Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bob Dylan Plagiarist?

Among the books Judge Posner will publish this year is one called "The Little Book of Plagiarism." He sent me a copy awhile back in manuscript form, consisting of 43 single space pages. The book opens with the story, much recounted in the news this year, of Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan's "chick lit" novel and her borrowings from the works of Megan McCafferty. Ms. Viswanathan's publisher ended up dumping over the affair; never explained was whether Ms. Viswanathan herself copied or whether it was the polishing company that assisted her. Plagiairism, as Judge Posner notes, can be a "gaudy offfense," which has received increasing attention. Judge Posner observes that digitization "has made it at once easier to commit plagiarism and easier to detect." This is also true for law students: while serving on a faculty committee dealing with poorly performing students, we came across examples of the phenomenon Judge Posner points out.

Plagiairism is not always copyright infringement, and certainly not when the work from which the plagiarist borrows is in the public domain. Today's New York Times Arts section gives an example with Bob Dylan's new album "Modern Times." Times writer Motoko Rich (giving attribution is a factor in plagiarism disputes) discusses a number of instances in which Internet researchers have discovered unattributed borrowing by Dylan from the slender poetical works of Henry Timrod, sometimes called the poet laureate of the Confederacy, like this one:

Henry Timrod:
A round of precious hours.
Oh! here, in that summer
noon I basked.
And strove; with logic frailer than
the flowers.


More frailer than the flowers,
these precious hours.

Other examples are given, sufficient for me at least to conclude that there was no independent creation, especially given Dylan's interest in the Civil War. But even had Timrod's works been under copyright, it is unlikely a suit would have succeeded, although it is very likely one would have been brought. Dylan fans are divided on their attitude to the Timrod borrowing. One describes him as a "thieving little swine." Another says it is "characteristic of great artists and songsters to immediately draw on their predecessors," a statement that casts Timrod in a new, fascinating historical lineage. Harold Bloom's classic "The Anxiety of Influence" captures nicely this final point with its thesis that the great steal only to make what they stole their own in a struggle for self-identity. Whether Dylan has such a Freudian relationship with Timrod is most doubtful.


Anonymous said...

Bloom's take on influence is certainly worth noting in discussions of copyright or plagiarism, but I wonder along with you if it's entirely apt here. As you note, Bloom is interested in "strong," i.e., great poets. It's certain that neither Timrod nor Dylan (and isn't that name a glaringly obvious instance of anxious "borrowing"?) would rise to Bloom's requisite level of greatness, poetically speaking. I mean, "More frailer..."?! What the heck is that?

Anyway, I'm not persuaded from the excerpts included here that Dylan borrowed from Timrod. Rhyming "flowers" with "hours"? Associating frailty and preciosity? These are not entirely original formulations in the first place.

William Patry said...

I agree on the relative greatness points (and the name borrowed too). I think if you look through all of the online postings about Timrod and Dylan, I at least think that in the aggregate, one comes to the conclusions that RZ used Timrod's poems as a source, inspiration, whatever side of the divide one falls on.

Howard Knopf said...

Borrowing, imitation, stealing?

Ironically, one of the great maxims attributed to Stravinsky is itself of dubious provenance and/or subsequent treatment:

Here are some variations on the theme:

A good composer does not imitate, he steals.
- Igor Stravinsky
Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.
- Pablo Picasso
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.
- T.S. Eliot

These quotes are compared at countless web sites - so they must be accurate, right?


Max Lybbert said...

It is possible to plagiarise unintentionally (read a poem, then a month later write a song using similar imagery, for instance). People would understand the vaguaries of plagiarism better if it were actually talked about outside of school settings (and if it were explained better when it's talked about in school settings).

Believing plagiarism is an on-off switch (and it is, in that you've either plagiarised or you haven't; but it's one thing to unintentionally plagiarise two lines of a poem, and it's another to be a serial offender) makes any reasonable discussion of plagiarism impossible.

For instance, a few years back proof emerged that Martin Luther King Jr.'s college writings included plagiarised passages. Because of who Dr. King later became, people bent over backwards to redefine plagiarism in such a way that they could carve out what King did and make it OK (plagiarism isn't brought up until the fourth paragraph).

It would have been better to focus on (1) the fact that King became famous and enacted change because of what he did after college, and (2) the possibility that King honestly didn't realise what he did was plagiarism. Neither of those makes his college plagiarism OK, but IMO both are a better and more reasonable response than "well, it's OK because he came from a long tradition of folk ministers that borrowed like the open source programmers do. ..."

Anonymous said...

Regarding Mr. Knopf's post, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 6th ed. (2004) attributes no such remarks to Stravinksy or Picasso, but does assign the "...imitate...steal" one to Eliot's "Philip Massinger" in The Sacred Wood. Not everything is on the web. But here's an even better one from Wilson Mizner: "If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research."

