When the Harvard Crimson reported last week that sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan's novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (2006), contains a number of passages that are "strikingly similar" to two books by Meghan F. McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts (2001) and Second Helpings (2003), the alleged plagiarism drew national attention. On Friday, the New York Times reported that publisher Little, Brown would recall the offending book, which had apparently been part of an extraordinary $500,000 two-book deal and had been optioned by Dreamworks for a movie. Viswanathan has apologized to McCafferty.
Deliberate or not, the plagiarism was obvious. But apart from the money and publicity, it was nothing that doesn't happen among students every day. The academic year is ending, final papers are due, and professors (some of whom have been known to be a bit sloppy about citation themselves) are on the lookout for suspiciously familiar works. The resources available online are all-too-tempting for some students, but the web also makes them easier to catch. My experience, unfortunately, is that most students who copy are genuinely sorry -- that they've been caught.
The more interesting issue, however, is what constitutes illicit copying within a specific genre. Even while apologizing, Kaavya maintained that she was writing about her own experiences. When the book was withdrawn, she and the publisher announced that they would republish with the offending passages rewritten. As one publishing executive noted in the Times on Thursday, "The teenage experience is fairly universal."
Had Meghan McCafferty filed a copyright claim, however, a federal court would've been called upon to determine not only how literally certain passages had been lifted (not exactly a challege here), but also the relevance of the similar plots (girl trying to get into elite college), which cannot in the abstract be copyrighted. This inquiry takes on additional significance in the postmodern era (nod to Foucault) and in light of the involvement of a "book packager" like Alloy Entertainment. (Check out Professor Laura Heymann's engaging article, "The Birth of the Authornym.") Can we still tell an "original" from a "copy," assuming that we ever could?
Actually, yes. Authors, professors, lawyers, juries, and judges manage this all the time, whether the component parts of the creation are words, musical notes, or lines of software code. Despite the near-universal fashion among U.S. law professors of attacking intellectual property protection as too extensive -- a position with which I have some degree of sympathy -- even academics don't usually argue that literal copying can't be identified.
In the case of fashion design, however, some people seem to be arguing exactly that. Communications Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, for example, told the Marketplace radio program that if fashion is subject to intellectual property protection, "there will be so many ridiculous lawsuits where courts will have to decide between the differences in ruffle (a) and ruffle (b) or hemline (a) and hemline (b)."
My guess is that Vaidhyanathan wouldn't have found a copyright lawsuit involving words rather than ruffles "ridiculous," even if he has joined many others in disputing the legitimacy of intellectual property protection overall. Personally, I'd find hemlines easier to distinguish than I would musical progressions. But the point is that a copy is a copy. And while pointy-headed intellectuals (myself included) and lawyers may engage in lofty debate about what constitutes copying, a creator's peers -- at Harvard or on Seventh Avenue -- know the score.