Posner and Plagiarism

I read Richard Posner’s mercifully short The Little Book of Plagiarism on Tuesday. By saying “mercifully short,” I don’t mean that Posner’s book is bad. Far from it. I mean instead that a longer discussion of plagiarism might cause my head to explode.

Posner’s purpose in this book is to show us how we have historically defined plagiarism and how we look at it today. He avoids most discussion of the Web and other digital horizons, limiting that to a brief look at Turnitin.com, the online cheater-catcher database used by many universities. Posner focuses on print and writing, preferring paper to screen whenever possible.

And why not? The majority of plagiarism’s history has taken place on paper, so it’s as good a place to look for a definition as any. The problem, which Posner uncovers, is that there is no hard and fast definition of plagiarism. Just when you think he’s got it nailed down, he introduces another complication. Is plagiarism judged by intent, motive, harm done, damages incurred, or something else? His legal background is evident in the text, even if it is only to undermine all his own arguments.

The effect is to show us that whatever text we would call plagiarized can be explained rationally as either historically okay or as negligence. And those texts we see as righteous are in face heirs to a legacy of literary thievery that goes back to the Greeks and earlier.

Posner, unlike some, does not explicitly blame the Romantics for the rise of notions of copyright and plagiarism. They played a role, to be certain, but those “original” writers of the early 1800s were not the first to value originality or intellectual property rights. Posner paints a picture of plagiarism that has far deeper and more complex roots; everyone and every culture shares some of the “blame.”

Though he comes to no concrete conclusions and offers little in the way of advice, Posner does enlighten, which is his intention. Posner addresses the problem of plagiarism–if we consider it a problem at all–in a book the size of The Elements of Style, which is fitting for an issue that should be simple but proves frustratingly hard to grasp.


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