Plagiarism

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Dec. 26 1997 3:30 AM

Plagiarism

How to know it when you see it.

(Continued from Page 1)

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Most professional and academic groups (Writers Guild of America, American Bar Association, American Historical Association, etc.) investigate formal charges of plagiarism. Reprimands can come from the associations or from colleges and universities themselves. Accusations of plagiarism seem to be the greatest deterrent.

Some say accusations of plagiarism fly too freely. In a celebrated case, Abraham Lincoln biographer Stephen Oates was said to have ripped off a widely read 1952 Lincoln biography by Benjamin Thomas. In 1991, the American Historical Association criticized Oates for not adequately footnoting his use of Thomas' book. No legal charges were brought. (Click for a comparison of passages that the historians considered most damning.)

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Plagiarism on the Silver Screen

Most copyright suits in the entertainment industry are nuisances, but not all. A biographer of William Randolph Hearst claimed that Citizen Kane screenwriters Orson Wells and Herman Mankiewicz plagiarized him. The author of a 1941 nonfiction book about swindlers filed copyright-infringement charges against the screenwriter of The Sting in 1973. Look Who's Talking screenwriter/director Amy Heckerling was accused of stealing whole passages of dialogue from a screenplay shown to her three years before her film's release. These cases, like most credible suits brought against the studios, were settled out of court.

To ward off lawsuits, directors and producers avoid signing rejection letters, making it difficult to prove that they had prior access to the material, a legal prerequisite to prove copyright infringement. (As a gesture of kindness, the actor/producer Michael Landon signed rejection letters, some of which became the basis for expensive litigation against him.) Still, examples of Hollywood's sloppiness and disrespect for intellectual-property rights abound, as Film Comment magazine proved with this prank in the '80s: It shipped the screenplay of Casablanca to 85 agents. Only 33 of them recognized it as the basis for the Bogart film; 3 agents offered to represent it.

Psychoplagiarism

Many alleged victims of plagiarism are later accused of having plagiarized. For instance, David Lodge accused a romance writer of stealing the plot from his novel Nice Work. Later he admitted that he had borrowed it himself from a 19th-century novel.

Author Thomas Mallon argues that plagiarism is pathology, akin to kleptomania. Accused plagiarists are often repeat offenders. Stephen Oates faced accusations of plagiarism in his biographies of Lincoln, William Faulkner, and Martin Luther King Jr. Poet Neal Bowers was plagiarized by a writer who submitted a half-dozen of his poems to different publications. Plagiarists want to get caught. Most steal from obvious sources (from their colleagues or authoritative works). Academics plagiarize more regularly than nonacademics, prompting Mallon's theory that professors are let off the hook to plagiarize again because their colleagues are too embarrassed to punish them.

Meanwhile, Back at the Amistad Case

Chase-Riboud's suit claims that the film's screenwriters read her historical novel about the slave rebellion, Echo of Lions, and appropriated its fictionalized characters and plot twists. In a legal brief, her lawyers claim that: