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And Dan Brown:
Would Your University Fire Dan Brown?
by Jim Castagnera
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is the biggest bestseller of all time, boasting more than 60 million copies in 44 languages. Brown’s net worth is reported to be about a quarter billion and climbing. But if another author, Lewis Purdue, is to be believed, most universities, if they played by their own rules, would fire Brown from their faculties.
Perdue, author of 1983’s The Da Vinci Legacy and 2000’s Daughter of God, possesses an expert opinion from Director John Olsson of Britain’s Forensic Linguistics Institute, who has publicly called Brown’s book, “the most blatant example of in-your-face plagiarism I’ve ever seen.” Unfortunately for Perdue, when Brown and Random House hauled him into the federal court in Manhattan, seeking a declaration that Code did not violate Perdue’s copyrights, the judge disallowed the expert report.
Although Perdue is pursuing the case into the U.S. Supreme Court on a motion for certiorari, the two lower courts ruling against him may be dead right. Current U.S. copyright law protects only the actual expression of an author’s ideas, not the underlying ideas themselves. Copyright infringement is not synonymous with plagiarism.
Perhaps it should be. So suggests an article by Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller in the January issue of his law school’s journal. In the article, entitled “Common Law Protection for Products of the Mind,” Miller, citing Perdue’s case among many others, contends that the law should look at how the plaintiff’s idea enriched the defendant… not at whether the defendant ripped off an exact copy of the plaintiff’s work. This approach matches what most universities tell their students about plagiarism. At my own institution, Rider University in central New Jersey, the sweeping definition of plagiarism in the student handbook includes:
“1.1 Ghostwriting-Written work submitted by an individual student (or group of students working together as approved in advance by the instructor) is expected to be the work of that student (or approved group).…
“1.2 Word for Word Plagiarism-Copying, word for word, from any source (book, magazine, newspaper, Internet source, unpublished paper or thesis) without proper acknowledgment by quotation and citation within the text of the paper….
“1.3 Patchwork Plagiarism-The submission of work which has been constructed by piecing together phrases and/or sentences quoted verbatim (word for word) or paraphrased from a variety of unacknowledged sources is an act of academic dishonesty….
“1.4 Unacknowledged Paraphrases-Submission of another author’s facts or ideas in one’s own words without acknowledgment by proper citation is an act of academic dishonesty.”
The academic penalties for plagiarism can be as severe as this definition is expansive. The career-busting equivalent of capital punishment is often invoked. For example, in mid-September the University of Cincinnati announced initiation of steps to terminate its director of German-American studies on the grounds of numerous plagiarized passages in a 2000 tome, The German-American Experience. Charges were first made on the website H-Net (www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=104811076280447 ), which claimed in 2003 that roughly half of the first 180 pages were lifted from a 1962 book, The Germans in America. A more ancient volume, 1909’s The German Element in the United States, also allegedly was looted by the Cincinnati faculty-member/librarian for his own book.
If the University of Cincinnati imposes workplace capital punishment, the author of The German-American Experience will join a long line of academic plagiarizers who were marched up the steps to that same guillotine. Some casualties, however, have refused to lie down and play dead. Chris Dussold, a former Southern Illinois at Edwardsville faculty member, for instance, is fighting a multi-front campaign against his former employers. Fired in 2004 for allegedly lifting a two-page teaching statement, Dussold has since sued. Dussold apparently doesn’t deny that he borrowed the statement, which he considered mere boilerplate, from a colleague. He says, simply, that plagiarism never crossed his mind. He adds that a false rumor, that he was sleeping with a student, is the real reason he was fired.
Not satisfied with suing, Dussold launched a “glass houses” campaign, pointing out for example that the school’s chancellor copied several passages of a speech from a web site. The chancellor owned up and apologized. Earlier this year the chancellor of Southern Illinois’s Carbondale campus admitted that portions of his 2005 state-of-the university address came verbatim from a 1986 book he hadn’t written. Both chancellors blamed staffers, but Dussold contends that since he was fired, so too should they be.
Dussold’s counterattack calls into question how hypocritical plagiarism rules really are. Earlier this year, President Scott D. Miller of Delaware’s Wesley College survived a plagiarism investigation and a faculty no-confidence referendum that came out even. A panel chaired by former Penn President Judith Rodin blamed public relations staffers under tremendous pressure to provide their boss with an outstanding speech. Miller promised to put safeguards in place. Professor Dussold presumably would say that this is another case of too little, too late.
Superstar profs, such as the late best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose, often likewise successfully weather accusations of plagiarism, shrugging them off as fair-use or inadvertence. Author Dan Brown and his publisher have thus far weathered two trials, one the Perdue hearing, the other a courtroom drama played out last year in London, where British authors unsuccessfully challenged Brown’s right to borrow from their non-fiction Holy Blood, Holy Grail. In a classic example of the superstar shrug, Brown told Today’s Matt Lauer, “When DaVinci Code debuted at No. 1, I actually got a lot of calls from best-selling authors… saying, ‘Well, get ready, because there are going to be people that you never heard of come out of the woodwork sort of wanting to ride your coattails’.”
In recent correspondence and conversation, Perdue conceded to me “mistakes and misjudgments” which landed him in a federal court across the country from his California home, grappling with a mass-media Goliath, like some David who’d forgotten to pack his sling. Even today, as he awaits rulings on whether he might actually owe Random House its attorney fees and whether the Supremes might stoop to review his case, Perdue admits, “I also realize I am too close to this issue to be as cool and rational as needed.” Still he persists, as does Illinois’s Professor Dussold. As Dussold uses the Internet to further his “glass houses” attack against Illinois’s chancellors ( see, for example, http://economy-chat.com/aggy/tag/chris-dussold/ ), Perdue employs extensive web sites and blogs to sustain his counteroffensive against nemesis Dan Brown (see, for example, http://davincicrock.blogspot.com/ and http://www.davincilegacy.com/Infringement/ ).
The Perdue and Dussold cases --- implicating as they do high-stakes litigation and high-profile guerrilla warfare on the web --- require industry-wide recognition that hoary academic-plagiarism policies, intended mainly to squelch student cheating, need reexamination. Is your university’s policy overly broad? Is it uniformly applied to students, junior faculty, tenured superstars, and high-ranking administrators alike? Does it comport with federal copyright law and your institution’s IP policies?
No one size fits all. Harvard’s Miller may make a telling point about protecting ideas as well as their expression. But unless your trustees would drop the blade on Dan Brown (if guilty), you’d best not be too quick to terminate the Chris Dussolds on your faculty or to expel the Polly Plagiarizers among your student body.