Rick Perlstein’s Digital Disorientation: Plagiarism Isn’t The Future Of Online Publishing

Teresa Hartnett Publishing Consultant
Font Size:

Despite advance notice of the most astonishing case of plagiarism I’ve seen, last week Simon and Schuster published Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, including copyrighted text lifted wholesale from Craig Shirley, whom I represent as literary agent, and his work entitled Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started It All.

Simon and Schuster, contrary to its noble tradition as champion of thought leadership, has inexplicably declined Shirley’s request for corrections in Perlstein’s 880-page historical tome. Excerpting and otherwise drawing heavily on Shirley’s book without benefit of inline citations or any endnotes whatsoever, Perlstein takes a different tack. He admits to deliberately choosing to exclude one hundred pages of endnotes, in lieu of which he offers an online posting of some (not all) citations. According to Perlstein, the decision to skip print citations and to omit quotation marks was a cost-containment strategy. The concern was that money-strapped consumers could not afford a book with endnotes in this last book of Perlstein’s three-volume set. Prior volumes have managed to include ample endnotes, to charge hefty prices, and to sell well.

It is an odd sympathy for the consumer’s pocketbook that can trump respect for the intellectual property rights of fellow authors. At first blush this sounds like misguided populism, on second blush rather collectivist, but, regardless of intention, plagiarism remains illegal and, to anyone serving authors engaged in the bleary-eyed exactitude at the heart of writing, reprehensible.

Perlstein and his publisher assert in unison there is no infringement here, and Perlstein seeks to reframe the matter as ideological. Just in case, they also spin a theory that any potential harm from this unauthorized reuse is eliminated by incomplete and scattershot online citations. Invoking the upheaval in norms as paper publishing shifts digital, they claim it is permissible, indeed visionary, for Mr. Perlstein to have unilaterally revised scholarly customs used by researchers and academicians for centuries. Footnotes, endnotes and pesky quotation marks are now, apparently, vestiges of an old dead-tree order where citations once had a proper place on the printed page.

On behalf of my author, I respectfully beg to differ. No tectonic shift in the new digital world, or in traditional print publishing, or in academia has occurred that unleashes an open season on writing, scholarship or journalistic research. Indeed, the argument by which Perlstein seeks to legitimize having done so runs counter to trends in all three arenas.

Take digital technologies. They are remaking publishing — and our economy. As an avid fan of the new digital publishing world, I see technologies not a force for reducing value or copyright, but rather for adding value at every level. Even citations are more frequently used in different ways by more readers online. For example, the pursuits of the autodidact have been revolutionized by an option to tap a subscript numeral or hyperlink and find definitions, context, images and original documents. A comparable depth and range and pace in a paper world require limitless archives, the Dewey system and a good pair of sneakers with which to scurry around dusty warehouses. With two media so very different, it seems odd that an author would opt to publish almost ten percent of his print book on a website that does not bear the name of his published work, well beyond the reach of a traditional rights transfer to his publisher. Yet, this is exactly what Perlstein has done, declaring it a sign of things to come as publishing shifts online.

In Perlstein’s defense, the paradigm shift from print to digital can be disorienting for authors and for publishers. One of my businesses focuses solely on furnishing expert teams to transition publishers and institutes from paper to digital content models. This transition is challenging, and reflects the creative destruction happening in the national economy as a whole, but that does not render the rule of law void. Instead, in these transitions I see the chaos of change lead to new clarity, wonderfully capturing the imaginations of many smart professionals. At no point have I ever seen anyone conclude that copyright is no longer king. Mr. Perlstein’s vision otherwise is neither imaginative nor clear-thinking.

In the ethos of an emerging digital world, copyright is something beyond the letter of the law. Take Shia LaBeouf’s plagiarized apology for plagiarizing. Faced with the discovery he had expropriated elements from Daniel Clowes’s comic strip for a screenplay, LaBeouf confessed to naiveté, not plagiarism. He tweeted an apology (“Copying isn’t particularly creative work. Being inspired by someone else’s idea to produce something new and different IS creative work.”) which had striking similarity to a prior Yahoo! Answers post by “Lili” that read: “merely copying isn’t particularly creative work, though it’s useful as training and practice. Being inspired by someone else’s idea to produce something new and different IS creative work.” The ensuing viral blast bore the medium’s signature “gotcha” and was colored by the medium’s relish for wrongdoing exposed.

Pushback in social media about LaBeouf’s dual infractions showcases, in my view, a vibrant thinking community asserting creative integrity as a core value. Copyright lawyers are left to quibble over whether online text is sufficiently fixed or too fleeting to warrant protection under the law. As the digital world matures, it continues to reenergize the spirit of copyright, protecting the works of authors from the covetous designs of their colleagues. In suggesting otherwise, Mr. Perlstein has misjudged the zeitgeist in a world where leading aggregators dominate the market by through credibility based on a mix of factual rigor and creative integrity.

Digitally disoriented as he is, Perlstein conflates two distinct actions. First, he posted citations online to add functionality; e.g., hyperlinks. Second, he did not include citations in a print book. Many published authors post additional sources and context online for readers, while including proper attribution in print. Only Perlstein sees the two actions as fungible, suggesting the online option is better because of its hyperlink. Even this assumption is off target, as scholars and avid readers often prefer full, traditional citations which they plug into the search engine when needed, thereby avoiding a struggle with dead links.

