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It's not plagiarism, it's a mashup!
February 14, 2012 6:35 AM   Subscribe

Originality is a relative concept in literature. As writers from T. S. Eliot to Harold Bloom have pointed out, ideas are doomed to be rehashed. This wasn’t always regarded as a problem

Like a spy hiding in plain sight, “Assassin of Secrets” appeared to be a bizarre aberration: an homage to Bond that plagiarized Bond. Jeremy Duns, alerted by the Bond forum, began checking the text, plugging phrases into Google Books. He found a sentence from the American spy writer Charles McCarry, and another from Robert Ludlum, the author of the “Bourne” books. “I quickly realized that the whole novel was ‘written’ this way,” Duns wrote on his blog. He informed the book’s British publisher, and on November 8th, five days after the book’s publication, Little, Brown recalled all sixty-five hundred copies and issued a press release: “It is with deep regret that we have published a book that we can no longer stand behind.”
posted by Ruthless Bunny (37 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously
posted by James Scott-Brown at 6:40 AM on February 14, 2012


Oh, my bad. Didn't come up in search.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:40 AM on February 14, 2012


Doubleposting is a relative concept in MetaFilter.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:43 AM on February 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


So, I deleted initially, but actually it seems that this is an update on what Jeremy Duns has been doing since the original plagiarism outing, etc.
posted by taz at 7:06 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think this would be much more are target if the FPP was constructed with sentences from other FPPs....
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:09 AM on February 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


You get to define "idea" however you want, and you get to use whatever criteria you want to distinguish one idea from the next. Your choices there will determine whether new ideas are infinite, finite, or nonexistent. You may choose however best fits your artistic or philosophical purposes, because hardly anyone cares about the choice as such.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:14 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


So is the book actually any good, plagiarism aside?
posted by empath at 7:17 AM on February 14, 2012


The first few lines from his upcoming memoir:

Birth canal, C-section, pink and fuzzy, rain over the East River, Winston Churchill, vermicelli, crying like an Irishman for his whiskey

*shudders*

It's kind of hilarious that someone whose natural style is so overwrought and purple would spend years copying pulp thrillers, a genre style that is blunt and functional; basically the opposite of his natural tendency.
posted by Think_Long at 7:34 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know, it wouldn't make much sense to steal what he could provide himself.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:39 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I write some, and I read a lot, and I have a good memory, so I live in fear of accidentally stealing someone else's sentences. I can't imagine doing it deliberately.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:47 AM on February 14, 2012


I write some, and I read a lot, and I have a good memory, so I live in fear of accidentally stealing someone else's sentences.

A little while ago, I realized that an anecdote I tell pretty frequently and could have sworn I had made up was actually a MetaFilter comment. To my defense, I knew the facts before I read the comment, but I'd never phrased it that particularly insightful way.
posted by griphus at 7:55 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]



The fact that he stole from fairly well-known sources is what baffles me. You'd think any of his editors would have caught on.

When I taught English, plagiarism was a huge problem. It was as though my kids could not tell the difference between research and copying, it was a foreign concept.

I had extra credit assignments that kids could do to boost their grades. You can imagine the morning one of my kids submitted this gem to me:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Honestly, could this be more blatant? I merely asked the question, "what's an icebox". The blank stare was its own reward. Then I said, "I majored in English Literature, I've studied it my whole life. WHY would you think I wouldn't know this poem???"

Personally, I think shame is underrated as an educational tool. Of course I no longer teach, so there's that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:57 AM on February 14, 2012 [16 favorites]


So is the book actually any good, plagiarism aside?

Early reviews were good. He seems to have a talent for synthesis.

With 34 sources it is arguably an original work. Had he been upfront about what he was doing he could now be regarded as the avant-garde artiste of a new form of literature.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:57 AM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


...and now I can't figure out if that is actually stranger than the fact that I have regular opportunities to relate 30-year-old Hollywood gossip.
posted by griphus at 7:58 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


empath, it's much better in the originals. Seriously, it's a Frankenbook and to this reader's eye the seams show like whoa.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:00 AM on February 14, 2012