William Patry said...

For those interested in reading further discussions of plagiarism and intellectual property, see Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World (Lise Buranen and Alice Roy eds. 1999); Judy Anderson, Plagiarism, Copyright Violation and Other Thefts of Intellectual Property: An Annotated Bibliography With a Lengthy Introduction (1998); Morris Friedman, The Persistence of Plagiarism, The Riddle of Originality, 70 Va. L. Q. 504 (1994). For general studies of the issue, see Thomas Jewell, Understanding Plagiarism (2004); Christopher Ricks, Allusion to the Poets, Pt. 1 (2002); Harold Love, Attributing Authorship: An Introduction (2002); Shelley Angelli--Carter, Stolen Language: Plagiarism in Writing (2000); Rebecca Howard, Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators (1999); Françoise Meltzer, Hot Property; The Stake and Claims of Literary Originality (1994); Thomas Mallon, Stolen Words (1989); Alexander Lindey, Plagiarism and Originality (1974); Evidence for Authorship: Essays on Attribution (David Erdman and Ephiar Vogel eds. 1996); Maurice Salzman, The “Art” of Stealing Literary Material (1931). For discussions of the issue in particular fields, see e.g. Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower (2005); Ron Robin, Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook The Academy (2004); K.K. Ruthren, Faking Literature (2001); Marcel Lafollette, Stealing into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism, and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing (1996); William Alnor, Borrowed or Stolen? A Study of Plagiarism in Religion, With an Emphasis on Contemporary Religious Media (PhD desertion Temple University 2004); Jerald Taner, Joseph Smith’s Plagiarism of the Bible (1998); Alva Tanner, Book of Mormon Plagiarism (1924); Debbie Papay--Carder, Plagiarism in Legal Scholarship, 15 Toledo R. Rev. 233 (1983). For a discussion of plagiarism in different eras, see e.g., Lisa Pon, Raphael, Dürer and Marcantonio Raimondi: Copying and the Italian Renaissance Print (2004); Early Musical Borrowing (Honey Meconi ed. 2004); Plagiarism in Early Modern England (Pauline Kewes ed. 2003); Paulina Kewes, Authorship and Appropriation: Writing for the Stuge in England 1660--1710 (1998); Jennifer Holbrook, Plagiarism and Imitation During the English Renaissance (1974); Harold White, Plagiarism and Imitation During the English Renaissance: A Study in Critical Distinctions (1973). An examination of judicial failure to provide attribution is contained in Jaime Dursht, Note, Judicial Plagiarism: It May Be Fair Use, But Is It Ethical? 18 Cardozo L. Rev. 1253 (1996). For discussions of plagiarism by particular individuals, see e.g., A. B. McKillop, The Spinster & The Prophet: A Tale of H. G. Wells, Plagiarism and the History of the World (2001); Bernard Goldgar, Imitation and Plagiarism: The Lauder Affair and Its Critical Aftermath, 34 Studies in the Literary Imagination (2001); Theodore Pappas, Plagiarism and the Culture War: The Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Other Prominent Americans (1998); Keith Miller, Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Its Sources (1992); Keith Miller, Redifining Plagiarism: Martin Luther King’s Use of An Oral Tradition, 20 Chronicle of Higher Education A60 (January 20, 1993); Jim Swan, Touching Words: Helen Keller Plagiarism, Authorship, 10 Cardozo Arts & Entm’t L. J. 321 (1992); Helen Keller, The Story of My Life 48--51 (1902). Sylvestre Dorian, The Plagiarism of Oscar Wilde; Carl Weber, Plagiarism and Thomas Hardy. There are also guides to avoiding plagiarism, see e.g., Barbara Francis, Other People’s Words: What Plagiarism Is and How to Avoid It (2005); Robert Harris and Vic Lockman, The Plagiarism Handbook: Strategies for Preventing, Detecting, and Dealing With Plagiarism (2001), as well as web sites dealing exclusively with the issue, such as, and (described as “Glatt Plagiarism Services”). Edgar Poe appears to have had an obsession with hunting out plagiarism, and in particular in the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. See Michael Newberry, Figuring Authorship in Antebellum America 170--171 (1997). Poe devoted half of five issues of The Broadway Journal, a periodical he edited, to detailing his accusations. Even Poe’s business partner in The Broadway Journal, Charles Frederick Briggs, complained that Poe had become “a monomaniac on the subject of plagiarism.” Letter of Charles Frederick Briggs to James Russell Lowell, March 8, 1845, quoted in Kenneth Silverman, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never--Ending Remembrance 252 (1991). Poe accused Longfellow of copying from Poe’s drama Politian in Longfellow’s The Spanish Student. The dispute is discussed in Andersen, Plagiarism, Copyright Violation and Other Thefts of Intellectual Property at 64, and in Charles Calhoun, Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life 160 (2005). See also Sidney Moss, Poe’s Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu (1963). Coleridge is another figure against whom plagiarism changes were common including by Thomas DeQuincey, see Norman Fruman, Coleridge, The Damaged Archangel (1971) (the title comes from Charles Lamb); Thomas Mallon, Stolen Words 26--37, 45, (1989). DeQuincey was himself accused of plagiarism, a very common occurrence among accusers, Mallon at 31. Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy has spawned its own field of study, see Mallon. Plagiarism must also be distinguished from allusion, see John Hollander, The Figure of Echo: A mode of Allusion in Millon and after (1984); Landes and Posner, The Economic Structure of Intellectual Property Law at 58--60, and from quotation. Cf. Kevin Dettmar, “The Illusion of Modernist Allusion and the politics of Postmodern Plagiarism,” reproduced in Buranen and Roy, Perspectives On Plagiarism at 99--109. For a 19th century look at the issue William Dean Howell’s essay 1902 The Psychology of Plagiarism, reproduced in Literature and Life 273--277 (1968). An exactly contemporaneous look was provided by Brander Matthews, “The Dirty of Imitation”, reproduced Pen and Ink: Papers in Subjects of More or Less Importance 25--52 (1902). Cf. Anatole France, “An Apology for Plagiarism” in On Life and Letters (Frederic Chapman and James May eds., 4th series 1971).

