• September 4, 2015

Play It Again, Professor

Play It Again, Professor 1

Brent Lewin for The Chronicle

At a reading in Toronto for his new book, In Praise of Copying, Marcus Boon (reflected in mirror) treated listeners to words from other writers.

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close Play It Again, Professor 1

Brent Lewin for The Chronicle

At a reading in Toronto for his new book, In Praise of Copying, Marcus Boon (reflected in mirror) treated listeners to words from other writers.

Marcus Boon gave a reading recently to promote his new book. It took place at Spoonbill & Sugartown, a bookstore in Brooklyn. About 40 or 50 people showed up. But they didn't hear a single word written by Mr. Boon.

Instead, he read from a 1960s sex manual, an Italian cookbook, and Bob Dylan's memoir, among others. He had grabbed those books, more or less at random, from the store's shelves an hour before the event. So why not read from the book he actually wrote? "I didn't see a need to," says Mr. Boon, an associate professor of English at York University, in Toronto. That's because, he says, the same concepts could be found elsewhere, albeit in slightly altered form.

Not coincidentally, that's the case he makes in his book, In Praise of Copying (Harvard University Press). Mr. Boon argues that originality is more complicated than it seems, and that imitation may be the sincerest form of being human. He writes: "I came to recognize that many of the boundaries we have set up between activities we call 'copying' and those we call 'not copying' are false, and that, objectively, phenomena that involve copying are everywhere around us."

He read from the cookbook because recipes aren't protected by copyright law (unless they contain a "substantial literary expression," according to the U.S. Copyright Office). He read from the memoir because of Dylan's liberal borrowings from traditional folk music. And he read from the sex manual because, well, sex is all about reproduction, isn't it?

At one point during the evening, Mr. Boon seemed to be reading from his own book. In fact, he had slipped his dust jacket over a copy of Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), a new book by Lewis Hyde. Mr. Hyde, a professor of creative writing at Kenyon College and author of the much-lauded books The Gift and Trickster Makes This World, touches on many of the same themes as Mr. Boon, extolling "that vast store of unowned ideas, inventions, and works of art we have inherited from the past and continue to enrich."

In Common as Air, Mr. Hyde asserts that many of the bromides regularly spouted regarding creative works—such as "Intellectual property is no different than physical property"—don't stand up under scrutiny. He's on the side of those who believe in a "cultural commons," where intellectual property is less estate and more park. His new book has roots in The Gift, his 1983 classic that's notoriously difficult to summarize but is about, in a sense, artistic sharing.

When informed of Mr. Boon's bookstore stunt, Mr. Hyde seemed amused. He said it reminded him of Jonathan Lethem's 2007 essay "The Ecstasy of Influence," which is composed entirely of other writers' passages. It's not until the end of the essay that Mr. Lethem, whose most recent novel is Chronic City, acknowledges the game and cites the works he's pilfered. In that essay, one of the writers Mr. Lethem leans on most heavily is Mr. Hyde, who finds Mr. Lethem's copying without attribution particularly flattering because "the new speaker identifies with the words enough to join in their articulation."

One of the writers Mr. Lethem mentions as an influence on that essay is David Shields. In March, Mr. Shields's book Reality Hunger (Knopf) was released to praise ("daring," "passionate") and disdain ("boring and frustrating") but not indifference. In the book, Mr. Shields, who is a professor of English at the University of Washington, mixes his own prose with excerpts from other writers, thumbing his nose at MLA style along the way. The 600-plus sections are numbered, and you have to look in an appendix to determine which ones are original and which ones are cut and pasted. Not that those citations are always terribly helpful. For instance: "I'm pretty sure these lines, or something close to these lines, were spoken by Terry Gilliam in an interview, but I can't for the life of me find the source."

Also, Mr. Shields lets us know, he doesn't particularly care.

The book, he has said, grew out of a course packet. In the afterword, he writes that the publisher's lawyers insisted that he include the citations; he would prefer that readers literally cut out those pages. (Dotted lines are included to aid in the scissoring.) Explains Mr. Shields: "Your uncertainty about whose words you've just read is not a bug but a feature."

None of these books offer a defense of plagiarism, exactly, though it's likely all three authors would quibble with the definition of that word. In a chapter titled "Copying as Deception," Mr. Boon attempts to work through his conflicted feelings about plagiarism. He doesn't see it as "an entirely bad thing," but he is "offended by the student's refusal to think." He makes a distinction between those who copy out of laziness and those who do so "out of love."