One of the running jokes in William Gaddis' The Recognitions is that everybody thinks the play written by one of the main characters, Otto, has been plagiarized because they all seem recognize the lines from somewhere they can't exactly place -- because Otto tends to plagiarize from real life, writing down the things his friends say all around him.
posted by chavenet at 8:08 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow. The guy is clearly gifted, but some of God's gifts are just fucked up.
posted by Xoebe at 8:13 AM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wouldn't patchworking a novel out of sentences, paragraphs, and apparently full pages of other books be infinitely more difficult than just writing a spy novel? In a way, the fact that this guy compiled a novel that reads like a novel and not like some mess created when a library exploded is kind of impressive.
posted by DaddyNewt at 8:16 AM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ruthless Bunny: That reminds me of a website for would-be authors to post and vent about the the many rejection letters they received from publishing houses. Here's a rejection for some satirical poet who did not quite get the joke. (original is gone, but recounted here)

The Letter:
(On a little card with the magazine’s name[Very Prestigious University Located in Central USA Review])

This is just to say we have taken some plums
we found in our mailbox.
You were hoping they would be
yours. Forgive us,
others seemed
sweeter
or colder
more bold
or whatever.

How did this letter make you feel?
Miserable. Suicidal. Wondering “What the @#!$ is that all about?” What does produce have to do with my poems? And that “whatever” part. How specific. How to the point. I think I’m going to go torture myself now.

What bothered you the most about this letter?
It’s a rejection card. How impersonal. Most places at least scribble something with a pen like “Good, but we’re out of business” or something. This was just a stupid card with some little ditty about plums.
posted by Think_Long at 8:21 AM on February 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


"A little while ago, I realized that an anecdote I tell pretty frequently and could have sworn I had made up was actually a MetaFilter comment. "

The case in this post is unambiguous, not the least because of a full confession.

But I've a long-standing concern about plagiarism accusations because memory research indicates that it's possible, and probably happens far more often than we think, to recall long passages of text, even perfectly, without realizing that it's not one's own creation. Yet it's almost universally believed that this just isn't possible and that, therefore, any perfect match of anything beyond a short phrase is a self-evident case of intentional plagiarism.

Pretty much none of us want this to be the case (except willful plagiarists, I suppose) because it complicates matters greatly. Right now, given conventional wisdom, you just do some analysis, find that the text is not original, and we have conclusive evidence. But if it's true—and it is true—that writers can unknowingly replicate, even perfectly, long passages of text, then we're forced into ambiguity when confessions aren't forthcoming and except in the most extreme cases (such as the one referenced in this post).

However, my thinking about this is twofold. First, if it's scientifically established that this kind of unintentional misattribution to self is common, then it simply is. We have to accommodate the world as it is, not the one we wish it were because it would be so much less trouble. But, second, this is pretty much the case for all sorts of other kinds of alleged wrongdoing. People claim innocence and, oftentimes, we have to look to motive and opportunity and other evidence to make a determination of guilt. If we no longer can merely take a bit of text as sufficient proof of guilt, well then it's not that much different than many other things where we have to work to determine guilt and live with some amount of ambiguity about our conclusions.

What I'd like to see, at a minimum, is some consulting with scientific experts on human memory, such as Harvard's Daniel Schachter, both by authorities investigating plagiarism and by journalists who report it.

Because here's the deeper problem: it's often mentioned how the web and electronic media have made detection of plagiarism so much easier. But if it's the case, as the research indicates, that unintentional plagiarism is possibly widespread, then the reach of this technology will push further and further into those unintentional cases—which basically no one, right now, is willing to believe are unintentional. In the past we've been catching, mostly, the egregious and least ambiguous cases. We can be moderately confident that most past cases of detected plagiarism are truly acts of willful wrongdoing. But the more we use our tools to search for plagiarism, the more we're going to find it, and the more innocent people we'll tar with this brush. And make no mistake: in the academic and intellectual/art worlds, this is a scarlet letter.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:41 AM on February 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism by Jonathan Lethem
posted by mrgrimm at 9:02 AM on February 14, 2012


...unintentional plagiarism is possibly widespread, then the reach of this technology will push further and further into those unintentional cases...

Just as with law enforcement, the last thing we want is a world where plagiarism is impossible.
posted by General Tonic at 9:05 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


memory research indicates that it's possible, and probably happens far more often than we think, to recall long passages of text, even perfectly, without realizing that it's not one's own creation

Really? I'd love to see a link to that research, if you have one.
posted by yoink at 9:10 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Really? I'd love to see a link to that research, if you have one."

