The Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard A. Posner

The Little Book of Plagiarism is a little book full of big ideas clearly explained. It’s hard to summarize, since the text is already so concise and in fact contains its own summary at the end.

There’s a lot of confused thinking on the subject of intellectual property. It angers me when people actively refuse to show respect for the intellectual property of others; it saddens me when people merely fail to do so. Posner’s very readable book sheds light on a number of key issues.

See below for my list of some of those issues.

Interesting ideas in
The Little Book of Plagiarism

Plagiarism and copyright infringement differ in important ways (12–18). Plagiarism is copying without acknowledgment. Copyright infringement is copying without permission.

  • If I include words from a recently published book in my own book without proper attribution, I’m guilty of both plagiarism and (potentially) copyright infringement.
  • If I silently include words from a classic book whose copyright has expired, I’m guilty of plagiarism.
  • If I include words from a recently published book without express permission from the author, even if I acknowledge the source I am potentially guilty of copyright infringement.

Plagiarism is fraud if there is ‘detrimental reliance‘, i.e., if people who didn’t know about the plagiarized text made decisions they would have preferred to make otherwise, had they known (20). Students who buy customized papers online aren’t hurting the papers’ authors, but they are deceiving their professors, who assign credit as if such students have done the writing themselves. Still, the real victims are still the classmates of such students (206–207).

Plagiarists are often thought pathetic and their actions inexcusable as well as lazy; Posner gives an excruciatingly embarrassing example from Joe Biden’s 1988 campaign (36–37).

Good artists copy; great artists steal. Posner quotes Eliot (56), and says that drastic improvements on previous works are acceptable, especially if there are contextually obvious allusions.

The movie Clueless is basically Jane Austen’s Emma. Posner says retellings of classic stories are not only commonplace but perfectly okay (60). They’re also economically necessary, especially in the movie industry. Studios can’t afford to take risks with big-budget productions, so they give us what they know we like (77).

Plagiarism and trademark infringement are related. Both offenses involve people trying to pass something off as something better or more recognizable (69).

Posner believes technology may soon render plagiarism insufficiently worthwhile (86), but I think plagiarism detection vs. the evasion of detection is an arms race likely to carry on indefinitely.

Posner says that leftist intellectuals are “uncomfortable” opposing plagiarism on ideological grounds because championing individual achievement entails acknowledging that creative genius tends to make people’s abilities and rewards conspicuously unequal (94).

People often try to escape the terrible and often long-lasting stigma of plagiarism by claiming unconscious plagiarism (97). Although sometimes this excuse is obviously bogus, there will always be people who don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt—but get it anyway.

When and Why I Read It

Richard Posner’s views on plagiarism are discussed mangled on pages 229 to 236 of Mark Halpern’s Language and Human Nature. I thought since I had Posner’s book on the subject, and since it’s short, I might as well go ahead and read it. (I’m really glad I did.)

Genre: nonfiction (current affairs / law / philosophy)
Date started / date finished:  20-Oct-16 to 21-Oct-16
Length: 109 pages
ISBN: 9780375424755 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: The Little Book of Plagiarism