Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Book plagiarism, or amazing coincidences?

Singer - writer - pianist - math professor Tom Lehrer has long been one of my literary gods. 

Tom claims he “went from adolescence to senility, trying to bypass maturity.” He graduated from Harvard Magna Cum Laude at age 18 and made Phi Beta Kappa. He taught at MIT, Harvard, Wellesley and the University of California, but is best known for hilarious songwriting, much of it political satire in the 1950s and 60s.

Tom's musical career was powerful but brief. He said he performed a mere 109 shows and  wrote only 37 songs over 20 years. Britain’s Princess Margaret was a fan, and so am I. I can still sing Tom Lehrer lyrics I first heard in seventh grade. 

One of his best songs is "Lobachevsky," about a Russian mathematician who lived from 1792 to 1856. An asteroid was named to honor him. Here's part of the "Lobachevsky lyrics:

"I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky. In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics: Plagiarize!

Plagiarize, Let no one else's work evade your eyes, Remember why the good Lord made your eyes, So don't shade your eyes, But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize -- Only be sure always to call it please 'research'."

So, why am I writing about Uncle Tom today? I am researching typography for a book I am writing called Typography for Independent Publishers.

I have about 4,000 books in my personal library, and about 100 books are related to publishingOne my favorites is The Non-Designers Design & Type Books, by Robin Williams (no, not Mork-from-Ork Robin Williams).

Below is part of a scan of one page:

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The highlighted text made sense to me, but it seemed strangely familiar. I took a look at one of my other favorite books about books, Book Design & Production by Pete Masterson.

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Yup -- it's about 95% the same thing.

This seemed really strange. The same sentence appears in two copyrighted books that are sort of competitors. It was strange enough to motivate me to do a Google search, and I found this:

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Yup -- here are those words again, this time in a teaching tool produced by a teacher at a big high school in Texas.

And if that's not enough, I also found the same text on a website operated by the South Newton School Corporation in Indiana. It was apparently copied, but the homepage shows:  "Copyright © 2011 South Newton."

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And, of course there's more.

I have no idea who wrote the sentence first, but without attribution the same text can't have multiple valid copyrights. I wonder if the school teachers who have apparently copied the material from another source would approve of a student submitting a term paper with text copied directly from Wikipedia.

Most writers do research. I read lots of book in fields I'm interested in, and try to distill what others have said and then REPHRASE IT IN MY OWN WORDS and try to add my own insights and discoveries.
  • With the Internet, if you copy and publish someone else's work you must assume that someone will notice. (It takes big balls to steal intellectual property but it takes a small brain to exhibit the stolen material where millions can see it. I've caught more than 100 copycats of my own work.)
  • Back when I was a journalism major at Lehigh I was taught never to copy more than four consecutive words without attribution. That's good advice.
  • My own research technique may be imperfect. If I have been an accidental copycat in my 40-plus years of writing, I hereby apologize.

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