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Originally published Friday, January 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"The Little Book of Plagiarism" | An original take on modern plagiarism

It would have been nice to have this little book around last year. With novelist Kaavya Viswanathan disgraced...

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Little Book of Plagiarism"
by Richard A. Posner
Pantheon, 116 pp., $10.95

It would have been nice to have this little book around last year.

With novelist Kaavya Viswanathan disgraced for plagiarizing portions of "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" and reports of a cheating outbreak on American college campuses, many claimed we had an epidemic of plagiarism on our hands.

Not so fast, says Richard Posner, a judge on the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. In this clear and elegant argument, Posner lays out the differences between copyright infringement and plagiarism, and parses what he calls higher and lower forms of theoffense.

This may sound like a judge delivering a reduced sentence, but Posner wisely reminds we have only recently begun to prize "originality." As he shows, everyone from Shakespeare to Rembrandt to Coleridge did things that would be considered intellectual fraud today — but in their time were simply smart business practice (like Rembrandt signing portraits his assistants largely painted), finicky perfectionism (i.e., Coleridge endlessly revising his "Ancient Mariner") or flattery by way of imitation (such as Shakespeare lifting lines verbatim out of other works into his plays).

Clearly, though, we're in a different world. To judge plagiarists today, Pos-ner writes, we need to weigh what they have to gain from the infraction and what the damage will be to others. Students who plagiarize have much to gain and, if they're graded on a curve, make things harder for people who do their own work (Posner cites recent surveys indicating that up to one-third of American college students admit to cheating). But with newer plagiarism software on the market, chances that they'll get away with it decrease.

Posner isn't as worried about plagiarizing in popular fiction. As the events of last spring remind, it is easily detected and a potent reminder that when it comes to pulp entertainment, originality is hardly top priority. "What Viswanathan did," Posner concludes, "was no less — though maybe no more — reprehensible than what a manufacturer of toothpaste would be doing if he slapped the name of a better-known brand on his toothpaste."

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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