three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-The Little Book of PlagiarismMany people do it: T. S. Eliot did it to Shakespeare (who, in turn, did it to Plutarch); judges do it to clerks; and textbook writers do it all the time. That is, they plagiarize. Examining recent examples from Kaavya Viswanathan, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, and Dan Brown, among others, Richard Posner, a judge on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, explores the culture of plagiarism. Distinguishing between plagiarism (intellectual fraud) and copyright infringement (a more complicated legal matter), Posner argues that plagiarism is hardly the crime we make it out to be. Despite its bad rap, it has been central to the creative process throughout history. Only on the Internet has plagiarism become highly visible, although it remains ambiguous legal territory.
Pantheon. 116 pages. $10.95. ISBN: 037542475X

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"The most satisfying [point] concerns William Shakespeare’s improvement of Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s life of Marc Antony, then Eliot’s use of both in ‘The Waste Land’ … Small as it is in size, The Little Book of Plagiarism is big with delights." Jack Fuller

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Why don’t publishers put out more little books like this, I wondered as I read, pondered and reread Posner’s compact analysis in bits. … It’s ideal for today’s reading experiences—if not necessarily for today’s attention span." David Walton

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Although he never condones the kind of unacknowledged quoting or paraphrasing that got Viswanathan and Kearns Goodwin in trouble, he suggests that copying the works of other authors is an old and honorable tradition. … Appropriately enough, Posner strikes a sober and judge-like stance." Jonathan Kirsch

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What [Posner] doesn’t consider much is whether a judge who gains a reputation for particularly well-written opinions or for seldom being reversed—or, for that matter, who is freed from his legal chores to do freelance writing—doesn’t benefit in much the same way as a student who persuades one of the smart kids to do his homework for him. … It’s a useful and remarkably concise overview of the subject." Charles McGrath

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In this clear and elegant argument, Posner lays out the differences between copyright infringement and plagiarism, and parses what he calls higher and lower forms of the offense. This may sound like a judge delivering a reduced sentence, but Posner wisely reminds we have only recently begun to prize ‘originality.’" John Freeman

San Diego Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Posner packs a lot into a few pages. Most interesting is his thumbnail history of the very concept of plagiarism." Arthur Salm

Critical Summary

Legal scholar Richard Posner has written books on many newsworthy issues, including President Clinton’s impeachment, the 2000 election, and 9/11. The Little Book is trademark Posner: smart, concise, elegant, topical—and a little smug. Although he never exactly excuses plagiarism, Posner does illustrate how in Shakespeare’s and Rembrandt’s times, the public condoned copying since it considered art a more collaborative venture than we do today. Posner, who delves into the legal, economic, and ethical implications of plagiarism, entertains with smart, pointed examples. But some of his arguments—for example, that plagiarism must be materially harmful to be considered a crime—raised questions.