someone else has already made.
One of Posner's main goals is to debunk the "absurd idea that 'copying' is inherently bad." As he points out, if this is to be believed, movies like West Side Story and Clueless would be guilty of unoriginality because they're based on works made by other artists. Plagiarism then is not only about copying; intent plays a major role in whether or not someone has committed the crime. In the end, Posner concludes: "Plagiarism is a species of intellectual fraud. It consists of unauthorized copying that the copier claims (whether explicitly or implicitly, and whether deliberately or carelessly) is original with him and the claim causes the copier's audience to behave otherwise than it would if it knew the truth." This is why, generally speaking, self-copying is not a major infraction. Unless an author has copied his work from something he wrote earlier and misleads the audience into believing that it is new material, Posner writes, "It is hard to see how copying yourself hurts anybody, except possibly yourself." Deception is an integral facet of plagiarism, according to Posner.
Although Posner generally manages to spend just enough time discussing a dizzying multitude of different topics, there are places in his book where he does not explain fascinating subjects enough. This is the case with "book packaging," in which a publishing company hires "ghostwriters to work from outlines, paying them a flat fee and publishing them under several pseudonyms." One notorious book packager (the company behind series like Goosebumps and Sweet Valley High) even "established a policy that is still used by some packagers today: authors were not allowed to talk about the books they'd written" so as not to spoil the illusion that every book in a series was by the same author. Posner does not go into any more detail about the process of book packaging, although a more lengthy treatment would no doubt make for an interesting few paragraphs at the least. Despite occasional moments like this, the book, while little, is not shallow.
Plagiarism is and always will be a problem, especially at a school like Columbia where stressed students feel they have to resort to dishonest means to get their work done. However, it isn't always a simple case of "literary theft"; at the end of the Little Book, Posner writes, "The vagueness of the concept of plagiarism should be acknowledged and thus a gray area recognized in which creative imitation produces value that should undercut a judgment of plagiarism." Sometimes, the imitation actually improves upon the original work.
I certainly hope this was true in my own plagiarism scare; it isn't too far-fetched to think that a ten-year-old girl could have written a better Snow White rap than a roomful of professional sitcom writers, right?
In any case, Posner's book is a refreshing new take on a topic that we've been warned about practically since we learned how to write.
Hillary Busis is a Columbia College freshman majoring in undecided. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.