Sunday, January 13, 2008


And They All Swiped Happily Ever After

A year ago I wrote in Slate about Google Book Search's potential to ferret out plagiarists. Although I focused on long-dead cases, the search engine has now caught a live one.

From yesterday's Times:

Allegations this week that Cassie Edwards, a popular romance novelist with more than 100 books to her name, inserted large chunks of unattributed material into her work blossomed into a controversy that led Signet Books, one of her publishers, to announce on Friday that it was examining all of her work that it has published. The controversy began when, a blog devoted to romance novels, posted excerpts from Ms. Edwards’s novels this week alongside passages from other sources to show the similarities, which the site’s authors said they had discovered by plugging some of Ms. Edwards’s writing into Google.
So will this damage her?

Well, let's put it this way: it depends. And namely, what it depends on are Bookscan figures. Last year, after my Slate piece ran, I heard from a prof in Texas who despaired that noted authors could plagiarize and get away with it, and posited that this was indicative of a broader societal malaise regarding intellectual property. I wrote her back and agreed with her... but only about the noted authors getting away with it part:

I think the key in what you've said below is the phrase "noted authors." There is a different law for the rich than the poor in publishing, as in so many other places, and as long as Ambrose or Goodwin write bestsellers, plagiarism charges will not be fatal to them. But for writers who are not bestsellers (ie almost everyone), a charge of plagiarism is deeply damaging. And the taboo, again, is in part an economic one. It's worth a publisher's while to hire interns to vet Goodwin and Ambrose mss for plagiarism; but if you're a publisher of a book with a print run of a couple thousand copies, it's unwise to risk your reputation and possibly your finances on a known plagiarist.

As long as Ms. Edwards sells well, I'm sure some kind-hearted publisher will take an expansive view of intellectual property.

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