What I know of it, I read in a popular work by Schacter. I have no idea where the book is among my many shelves and boxes, so I can't look for citations from it. However, you could take a look at the web page for his lab, and perhaps do some other searches. (Here's a Google Scholar search for Schacter misattribution plagiarism.

Here's one specific citation that might be helpful, Brown, A. S., & Murphy, D. R. (1989). Cryptomnesia: Delineating inadvertent plagiarism. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 15, 432-442.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:24 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a fascinating story, but I do wish the whole "nobody cared a whit about originality until the Romantics invented it" canard would die a well-deserved death. Yes, Shakespeare told stories that had been told before. Nobody ever thought that was plagiarism. Nobody thinks it is plagiarism now. None of the Romantics thought that was plagiarism. Re-telling a story doesn't shock us any more than it would have shocked Shakespeare's contemporaries. We don't think there's anything dodgy about West Side Story because it retells the story of Romeo and Juliet. We don't think there's anything wrong with Clueless because it retells the story of Jane Austen's Emma. The Romantics were quite happy to retell existing stories. Shelley wasn't the first person to tell the story of Beatrice Cenci; Keats wasn't the first person to tell the story of Isabella and the Pot of Basil etc. etc.

What people care about (and cared about) was the manner of telling the story--the particular words used, or the particular images employed. And they cared about that stuff just as much in Shakespeare's day as they did in the Romantics'. One of the handful of references to Shakespeare that survives is Robert Greene's accusation against him of plagiarism ("upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers"). An author who had put together a play in Shakespeare's time by cutting and pasting from the work of his fellow-playwrights would have been an object of scorn and derision if he'd tried to pass the resulting work off as an "original" work. He might not have had much to fear in the way of legal sanctions, but in terms of the prevailing cultural norms he would have been regarded in very much the same light as the author of "Assassin of Secrets."
posted by yoink at 9:29 AM on February 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


You bastard! I just read that in the paper version this morning and thought "this would make a good FPP, to add to the like, 4 ever I've made, woo."
posted by ifjuly at 9:33 AM on February 14, 2012


We can be moderately confident that most past cases of detected plagiarism are truly acts of willful wrongdoing

My sweet Lord!
 
posted by Herodios at 9:37 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Even in Homer novelty (if not originality) is appreciated:

"With this man no one can be wroth if he sings of the evil doom of the Danaans; for men praise that song the most which comes the newest to their ears." (Od. 1.350 or so).
posted by dd42 at 9:40 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: some little ditty about plums
posted by drlith at 10:02 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's one specific citation that might be helpful, Brown, A. S., & Murphy, D. R. (1989). Cryptomnesia: Delineating inadvertent plagiarism. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 15, 432-442.

Thanks, but the part I'm really interested in is the claim about excerpting long passages, error-free, and without consciously realizing plagiarism. I am entirely unsurprised that we frequently use bits and pieces without consciously being aware that we are doing so. I find it much harder to imagine repeating, say, an entire paragraph unconsciously. Nothing I can find following your links so far points in that direction. If you stumble across something I'd be really interested to read it.
posted by yoink at 10:39 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


The "whole paragraph" would probably be Mad Libbed into unrecognizability.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:40 AM on February 14, 2012


"I find it much harder to imagine repeating, say, an entire paragraph unconsciously. Nothing I can find following your links so far points in that direction."

There was a good example in his book, but I couldn't find it in what was available for preview of it on Google Books.

If you keep looking, I'm sure you'll find some examples.

This discussion is very similar in a way to the linguistics discussion a few days ago. Everyone has extensive experience with memory, of course, and so we form intuitions about what it can and can't do on that basis. But those intuitions are often wrong, just as this is so often the case with many other things. No one's intuitions would ever accept the results of the gorilla suit experiment, for example.

The assumption with plagiarism is that every utterance/writing is necessarily a wholly novel generation of language. Even linguists accept this, without formulating the assumption rigorously, when they otherwise would know they oughtn't, because language generation is of course a combination of novelty and re-use. So the question becomes: what are the characteristics of the units of re-use? Is there a maximum length? How does this re-use integrate with what is otherwise novel generation of language?