Reading Mr. Hyde's text out loud may have illustrated Mr. Boon's thesis, but it's not as if Common as Air could be substituted for In Praise of Copying. They're not so much twins as cousins. And it would be hard to confuse Reality Hunger with almost any other book. But all three authors share a discomfort with the way lines are drawn around literature. They would agree that copying isn't pejorative, and that appropriation isn't necessarily a violation. They would ask: Who owns the words?

By the way, that question was lifted from Mr. Shields's book.


1. tolerantly - October 17, 2010 at 05:23 pm

[Edited for profanity. -moderator] Professors have salaries and benefits to live on. People whose writing must actually speak to human beings rely on sales. If you want to donate your salary to the cause and can persuade your pals in universityland to do the same, terrific, but until then, if you lift from me, I'll happily sue you.

2. mythkat - October 18, 2010 at 09:28 am

toleRANTly: your comment will likely be deleted, but I couldn't agree more. Sometimes it's not so much about the "integrity of the idea" as it is credit (in the form of money for usage rights) to those who crafted the work.

3. strawberries - October 18, 2010 at 10:58 am

you have both clearly missed the point, which, incidentally, has also been made by many writers who live off of the profits of their writing. In other words, it is as much (or more of) a political point as an economic one.

4. davi2665 - October 18, 2010 at 01:16 pm

So theft of intellectual property is a virtue and represents the greatest form of flattery. That echoes the general operating principles for commercialization in China. Maybe he could go on the lecture circuit there.

5. tuxthepenguin - October 21, 2010 at 05:54 pm


And to prove your point, we have sites like Daily Kos, all of which charge subscriptions to read the material. Oh, wait, they don't, so I guess that shows the flaw in your thinking.

It's all about the business model. Open source software has done quite well. The "copying is always bad" idea requires that the consumers of the material are indifferent as to the source of the material. If they care about the source of the material, it is possible to profit, even when copying is legal.

Further, you are assuming the only way to profit is to sell physical copies of your work. If you're a consultant, for instance, you can profit by building a reputation. Allowing for copying does not mean plagiarism is acceptable. Thus you can still get credit.

6. jweinheimer - October 22, 2010 at 06:13 am

It's interesting that the fact that this book is available for free from HUP at http://www.hup.harvard.edu/features/boon/

As a reply to tolerantly: It seems to be pretty obvious that major changes in intellectual property rights cannot be put off forever because of the profound technological changes that we have already experienced, and there is no reason to think that these changes can be stopped or rolled back. Everyone who is reliant on IPO for income must reconsider matters whether they want to or not: look at the newspaper industry, the music industry, and I am a librarian. All of these fields have seen tremendous changes and many believe that in the future we will see far bigger changes than we can even contemplate at this time.

It only makes sense that authors are going to see disruptions in their everyday lives as well. They may not like these disruptions, but that's just too bad and they must deal with them. I myself don't like a lot of what is happening, but history shows that in times of change, many opportunities lie hidden. It is our task to find these opportunities and use them.

7. jnicolay - October 22, 2010 at 08:49 am

Perhaps those who do not "value" their craft have no craft to value.

8. reinking - October 22, 2010 at 08:55 am

The knee-jerk reaction from those who believe that earning a living from the words they string together is a birthright of biblical proportions is revealing and substantiates the main points of this article. Historically, technological innovation in print technologies created the concepts of intellectual property, plagiarism, and copyright. Those concepts did not exist in nature before the relevant technologies that birthed them. The arrival of new technologies that undo these concepts might even be framed as a return to a more natural state when there was much great writing and great writers. Professional writers today have to accept that they are not the first profession in history to have the their livelihood threatened by new technologies. Just as increased literacy negated the need for paid scribes, the removal of technological barriers to sharing information may negate the need for a special class of paid writers. In that light their arguments for maintaining the status quo are revealed for what they are: self serving, hollow, and desperately out of touch with a technological evolution and revolution they cannot control.

9. archman - October 22, 2010 at 09:36 am

Er... a great many people *do* make their livings off of original writings. The knee-jerk reaction works both ways.

It is rather obvious to expect to compensate people for their writings. Intellectual property has real value.

