The Little Book of Plagiarism
About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve
honestly is to steal with good judgment. While I would love to
claim those words as my own to begin a book about stealing ideas, I
must confess that the words are those of John Billings, creator of
the New York Public Library. THE LITTLE BOOK OF PLAGIARISM, by
Judge Richard A. Posner, is a stylish and insightful study of
intellectual cheating and stealing, which comes in many forms and
has afflicted some of the world's greatest writers and
Posner is one of America's foremost observers of law and
contemporary culture. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated
Posner to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh
Circuit. Posner came to the judiciary after a distinguished career
as a professor of economics and law at the University of Chicago.
In addition to the dozens of opinions he authors each year, Posner
is also a prolific writer and sage observer of American life. He is
the author of books on law and literature, the Clinton-Lewinsky
scandal, the 2000 presidential election and countless other
observations on law and society. A 2004 poll in Legal
Affairs magazine named him one of the top legal thinkers in
As a judge and economist, Posner brings a unique perspective to the
issues raised by the sin of plagiarism. THE LITTLE BOOK OF
PLAGIARISM is small in size but substantial in perceptive
observations. Posner makes several significant points in his
novella-length discussion. First is the nature of the offense. Many
view plagiarism as a sin limited to educational institutions.
Posner correctly notes that plagiarism is far more than a
beleaguered student lifting words from others as he prepares his
term paper. The list of well-known authors accused of the sin runs
from Stephen Ambrose to Kaavya Viswanathan, the first-time novelist
whose two-book contract with Little, Brown was voided after pages
from her first novel HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD, AND GOT A
LIFE were found to have been lifted from other sources.
Plagiarism, however, is not limited to the theft of the written
word. Rembrandt signed works of art that his assistants painted.
Shakespeare lifted plots for his plays from other playwrights.
Senator Joseph Biden appropriated the words of an English
politician, Neil Kinnock, as his own. The legally trained Posner
tries to distinguish plagiarism from copyright infringement but
finds the distinction a difficult one because of substantial
overlap between the two. Ultimately, Posner concludes that the vice
of plagiarism is reliance. "The reader does something because he
thinks the plagiarizing work original that he would not have done
had he known the truth."
The irony of this definition is that it excludes from the field of
plagiarism Posner's own profession, the law. Since it also happens
to be mine, I must observe that our profession may well be the most
common practitioners of plagiarism in contemporary society.
Partners claim authorship of legal briefs drafted by young
associates. Judges issue written opinions drafted by law clerks.
Professors publish scholarly works under their name when most of
the work has been performed by willing student researchers. But
Posner dismisses this type of plagiarism (with perhaps the
exception of the scholarly example) as non-plagiarism because
everyone knows and accepts this legal pilferage. Posner, a man who
writes his own opinions, should not be so forgiving of his fellow
One final observation from THE LITTLE BOOK OF PLAGIARISM that bears
mention is the technological revolution that has changed our
perception of the sin. Computer programs now allow college
professors and other interested parties to compare finished
products for materials lifted without appropriate attribution.
While this will expose academic offenders, it may have little
impact on other commercial plagiarizers. A man of remarkable
insight, Posner brings wit and wisdom to a subject that deserves
important discussion. After all, when the University of Oregon
plagiarizes the section dealing with plagiarism from Stanford's
teaching-assistant handbook, there is a problem worth
The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your
sources. How I wish I had said that! This observation comes
from Albert Einstein. THE LITTLE BOOK OF PLAGIARISM is a worthy
addition to the small cadre of reference materials that most
writers keep within arm's reach of their computer. While it may be
a small book, it deserves a big audience.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 30, 2010