Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Little Book of Plagiarism - Noted Judge's Handy Little Book About Borrowing, Creative Process, Copyright and Plagiarism

The Little Book of Plagiarism (Pantehon Books, 2007) is a handy 110 page book that discusses plagiarism and its relationship to legal rights, academic ethics, the creative process and even fraud. Its a book everyone involved in creative works should pick up and at least skim, if not devour.

The book is the work of Judge Richard Posner, noted conservative judge on the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.  But Posner is more than a judge.  He is an opinionated scholar*, senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and author of at least 29 books ranging from Sex and Reason, to The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, to his 2010 reflection on the economic collapse of 2008, A Failure of Capitalism.  His classic on economic analysis of the law, The Economics of Justice, originally published in 1981, is now in its 8th edition.

Despite its short length, it is not a basic primer - although it does cover the basics.  This little book is a well-crafted discussion of plagiarism and all its aspects, including history, theory, relationship to the crative process, technology, penalties, and even academic politics as it relates to claims of plagiarism. 

One has to be careful to distinguish those aspects of Judge Posner's book which are widely accepted and those which are the Judge's own opinions or analysis.  But that aside, Judge Posner's intellectual powers cannot be denied.  

Among the items in Posner's book to be considered:

1.   Plagiarism is not just copying.  It includes an element of fraud, either upon the reader or often upon the competitors of the author, be it fellow students or competing authors. 

2.   Copying in some types of works without attribution is to be expected, and therefore it is not plagiarism.  Specifically Posner notes that this is prevelant in text books and in such areas as legal briefing or even court opinions where one has no expectation of originality.

3.  Self-plagiarism is not plagiarism - at least as a general rule.  All authors repeat themselves, and that is expected.  It becomes an issue only in those rare circumstances where the author effectively tries to reissue a prior work as a new work, thereby deceiving his audience.

4.  Technology is having its impact.  Technology is making copying so much easier.  But likewise, universities and publishers are availing themselves of ever-cheaper computer programs and technology to check student papers and submitted works for plagiarism 

I'll be expanding on these topics in future posts. 

*Most recently, Judge Posner has been in the press for his scathing review of  The New Republic of Reading Law, co-authored by fellow conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia.  Responding to Posner's criticism, Scalia accued Posner of "lieing," to which Judge Posner took umbrage.

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