People who lift their writing directly from others are thieves. People who take the writings of others, glean knowlege and wisdom from it, and craft their own writing are not thieves.

As educators, our job is to teach students to learn from others, think critically, and produce their own work. In this regard, the ideology of "open access" is really of little practical importanace to us. We *still* require students to produce original work, as that is part and parcel of the process of superior learning.

What happens in the real world regarding "open access", author rights, and intellectual property I leave to the litigation lawyers, software developers, and authors to hash out. In the end, I'm sure whatever solution appears will benefit the lawyers...

10. billl - October 22, 2010 at 10:18 am

This controversy reminds me of the to-do that raged a couple years ago when service stations started charging for air to fill tires. "Air is free! cried the free-air (for lack of a better word) crowd. My response was, "Yes, air is free so go grab a handfull of air and put it in your tire." The fact is to get that air in a concentrated form to put in your tire requires resources that need to be paid for. Similarly, words are free, even ideas but if someone puts them in a form that is sensible, entertaining, whatever, they should be paid for their effort.

11. cassadia - October 22, 2010 at 11:44 am

Reminds me of the student who exclaimed, "How can you call that a cliche? I see it all the time!"

... @8 "The knee-jerk reaction from those who believe that earning a living from the words they string together is a birthright of biblical proportions is revealing and substantiates the main points of this article. Historically, technological innovation in print technologies created the concepts of intellectual property, plagiarism, and copyright. Those concepts did not exist in nature before the relevant technologies that birthed them. " .... Oh my.

... "the words they string together" carries the presupposed claim that ain't nothing special about stringing words together ... they're all in the dictionary ... just pick and choose, roll and shake ...

... "substantiates the main points of this article ..." ... which are what?

reinking @8 here states that "technological innovation" CREATED gifted word slingers ... This statement is on an epistemological par with the nonexistence of the physical world debunked in Sokal's hoax.

First, "copy right" first belonged to PUBLISHERS who bought the RIGHT to COPY from authors. Authors were WRITERS of copy who sold the COPY they wrote to publishers along with the RIGHT to copy it. When publishers copied what they did not have the RIGHT to, they were called PIRATES. They pirated or stole the property of others. Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400, and the first printing press in England profited greatly from his life. What you claim is absurd on its face and belies a resentment of skillful writers who, YES, write within traditions and hone their skills against the what has been wrought by their betters ... to whom we all pay homage.

This, my academic friends and anemones, is what happens when the teachers of literacy and analytic reading become bored and decided to reinvent philosophy.

12. cassadia - October 22, 2010 at 11:51 am

P. S. copy EDITING came later. And after that came the convention that you are not supposed to correct your errors in e-lists such as these unless the meaning is visibly altered by your shift of syntax in mid-thought, such as "against the what has been wrought" and "become bored and decide..."

13. de_safran - October 22, 2010 at 11:54 am

Certain aspects of the copyright law are annoying to scholars, but one never has the right to copy without atribution. When we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, we must acknowledge their support.

14. sand6432 - October 22, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I have several points to offer on this discussion:

1) Commenter #6 vastly underestimates the concentrated political power of the industries that rely on copyright. They can lobby Congress far more effectively than unorganized groups of authors or even partly organized groups representing academe. The legislation most likely to emerge from Congress will NOT favor the stance of the copyleft. Only IP bills that are also supported by the industry, like the pending "orphan works" legislation, have a real chance of passage.

2) Authors who favor "copying" already have a strong defense in copyright law in the theory of "transformative use" originally proposed by Judge Pierre Leval in 1990 and subsequently used by many courts in "fair use" cases, including the Supreme Court in Acuff v. Rose (1994). There does not need to be any radical reform of copyright law to accommodate the needs of such authors, or of artists who do mashups and musicians who depend on sampling.

3) In China, there has been a long tradition of copying as a way of learning through emulation of the master writer/artist, and this partly accounts for the difficulty Chinese students have with grasping the Western concept of plagiarism. I deal with this in my essay on "China's Copyright Dilemma" available here: http://www.psupress.org/news/SandyThatchersWritings.html.

4) There is also a long tradition in the West of copying in which Shakespeare, Coleridge, and other great writers indulged. For an insightful treatment of the issue, read Judge Richard Posner's "Little Book of Plagiarism" (Pantheon, 2007), my review of which may be found at the same web site mentioned above.

--- Sandy Thatcher

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