Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Seinfeld's vegetable plagiarism

IPBiz has previously discussed the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement, and one finds another discussion on Slate concerning the recent charges against Jessica Seinfeld.

Steven A. Shaw writes in Slate:

Many people equate plagiarism with copyright infringement, yet these are different issues. Copyright is a technical, legal issue. It's about ownership of work—whether written, musical, sculptural, or otherwise. If you copy this article, or a substantial portion of it, without permission, and you sell those copies (stop laughing), you've violated copyright laws.


While Melville's work may not be protected by copyright laws, it is entirely possible to plagiarize it. Just try to pass off Moby-Dick as your own and see what happens. Plagiarism isn't about copyrights, it's about dishonesty. It's about pretending someone else's ideas and work are your own, even if those ideas are paraphrased. (If you paraphrase, you're no longer committing a copyright violation because copyright protection is about the form of expression, not the idea itself.) Plagiarism can't exist, however, if you acknowledge your sources: As long as you say where you got your ideas from, it's just called research. Moreover, it's impossible to plagiarize common knowledge: You can't steal the idea that the sky is blue, because everybody already knows that.

IPBiz note to Shaw: please read the Dastar decision, and observe what happened when a plagiarist passed off non-copyrighted work as his own: nothing. As to copying inexactly, Shaw should note, among other things, "look and feel" cases in copyright.

Shaw also wrote on a "rich get richer" theme:

Much has been made of the fact that Lapine originally showed her book proposal to HarperCollins and that HarperCollins rejected it, only to sign up Seinfeld soon after. To those unfamiliar with the world of book publishing, this may seem meaningful, but it's very unlikely that anybody at HarperCollins would have leaked the Lapine proposal to the Seinfeld team, particularly since the premise of the Lapine book is not original, either. The idea of sneaking vegetables into kids' food is a time-honored parenting trick, and Lapine's book was not the first: The largely unsung book Sneaky Veggies by Chris Fisk, for example, came out in August of 2006.

Lapine, who has surely benefited from the publicity given to the Seinfeld book, seems particularly upset that Seinfeld got a spot on Oprah while she didn't. Oprah portraying an unoriginal idea as original does not constitute plagiarism by Seinfeld. But more to the point, there are reasons Seinfeld got on Oprah and Lapine didn't. They're surely the same reasons the publisher bought Seinfeld's book but not Lapine's: Jessica Seinfeld is gorgeous, charismatic, and married to an über-celebrity. Of course Oprah is going to put her on. Of course any publisher is going to buy whatever book she wants to produce. Of course Seinfeld's book is going to sell better than a book written by a normal person.

At the end, Shaw notes:

Plagiarism is a serious accusation. It can get students expelled; it can ruin writers' careers. And if it's occurred, it should.

IPBiz notes with interest that Shaw did not write "it can get a university president fired." Thus, Shaw doesn't get into the rather interesting contrast between SIU's Poshard and the poor students at Ohio University. Of Shaw's line: It's about pretending someone else's ideas and work are your own, even if those ideas are paraphrased, Shaw does not address whether one can "inadvertently" pretend. People who plagiarize typically do not step forward and admit to taking someone else's words. More likely, they will acknowledge sloppy footnoting.

Further, without commenting on Shaw's analysis of facts in the Seinfeld plagiarism matter (e.g., There was simply not enough time to incorporate Lapine's work into Seinfeld's. In fact, Seinfeld's agent told CBS that her book was already being bound when Lapine's came out.), IPBiz notes that, these days, one can move very fast in the on-demand book publication area.

The Slate piece was nice writing by Shaw, but will not be remembered as an accurate exposition on either plagiarism or copyright infringement.


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