Anonymous said...

Okay, at the risk of offending Mr. Patry (unintentionally so, believe me), I have to ask: From what or whom was this immense comment copied? You cannot have just run a few journal database and library catalog searches to come up with it...can you? (By the way, it's K.K. Ruthven.)

Anonymous said...

It is possible to plagiarise unintentionally (read a poem, then a month later write a song using similar imagery, for instance).


I disagree.

It is possible to infringe copyright unintentionally. But ‘to plagiarize’ implies a certain moral culpability.... a sinfulness, as it were.

Only a petty, vengeful and angry godlet would dare smite for unwitting wrongs.

Anonymous said...

dean c. rowan wrote: "It's certain that neither Timrod nor Dylan ... would rise to Bloom's requisite level of greatness, poetically speaking."

RZ aka Bob Dylan is a great poet and if this fellow Bloom would think otherwise, he would then be an idiot and his works irrelevant. RZ has begged, borrowed and stolen more than just words and phrases from every likely and unlikely suspect. So what. Either you love the result and wish him well or you wish him ill for the plagiarism and still love his art. It will be familiar to all who read this excellent blog and who represent artists that their morality differs markedly from that taught in schoolrooms and law schools. (Maybe that's why they deserve a life-plus-seventy term ...)

Anonymous said...

How is "more frailer" the mark of an obviously minor poet, but "most unkindest" not?

It is also worth noting that Bob Dylan was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature.

Why doesn't anyone mention that Dylan could be make allusions to Timrod's poetry? That seems to get lost in the plagarism/copyright infringement context.

It's possible Dylan took Timrod's line, knew he took Timrod's line, and wanted everyone else to know it too.

William Patry said...

Re Josh Wattles, I confess I listen to Dylan and for the lyrics too. In answer to Dean's query about the source of the research on plagiarism, I lazily copied it from part of a footnote from the treatise that West will put out later this year.

Max Lybbert said...

Anonymous, my comment that it's possible to unintentionally plagiarise is only that if I read something, and end up using similar wording a month later I will be guilty of plagiarism. Even if I did not have the "intent" to plagiarise. Even if I don't remember reading the article.

I find it interesting that you believe it's possible to unintentionally infringe a copyright. I'm curious how that would work (aside from expecting a work to not be copyrighted, or not knowing the definition of infringement).


Thanks, Professor Patry, for the list of additional reading material.

Anonymous said...

Joshua: Bloom is one provocative writer, no question, and I probably shouldn't pretend to speak for him as I did, not really knowing whether or not he cares at all about Dylan. Regardless, he's no idiot, and that determination should hardly pivot on his take on Dylan, who is simply not a touchstone for great poetry. I'm a selective fan of Dylan's music, but nothing would prompt me to read his lyrics as poetry. Nevertheless, I don't think it's a simple matter of either/or, as you frame it. Plagiarism or not, some Dylan is great (no need for examples here, I suppose), some is middling (the very attractive opening tune on Infidels, "Jokerman," for instance), some is bad (Slow Train Coming, mostly?).

Tom: Bravo! I did intend the "More frailer..." in jest, hence the follow-up "What the heck..." Your point about allusion is well taken. I made an analogous point in my first comment's closing paragraph.

Unknown said...

Ok guys and gals,
lets get real... Bob Dylan is a folk singer! Folk singers draw from the "archives of national charecter" to make statements on current issues... if you don't dig it, then don't listen to it... Peace Easy!