Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Are there "good" and "bad" plagiarisms?

After 10 pages in the Feb. 07 issue of Harper's of carefully constructed argument against "those who view the culture as a market in which everything of value should be owned by someone or other," Jonathan Lethem reveals that just about every line in his piece is something he "stole, warped, and cobbled together" from the work of others. He then annotates his borrowings, reporting, for example, that the "culture as a market" quote derives from "The Tyranny of Copyright?," by Robert Boynton, in the New York Times Magazine.

The above text is from the Washington Post which gets into Lethem's ideas of good and bad plagiarism:

Bad plagiarism, Lethem believes, is something we know when we see it. It doesn't add value by transforming the borrowed material into something new. It is deceptive, in that it refuses to acknowledge its influences. It can feel, particularly if the plagiarizer is a big cultural fish, like the worst kind of theft.

And good plagiarism? Think of Shakespeare's borrowing from Ovid, he says, which helped produce "Romeo and Juliet," and the subsequent borrowing by Leonard Bernstein that produced "West Side Story."

Creative roach motels?

He's talking about copyright-obsessed corporations like Disney, which Lethem likens to a creative roach motel ("cultural debts flow in, but they don't flow out").

IPBiz notes that Lethem's "bad" plagiarism sounds like KSR's "obviousness." Any time we get into a definition of "you know it when you see it," there's a problem.

If the second guy in town markets the idea better than the first, is it plagiarism (or patent infringement, if appropriate)? Does the consuming public care who was first? It's because they don't care that patent laws were passed in the first place.

To take a nano-example drawn from Civil War history, consider Carhart's book on the role of Custer at Gettysburg, as considered here and here.

The later guy in town had better credentials, better friends, and a better publisher, and few even knew of the earlier guy. How can "you know it when you see it"?

Also, did the Spanish readers of Cosas know of the Radar article in English? Not likely. Did the readers of Fertility & Sterility (in English) know of the contents of Kim's thesis in Korean? If they rely on the Los Angeles Times, they still don't.

Lethem hasn't grasped the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement.


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