A new case that seems more clear cut involves Kaavya Viswanathan, the author of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life and a sophomore at Harvard, that has been accused of copying passages from stories by Megan McCafferty. According to a Washington Post article by David A. Fahrenthold, several passages appear to be nearly identical.
|Kaavya Viswanathan||Megan McCafferty|
|Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty.||Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart.|
|Priscilla was my age and lived two blocks away. For the first fifteen years of my life, those were the only qualifications I needed in a best friend.||Bridget is my age and lives across the street. For the first twelve years of my life, these qualifications were all I needed in a best friend.|
The Harvard Crimson, which broke the story, has plenty of other examples.
Fahrenhold in his lede says:
That long list of excuses authors have given for writing a book that turns out to contain parts of somebody else's book just got a little longer. Add to the "Oh, I thought those were my notes" and the "I was in too much of a hurry," this one: unconscious copying.
I wouldn’t give Viswanathan that much credit. Her defense is really a variation of Rule #7 from Yellojkt's Top Ten Excuses Used by Plagiarists (©2006 by yellojkt) which states:
7. I didn’t copy. I changed a bunch of words.
I think that “unconscious copying” is a pretty fancy way of saying “I changed a BUNCH of words.” Or in her case, at least one a sentence. Unfortunately I am not well enough versed in the coming-of-age sub-genre of Chick-Lit to speak authoritatively on the merits of the broader accusation of suspiciously similar “characters, and plot points" as the WaPo article alleges McCafferty claims.
In fiction, the standards for plagiarism have to just a little bit different. If I am writing a book about an obsessive quest for a white whale, it could be interpreted as a re-imagining, or in the case of The Wind Done Gone, a parody (that being the most defensible way of using obviously similar characters and events). Directly lifting, or “unconscious copying" text is pretty damning evidence.
I do like it that Fahrenthold referred to a hypothetical canonical list of excuses that plagiarists use, particularly since I have already prepared such a list. I would love to see the other items on his list because I am sure we can fold them into one or more of my established categories. After all, I am not the only person to have come up with a list of plagiarist’s excuses. A quick due diligence Google® search into the prior art produces this list and this list.
Creating a numbered list is not even a particularly original idea. David Letterman’s Top Ten Lists are probably the most famous. When David moved from NBC to CBS, CBS insisted on keeping the rights to many of the “bits” (a specific sub-category of “intellectual property”) like Stupid Pet Tricks, the Top Ten List went with him. He was either able to make the argument that the lists predate his work with CBS or that the concept is too generic to own. Letterman's distinguishing characteristic is that his lists countdown rocket launch style.
I first fell in love with lists from the astoundingly appropriately named Book of Lists by Irving Wallace, David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace. While I can no longer remember many of the individual lists, the impression on me was tremendous. Not to mention that many of them were very risque that meant that as a thirteen year-old, I could read some pretty smutty stuff in broad daylight since the book looked so informative.
I am often tempted to do as a blog post music related lists like Cars Mentioned By Bruce Springsteen or Musical Tributes To Onanism, only to find they’ve been done earlier and better in my The New Book of Rock Lists by David Marsh. And once I’ve seen his list, my mind is tainted, so I abandon the idea.
I love lists and I hate plagiarists. There are even some pretty funny lists about plagiarism.