Consider Wikipedia, that online trendsetter. A primary weakness is Wikipedia’s outdated citation links, but these may be flagged or updated at any time by contributors. Regarding copyrighted (or non-free) content, contributors are told that “in all cases, an inline citation following the quote or the sentence where it is used is required … . Copyrighted text that is used verbatim must be attributed with quotation.” Notably, despite his vision of a world of print books with digital citations like Wikipedia’s, Perlstein fails to comply with this digital leader’s copyright guidelines.

Another benefit of the dawning digital world is the appearance of ingenious digital tools to spot creative theft. Many traditional publishers have launched initiatives to protect their copyrights using services specializing in this work. Consider a lion of publishing, keeper of revered imprints like Scribner and Touchstone and Pocket, umbrella for a great legacy of exquisite authors and books including 55 titles awarded Pulitzer Prizes. That is, consider Simon and Schuster. One section of its corporate website is dedicated to an “anti-piracy statement.” Here the publisher emphasizes that “at the forefront of our digital strategy is a firm commitment to battling piracy.” It then describes using an anti-piracy service to “protect its copyrighted publications in the online environment.” Would Shirley’s publisher be entitled to do anything less, or have less grievance when pirated content is found in domestic publishing settings?

Publishers operate at their best when they champion the rights of their authors, securing earnings, protecting the historical record of idea generation, and guarding against literary history being rewritten with false facts. A case in point is T. S. Eliot who wrote with shocking candor: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Literary scholars and fellow poets generally concur on an otherwise little-known reality: Eliot and his editor plagiarized a poem named “Waste Land” by Madison Cawein, a homeless fellow when his poem first appeared in a Chicago magazine edited by Ezra Pound. Ten years later, after Cawein died in poverty, Pound was editing Eliot’s poem. Unfortunately for Cawein, his poem title and contents slipped into Eliot’s work, which arguably has secured a place for Eliot, but not Cawein, as one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. Most contemporaries objected, with e. e. cummings wryly asking “why Eliot couldn’t write his own lines instead of borrowing from dead poets.” It is a timeless temptation, irresistible for some authors, to bask in the spotlight of one’s achievement thanks to what another author has actually achieved in the arduous private struggle known as writing.

With a heavy-weight champion in his or her corner, however, an author can also create quite a bit of mischief, as did Stephen E. Ambrose when he vacuumed up content from an obscure novel by Thomas Childers for unattributed reuse in his bestseller The Wild Blue. At least Ambrose mentioned Childers’s work in a bibliographic note, something Perlstein has not done as no bibliography exists in his book. Ambrose eventually admitted wrongdoing, blaming a lapse in memory. He made no bones about his error, saying, “I wish I had put the quotation marks in, but I didn’t.” Unlike Ambrose, Perlstein admits his reuse, but explicitly admits he has no wish to have put quotation marks in. As he told my author, Perlstein left out citations “on principle.”

Senator John Walsh (D-MT) recently withdrew from a political race after admitting to plagiarism and anticipating a downturn in his credibility. While he is not in politics or a political race, Perlstein proceeds with his book launch, seemingly oblivious to the impact of plagiarism on credibility. At points he has suggested this is an ideological debate, whereas in my view the all-American debate among all political points of view is ill-served by rakish scholarship.

Senator Walsh offered an excuse with gravity warranted by the offense; that is, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder while writing. Perlstein has not yet felt compelled to offer an excuse, or an apology. Having turned his manuscript around in record time, Perlstein does offer a cryptic line in his print acknowledgements; it is a meager thank-you to Shirley for sparing him months of work. Whether that was scholarly work or yard work the reader cannot tell. Beyond that, Perlstein offers only rationalizations, rather like sophomoric excuses which students concoct when confronted with a term paper comprised of paragraphs cribbed from unmentioned sources and submitted when they found no time to finish on their own power.

While students may be forgiven addled thinking on their march into full adulthood, they are better policed as writers in academia than Perlstein is in the commercial world. Of three dozen leading universities whose websites I visited this weekend, all have strict prohibitions against unattributed reuse. All have defined processes by which professors may charge a student with having plagiarized scholarship. All specify consequences including a failing grade. Consider Colorado State University. Located in a region not currently associated with the strictest mores in the United States, this university offers a graduate-level course called “Writing and Ownership: Plagiarists and Pirates, Forgers and Frauds.” Perlstein will likely find no validation here or anywhere in academia for the way he liberally borrows research, scholarship and knowledge, and he will find students in these centers doing a better job than he does citing sources.

Not in academia. Not in traditional book publishing. Not in new media. There is no quarter where Perlstein’s decision to swipe substantial swatches from another copyrighted work without attribution is acceptable. Despite Perlstein’s effort to frame this debate as ideological in nature, let’s remember that many able thinkers who happen to share Perlstein’s political views have nonetheless managed to offer substantive support for their argument without grabbing gobs of text from their opponents in any but a fair-use or otherwise authorized manner.

Eventually, Perlstein will be forced to face his error. In doing so, Perlstein, a historian himself, can turn to history for two lessons how to proceed. When exposed for using about a dozen unattributed lines in The Wild Blue, Ambrose was so convinced of his impeccable standards that he issued an open challenge to prove him wrong and, to his surprise, someone did, thereby tarnishing his record further. Alternatively, Alex Haley apologized for his plagiarism quickly, made fair redress, and moved on. Such a mea culpa is painful, but not terminal. For inspiration, Perlstein can look to some Joe named Biden, who failed a course in law school after plagiarizing a paper but eventually became Vice President of the United States. For authors, and for publishers, there can be life after digital disorientation. Meanwhile, Mr. Perlstein, tempus fugit.