Plagiarism Explain’d

Jonathan Bellman

Just a head’s-up: there is a wonderful new book out, a small hardcover, under ten bucks according to the Amazon. This is Richard Posner’s The Little Book of Plagiarism (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007). As always when I read writers who have both supreme intellectual gifts and great lucidity of style, I am torn between mad jealousy and a sort of finger-licking gourmet enjoyment: oh, perfect! That’s exactly the issue! If only I could explain it this thoroughly and well! The distinction and the various consequences are now perfectly clear! Wonderful! Because it is also gloriously concise and inexpensive, I’m pushing to make it required reading for our first-year graduate students. I’m even considering the ultimate act of love: to outline the book for myself. What’s wrong with me?
The book is invaluable for people interested in writing, particularly those academics who both write and evaluate student writing and research. Posner’s treatments of intellectual fraud, copyright infringement, and plagiarism as separate but related, plus the explanations of who is mislead and damaged by each, are especially welcome in an environment where “oh, who cares anyway” is a common shoulder-shrug of a disclaimer. A substantial percentage of our graduate students are foreign, and many are performers, so their native cultural mores (yes, I am defining the performance world as a discrete culture) are somewhat different from those of more traditional researchin’, readin’, and writin’ academics. This book is a splendid little reminder that certain supposedly “victimless crimes” are certainly crimes, and certainly not victimless.
That Posner is not sitting on the Supreme Court is both proof of the fallacy of a belief in meritocracy and a flaming indictment of recent American political leadership. No surprise on either count. Jonathan says: highly recommended!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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6 Responses to Plagiarism Explain’d

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I thought that had been out for a while – I vaguely remember reading a review a while back? Maybe not.
    In any case, I agree with you about Posner and the Court. He is highly unpredictable and I think poison for both parties; too libertarian on social issues such as drugs, too economically conservative. He is a brilliant man, however.

  2. ben wolfson says:

    Whenever I see Posner praised, I am moved to quote a former professor of mine’s judgment, which went something like “Posner writes an article every week, and when you do that, you don’t have time to think.”.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Hmm. You might not have time to think with that kind of output, and I would not, and your prof would not. I’m not so sure about Posner. Would you say the same about other frighteningly productive people, e.g. Richard Taruskin? I know from the piano world that some people process and produce at a much faster clip than others.

  4. ben wolfson says:

    Far be it from me to deny that Posner’s a smart fellow. But the whole “law and economics” thing strikes me as ham-handed utilitarianism combined with a (utilarianism-derived) unrealistic econ101-based ham-handed picture of human motivation. Some of his views on, say, rape, are not exactly indicative of psychological insight, to say the least (I quote from Ronald Dworkin in the NYRB, “Philosophy and Monica Lewinsky”, March 9, 2000):
    “He has argued, for example, that mothers should be permitted to auction off their newborn babies,[2] and that criminal laws prohibiting rape are justified because “even if the rapist cannot find a consensual substitute… it does not follow that he values the rape more than the victim disvalues it.[3]””
    The footnote expands:
    “Posner, “An Economic Theory of the Criminal Law,” 85 Columbia Law Review 1193, p. 1199. He adds that there are other reasons for banning rape, and would presumably accept that rape should be banned, quite apart from economic theory, because it is a terrible violation of the victim. But the other reasons he lists are also economic: the fact that there are often consensual substitutes for some rapes, and that prohibiting rape would encourage some would-be rapists to engage in economically more productive activities.”
    This is the sort of jaw-dropping reasoning one expects to find in teenage Randroids, not Supreme Court judges or even, were the world better, Federal Court judges.

  5. Jonathan Bellman says:

    [Jonathan, frozen. Cracks appear, à la Tex Avery cartoons. Jonathan shatters, hits the floor in myriad pieces.]
    OK, full disclosure. Hadn’t run across any of this. Cannot even begin to comment. I have no legal background–beyond a native argumentativeness–and might venture that this is a lawyer thing, a specifically legalistic way of looking at things, analogous to the army way in “the right way, the wrong way, and the army way.”
    But I can’t push that with any heart. I still really like the plagiarism book (though I think his fears of certain postmodern approaches to plagiarism are exaggerated–lunar radical encouragements to plagiarize because it’s all anti-authoritarian and so on). For this and the rest . . . never mind. That’s why I try to keep my contributions on this blog music-related–I’m better prepared to talk about some things than others.

  6. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Oh, man, perhaps I need to rescind my suggestion that he belongs on the court. Those comments of his on rape and law (quiet rolling of eyes).

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