The Little Book of Plagiarism

Richard Posner's "The little book on plagiarism" is an excellent, concise look at plagiarism. Posner, a professor of law at the University of Chicago and a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, offers an interesting legal-economic perspective on plagiarism that's well worth reading.

For something to be considered plagiarism, Posner states,

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. (p. 106)

That's why, Posner argues, textbooks and judges' written opinions do not fall into the category of plagiarism. That is, (1) no one cares that textbooks don't cite their sources or that judges put their name on legal "patchwork" opinions, and (2) readers' actions would not change even if they knew the writing was not original. Ditto for ghostwritten celebrity books.

And that's why student work can fall into plagiarism: Students who plagiarize copy without authorization and lead the teacher to give a grade higher than would be the case if s/he knew.

One interesting point Posner makes is the double standard applied in the university. That is,

Plagiarism by professors tends to be punished less severely [than that of students] ... (p. 89)

Posner gives several examples, but one that stands out is that of Doris Kearns Goodwin:

Laurence Tribe leapt quickly to her defense, contending that her plagiarism had been inadvertent (though there was no way he could have determined that to be the case)--like his! And a string of prominent historians led by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Signed an open letter to the New York Times stating flatly that Goodwin "did not, she does not, cheat or plagiarize. In fact, her character and work symbolize the highest standards of moral integrity. (pp. 92-93)

As Posner notes, that academics would defend an "acknowledged plagiarist" as a "moral exemplar" is "remarkable."

Another point that Posner brings up is the differences between copyright violations and plagiarism. The former is illegal, the latter is not. Often they overlap, but not always:

Copyrights have limited terms; after a copyright expires, the work enters the public domain and can be copied by anyone, without legal liability. And not all expressive works are copyrighted in the first place; for example, the federal government is forbidden by statute to claim copyright in the documents it produces. (p. 12)

Although copying public domain works does not incur a legal liability, it can still be considered plagiarism, especially when done by students, which reminds me of another double standard: many teachers think nothing of photocopying copyrighted materials without permission (in ways that are not fair use and thus breaking the law) but become righteously indignant when detecting a case of plagiarism, which is not illegal. Rather remarkable, isn't it?