Tuesday, April 25, 2006


In plagiarism news, Dan Brown seems to have been exonerated in the pretty trivial lawsuit that had been brought against him, once again reinforcing the maxim that stealing from one is plagiarism, but stealing from many is research. The distraction appears to be keeping the reading public from getting their next poorly written thriller full of idiotic conspiracies as fast as the publishing world would hope. But like whacking moles, new accusations of pagiarism are always being unearthed.

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 ViswanathanMegan 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.


Jonathan Bailey said...

I could not agree more, we need to come up with a definitive plagiarist excuse list and then publish it broadly. If plagiarists are going to make excuses, we should at least push them to be creative about them.

If we made it a running total, that would be pretty amusing as well...

cb said...

Is "I didn't do it, the creepy book packagers who reworked every word of my book must have done it?" a standard plagiarist excuse? Because, personally, I think that's the angle Kaavya should have pursued. Look at these articles from another Harvard newspaper, the Independent--they write about 17th Street, a company that apparently may have been involved in ghostwriting Opal Mehta.

J.Po said...

I couldn't be more in agreement, we need to develop a definitive plagiarist excuse list and then publish it widely. If plagiarists are going to make excuses, they should at least be pushed by us to be creative about them.

That would be pretty amusing as well, if we made it a running total...

Sorry, couldn't resist! :)

yellojkt said...


That's my Excuse #10: Someone else did it and signed my name to it.

I thought it was original to Ben Domenech, but it appears to more popular than I realized.

yellojkt said...

That sounds familiar, J. Po.

J.Po said...

The phrases must have been in my subconscious, yello.

tamjenic said...

Are you impying that someone may have plagerized your plagiarist excuse list?

2fs said...

FWIW, I don't think Dan Brown plagiarized at all. It's not a question of "stealing from many"; it's that the greater the number of that "many" that publicize an idea, the likelier it is that that idea is simply a public meme (in the Dawkinsian sense - not a damned web quiz!). There are, for example, many many earlier works of fiction and non-fiction that take up many of the alternate ideas of Christianity Brown plays with. There's also the question of what kinds of material you can "own." You can't own facts, for example (only the particular mode of their presentation). So insofar as a given researcher claims to have discovered some fact or other, merely mentioning that fact (that a guy named Andy White played drums on the single version of 'Love Me Do,' say - if I'm remembering that bit of trivia correctly) isn't plagiarism. Brown may be a crappy if entertaining writer (someone lock all his adjectives in a closet please) but a plagiarist he's not.

Marc said...

Visawannyahhejhsdfhskjf (Whatever her name is) is from around my area, and attending a private school for exceptionally smart kids called the "Bergen Academies."

Marc said...

attended, rather.

trusty getto said...

Pardon the oversimplification, but stealing is stealing. I guess I could re-write Moby Dick, use different words and do a better (or certainly different) job, but that wouldn't really make it mine, now, would it?

I have recorded "cover" tunes and songs written by other people, but the interest in doing that is in the interpretation of the song. Recording or performing my own version of someone else's song doesn't make it mine, it just makes it me doing someone else's song.

I heard about this plagiarism case last evening on NPR, and I thought to myself, that's just plain weird. I myself ain't buying the explanation one bit.

Impetua said...

Aw, man. I hate it when I secretly like a popular fluff writer and somebody calls him crappy. Am I the only semi-literate, hopefully at least moderately intelligent person who enjoys Dan Brown in the same way a person enjoys junk food or mindless sit-coms?

As for plagiarism, well, it stinks and don't do it. And if you get caught, have the dignity to apologize and sink into oblivion as God intended instead of blaming it on others. Do you do your own writing or don't you? Sheez.

Impetua said...

Also, I remember "The Book of Lists" and its occasional smutty topics. Quite titillating for a schoolgirl in the 'burbs. And here I thought I was the only one... Gasp!