It seems to me that it's almost certain that there are no simple nor universal answers to these questions. Memory is weird: the popular notion that everything we've ever experienced still exists in our memory, somewhere, is absolutely false. And yet, it's not uncommon for people to recall some things, in some conditions, in extreme detail and fidelity. But, also, it's not uncommon for people to recall things they expect to be able to easily recall, but poorly and with fabrications.

Furthermore, note that in the specific kind of memory error we're discussing, the recalled passage is not a randomly selected passage that someone has previously read; but, rather, it's a passage that made a particular impression on them, that had particular meaning and relevance to their thinking or experience. In my personal experience, I know that I've read a huge number of passages that have had a profound impact on my thinking that I've explicitly forgotten. But that doesn't necessarily mean that I don't remember them in some form as incorporated knowledge, and it very well may be that in some cases I've incorporated some pithy ideas unchanged.

When we discussed this years ago, some of us mentioned Helen Keller's case. I really wish that I could have found the one reference in Schacter's book I was looking for, because it was a very compelling account by a writer who had unknowingly plagiarized a long passage he had written before—if I recall correctly, his account is credible because he, himself, caught the error. But it was not merely a phrase, or even just a single sentence. And then if you look at the Nietzche Zarathustra plagiarism example, in translation, at least, some identities are quite striking. Someone who reads German could perhaps give us a better evaluation.

Anyway, there are credible attestations of people unknowingly plagiarizing relatively long passages. I don't see any reason to assume that this isn't possible. How frequent, of course, is another matter. But it seems to me that, if it's possible, it's almost certainly more frequent than we expect simply because intuition says that it's not possible at all.

I'd personally like a lot more expert input on this topic. I'm in a weird position about this because I recently wrote to Geoff Pullum about a Language Log post he made on plagiarism and we had a back-and-forth that weirdly ended up with him inviting me to invite Schacter to write something about this for LL. Which, well, seemed kind of weird and not my place. But I'd very much like to see this happen, so I think I may end up writing Schacter, anyway, and see what can be worked out.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:27 AM on February 14, 2012


Now I’ve always been the kind of person that doesn’t like to trespass
but sometimes you just find yourself over the line
Oh if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now


--Bob Dylan
posted by klanawa at 11:49 AM on February 14, 2012


My sweet Lord!

Indeed. The way that I write most of my pop songs is that something catchy just blooms in my head out of nowhere and then I take it from there. I'm always terrified that the little snippet that just appeared in my brain was actually something I heard on the radio earlier and buried in my subconscious, only to retrieve it unknowingly a few hours later.
posted by dfan at 12:45 PM on February 14, 2012


I think it may be the case that cryptomnesia is usually detected much more often with music than with text (and thus much less often reaches a stage where an accusation of plagiarism is made) because music is usually much more collaborative, especially pop music, and goes through a production process involving lots of ears where a borrowed medody is more likely to be recognized. Also, it's more likely to be put in a context where it's not as easily recognizable. (Although I realize that those two work against each other.) Just my guess, though.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:14 PM on February 14, 2012


I plagiarized something in high school. I adapted the strange anecdote 'The Man Who Shaved Every Day' from the oddly wrapped sleeve of PiL's first single, and I translated it imperfectly into French. The cool thing about French classes (when I wasn't conjugating pluperfects, or getting blood red corrections on exams) was that we could frequently compose random text pieces without guidelines. I sometimes did what I thought was interesting original writing in this format, but in deeply flawed French.

The other cool thing I learned in French class is that Jacques Brel is full of subversive rage.
posted by ovvl at 5:41 PM on February 14, 2012


... and goes through a production process involving lots of ears where a borrowed melody is more likely to be recognized.

Wikipedia:

In April 1987, Lightfoot filed a lawsuit against composer Michael Masser, claiming that Masser's melody for the song "The Greatest Love of All"—recorded by George Benson (1977) and Whitney Houston (1985)—stole 24 bars from Lightfoot's 1971 hit song "If You Could Read My Mind." The transitional section that begins "I decided long ago never to walk in anyone's shadow" of the Masser song has the same melody as "I don't know where we went wrong but the feeling's gone, and I just can't get it back" of Lightfoot's song. Lightfoot later stated that he did not want people thinking that he had stolen his melody from Masser.
posted by ovvl at 6:05 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


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