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the Complete Review
the complete review - law


The Little Book of Plagiarism

Richard A. Posner

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To purchase The Little Book of Plagiarism

Title: The Little Book of Plagiarism
Author: Richard A. Posner
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2007
Length: 109 pages
Availability: The Little Book of Plagiarism - US
The Little Book of Plagiarism - UK
The Little Book of Plagiarism - Canada
The Little Book of Plagiarism - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine little overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 28/1/2007 Jonathan Kirsch
The NY Times (Ed. Life) . 7/1/2007 Charles McGrath

  From the Reviews:
  • "It's a brief but provocative and illuminating meditation on the current craze for searching out, denouncing and punishing authors who appear to have borrowed the work of others and passed it off as their own. (...) Such distinctions, however, are ultimately less interesting to Posner than the notion that the current obsession with plagiarism stands at the precise intersection of the cult of celebrity and what he calls "the cult of originality." " - Jonathan Kirsch, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It's a useful and remarkably concise overview of the subject, and is in almost every respect a typically Posnerian production: smart, lucid, a little self-satisfied and tilting toward the economic-analysis end of legal theory." - Charles McGrath, The New York Times (Education Life Supplement)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Little Book of Plagiarism is a short overview of the peculiar offense that is plagiarism. Several prominent cases of it have recently gotten much attention, including the one Posner begins his book with, Harvard-student Kaavya Viswanathan's How Opal Mehta got Kissed, got Wild, and got a Life (and the half-million dollar, two-book deal she signed with Little, Brown).
       As Posner notes, plagiarism is a tricky concept to nail down. It is different from (though may also include) copyright infringement, and the resulting harm is often not of the straightforward economic sort. Indeed, Posner argues strongly that plagiarism should be neither crime nor tort -- "The harms it causes are too slight to warrant cranking up the costly and clumsy machinery of the criminal law", and it's generally not worth suing over either. No, he believes:

Plagiarism is thus the kind of wrongdoing best left to informal, private sanctions.
       (Note, however, that as a judge Posner has an obvious interest in keeping the dockets clear of such trivial, court-clogging cases .....)
       Indeed, part of the fun of plagiarism is that public sanction that often comes with it, specifically in terms of loss of reputation -- consider just the abuse Viswanathan was subject to. But, as Posner notes, despite the relatively high cost when plagiarism is discovered it remains surprisingly popular. The most common perpetrators are students, buying or copying papers, where the cost apparently isn't necessarily all that high, but even Posner is a bit stumped by those who are more likely to get caught (and to suffer for it):
     There is also, however, a sense that plagiarism by a published writer is a chump's crime, less likely to reflect a serious larcenous intent than a loose screw. The more successful the writer, the more nutty-seeming the plagiarism.
       One of the central points he makes -- which also explains at least some of the prominent cases of plagiarism -- is the emphasis on originality in our times. Or at least a specific sort of originality -- newish, but not entirely original:
Publishers are looking for the new thing that's enough like the old thing to be likely to gain early acceptance by the market, yet enough unlike it to satisfy the public's taste for variety.
       Copying what's been done previously allows for this sort of 'originality'. And it's often done in cases which one wouldn't consider plagiarism: reliance on old, familiar stories has always been popular in writing. Which is where another defining aspect of plagiarism comes in: deception. If acknowledged, variations on another author's work generally don't seem objectionable to anyone (unless they're copyright-protected). It's when there's reliance on the part of the reader that it makes a difference. And:
     The reader has to care about being deceived about authorial identity in order for the deceit to cross the line to fraud and thus constitute plagiarism. More precisely, he has to care enough that had he known he would have acted differently.
       The 'authorial identity' issue is of particular interest to Posner. As he notes, most judges essentially pass off their clerks' writing as their own, packaged book-series often have multiple authors hidden behind a single public name, and some textbooks use the name of a "nominal author" merely as "a marketing tool". The category also includes ghostwritten celebrity-memoirs -- where he perhaps goes too far in suggesting:
There are no victims. The ghostwriter is compensated, and since there is no expectation of originality the public is not fooled.
       Indeed, he claims: "one cannot imagine the public caring", though in the case of celebrity-(ghost-)written books this isn't clear: surely there's some expectation of some celebrity-involvement in the book. (The idea that because the nominal author 'signed off' on the book (put their name to it, just as judges put their names to the decisions written by their clerks), they must approve of and agree with the contents unfortunately also doesn't hold -- there have been too many stories of such 'authors' who claim and/or admit they never read the manuscript.) But, admittedly, this is a sort of consumer fraud the public seems to welcome and generally doesn't complain too much about. (Oddly, they complain more about cases of authors fiddling with personal facts -- as in the case of James Frey -- than about those who claim authorship but didn't actually write the book .....)
       Posner notes that plagiarism is also an evolving concept, perhaps so prominent now because of our insistence on 'originality'. As he notes, what was common practise centuries ago might well be considered plagiarism now. (Of course, intellectual property rights are also something relatively new.)

       The Little Book of Plagiarism is an enjoyable, informative, and fairly far-ranging little survey of the subject. But it's also a bit of a hurried affair, with some of the examples warranting a closer look and some of Posner's assertions a bit too bald. And his final example suggests he, too, relied too much on others -- not that he plagiarized, but simply that he didn't do all his homework. He wonders:
     So what then of Pia Pera's Diario di Lo (Lolita's Diary), an Italian novel published in 1995 ? An explicit takeoff on Lolita, it retells Nabokov's novel but from the standpoint of Lolita herself. [...] When Nabokov's estate learned that an English edition of Diario di Lo was planned, it sued for copyright infringement. (The case was settled out of court.)
       Pera's book is a fairly interesting case, but Posner seems satisfied with whatever second-hand facts he got about it (thanking "Peter Skilton for information about Diario di Lo" in his Acknowledgements) and apparently didn't look that far into it. Arguably, he looked far enough for his purposes and to make his point, but it's surely worth noting that the book was eventually published in English (the settlement including the provision that Nabokov-son Dmitri would get to have his say in any edition of the book). Also worth noting: the title the book was published in English as was: Lo's Diary; the English translation of the title Posner inexplicably offers (Lolita's Diary) is thus doubly wrong, being neither a literal translation of the Italian title, nor the title it was published under in English. And while Posner is correct that: "When Nabokov's estate learned that an English edition of Diario di Lo was planned, it sued", the debate about the book and its relation to the original started much earlier in Europe -- and surely one of the interesting questions (even if it has largely do with copyright law, rather than plagiarism) is why the other translations weren't challenged in court. (And while it's understandable that in the book Posner restricts himself pretty much to plagiarism-in-the-US (except for some historical British instances), a brief look at how plagiarism is considered elsewhere would surely also have been worthwhile.)

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The Little Book of Plagiarism: Reviews: Richard A. Posner: Other books by Richard A. Posner under review: Books about Richard Posner under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Richard A. Posner is Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He is also a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, and the author of many books.

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