As many of you know I while away the small hours writing books. The latest effort is planned to feature a trainee financial wizard at Bloggwarts Business School called Larry Trotter. However, I am given pause because a certain J K Rowling has written a series of childrens's books featuring a soundalike called Harry Potter. She is currently suing an academic author who dared to write a lengthy encyclopedic tome, a lexicon, about this fictional character. She claims that it has damaged her mentally as well as financially although as a billionaire (sterling) it is a matter of some surprise that she is not able to take some modest punishment in that direction. The mental damage is more regretable although having tried to read one of her books anything that prevents her writing anything else would in my opinion be a jolly good thing.
This rather sad case promoted by the unhappy conjunction of celebrity author and greedy publisher does raise the rather interesting question as to whether we are over precious about the problem of plagiarism more generally. I must admit I am rather ambivalent about this issue. There is a sense in which very little is original. Great scientists like Newton and Einstein stood on the shoulders of those who went before them and who were roundly rubbished in Newton's case. Authors of immensely greater stature than Rowling have borrowed plots from Homer forward and left it to the reader to figure out. Speilberg more or less faithfully retold the Christ story in ET - which when I pointed it out to my youngest son produced floods of tears from a budding atheist who swore he would never watch it again. However, what characterises all of these (apart perhaps from Newton) was that they were not being dishonest. It is only when someone tries to pass off the work of others dishonestly as their own that the barrier is passed.
Unfortunately, judging dishonest intent is always difficult. In the old days in academic life anything (no matter how brief) copied but not fully and properly cited would end in the culprit being sent down. But then cheating was easy - just find a PhD for example gathering dustin a remote university library and away you went. Nevertheless, the rules were clear and brutal, proving intent was not required - copy without citing and you hung. Nowadays plagiarims is much more easily discovered, a suspicious phrase dropped into Google or one of the other proprietary search engines will reveal the source in the blink of an eye. We do not however routinely send students down as a good smack on the wrist early on usually nips the problem in the bud and a potential plagiarist joins the endless ranks of honest toilers after knowledge. What is tricky is when they make a fuss and argue their innocence. How does one prove dishonest intent? I have often copied useful bits out of articles with cut and paste and then come back to them later confused as to whether they were my own words or belonged to soemone else. And what about the 'blind eye' defence - 'I have been doing it for years and you didn't raise it, why are you bothered now'. The courts would certainly accept that as a valid argument if it come to an appeal. So perhaps we should give this some serious thought but still, I now turn my quill pen to other matters. But what is that dammned owl flying in with now.....?