September 23, 2020

Copyright, Copynorms, and Plagiarism

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting piece in the Nov. 22 New Yorker, reflecting on the discovery that Frozen, a Broadway play, included language lifted from an earlier Gladwell article.

Equally interesting is the reaction of Dorothy Lewis, a New York psychologist who was the subject of Gladwell’s earlier article. One of the characters in Frozen is very similar to Lewis, to the point that Lewis’s friends and colleagues see the character as being Lewis. Lewis may or may not have a legal remedy, but she feels violated, especially since the character commits an indiscretion that Lewis herself did not.

And yet the public outcry over Lavery’s copying, such as it is, points to the copying of wording, rather than any of the other copying that occurred. Why? Gladwell’s exploration of this question is worth reading.

Gladwell correctly separates questions of copyright law from those of plagiarism.
Perhaps this is what distinguishes his view from the conventional wisdom that he describes and then ultimately rejects.

Little by little, the legal rules of copyright are infecting our understanding of plagiarism. Kids, who used to be taught that certain kinds of copying are wrong, or at least disapproved by adults, are now taught about copyright instead. Last year a third-grader told me that it’s wrong to copy a friend’s homework, because the homework is copyrighted.

Adults make the same mistake too. High-profile plagiarism accusations usually point to textual similarities, as if the underlying sin could have been blotted out by a bit of rewording.

This is a shame. Our plagiarism norms exist for a good reason. Intellectual life is about more than copyright.

[link credit: Joe Gratz]


  1. The “link credit” does not appear correctly in the post, but the source code contains this

    [It’s fixed now. Thanks for pointing this out. — EWF]

  2. Ed,

    I agree.

    Perhaps you can start by fixing Princeton’s plagarism policy (at least as I remember the policy from my days as a student). Like every other policy I’ve seen, it uses an obvious example of text-based plagarism when it ought to stress the fact that the real breach of the honor code is a judgment call about stealing someone else’s idea without proper credit.

    – Mike

  3. I think there are a number of subtle issues that could use some elucidation here:

    1) It’s perfectly understandable that Lewis was most upset about the attribution of an indiscretion to the character representing her. I believe that if taken to an extreme–that is, if the character is sufficiently identifiable as representing a real person, and the portrayal is both false and sufficiently defamatory–then the author could actually be sued for libel.

    That issue aside, however, real people are portrayed all the time in works of fiction, drama, visual art, and so on, as accurately as the limits of art (or entertainment) allow. As far as I know, such appropriation is never considered a sign of lack of creativity–let alone plagiarism. Art is expected to draw its inspiration from real life, after all.

    2) Exact, “word for word” plagiarism is (quite rightly, I think) considered more severe than “general resemblance” plagiarism because (a) it’s easier to recognize, and (b) it’s harder to attribute credibly to accident or coincidence. Suppose, for instance, that I write an article reaching approximately the same conclusions as another author about a particular topic, using essentially the same reasoning. Or I write a story in which characters with approximately the same personalities as those in another story go through essentially the same sequence of plot developments. Is my work really just a copy of the other one, or are the subtle differences in mine enough to make it interesting even to those familiar with the first? And even in the former case, perhaps the resemblance was inadvertent–I’d long ago digested the earlier work, and retained the ideas while forgetting the source–or even entirely coincidental, the result of my having independently come up with the same concepts.

    In the case of “word for word” plagiarism, however, the resemblance is undeniable, and the likelihood of accidental borrowing or independent conception–for sufficiently long passages, at least–is much more implausible. I think that’s sufficient grounds for considering this more straightforward class of plagiarism as a “gold standard”, so to speak, against which more nebulous examples should be measured. In particular, when accusing a well-reputed person of plagiarism, it’s much less risky to have a clear-cut case of the word-for-word variety than a more subjective case that might cause the accused’s sympathizers to exonerate him or her, and perhaps even to counter with a charge of malicious false accusation.

    3) The issue of “quoting”–intentional, direct appropriation of fragments of someone else’s work–is arguably at least somewhat illuminated, rather than tainted (as you suggest) by the copyright analogy. Copyright includes a notion of “fair use”, which allows fragments of a copyrighted work to be used, with attribution, in a variety of ways. Similarly, artists (or scientists) who grab verbatim bits of text (or images, or musical phrases) from others, are not considered to have committed plagiarism–provided they acknowledge the source, and keep the quotations fairly short. Isn’t there enough rough parity there for the analogy to be at least harmless?