The Associated Press is reporting allegations that Ann Coulter plagiarized certain passages in her new, controversial book Godless (sorry, that was unforgivably redundant: anything that Coulter writes will be controversial; that is her particular niche after all).
I am no Coulter fan, but it is worth considering the allegations to help to orient ourselves in the world of copyright and plagiarism. At least in some cases, Coulter seems to have “borrowed” facts. Facts are in the public domain and are free to be repeated by all, and it is therefore important that we separate borrowing from fiction from repeating facts.
Take one example. Coulter says this:
The massive Dickey-Lincoln Dam, a $227 million hydroelectric project proposed on upper St. John River in Maine, was halted by the discovery of the Furbish lousewort, a plant previously believed to be extinct.
Before that, in 1999, the Portland-Press Herald said this:
The massive Dickey-Lincoln Dam, a $227 million hydroelectric project proposed on upper St. John River, is halted by the discovery of the Furbish lousewort, a plant believed to be extinct.
There are minor differences, but it certainly appears that the first text was copied from the second. Plagiarism? Something we should condemn Coulter for?
The sentence is a series of facts strung together. The Portland-Press Herald presumably doesn’t claim to own them and under U.S. copyright law can’t. They are part of the public domain. How much time should Coulter have invested in trying to reformulate the sentence to keep in all of the facts and yet not plagiarize? Whip out Roget’s and substitute “huge” for “massive?” Flip the sentence order? It is hard to see the social utility in any of that.
We should distinguish this case from other cases. Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life was standard fiction-to-fiction borrowing. As I suggested, probably copying without infringement under fair use, and the bulk of the professional reaction suggested that it was perceived as plagiarism. In a video interview available on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann invokes Jayson Blair, but Blair did something far worse: he presented fiction as fact. Coulter, instead, repeated facts part of the public domain.
I confess to having a personal stake in this. Here is a chunk of text that I wrote Friday:
But technology was coming. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 and received a patent on February 19, 1878. By the evening of June 3, 1878, Edison was ready to give the public a full sense of his latest invention. The evening was a marriage of old and new technologies. A new organ destined for Rome and the Protestant Episcopal Church of St. Paul was temporarily installed and a concert given to demonstrate its capabilities. The concert-goers were welcomed not in person, but via a recording played on a phonograph.
Edison the showman was at work and the show left little doubt about the phonograph would be used. A cornetist played songs into the phonograph, which recorded the songs, and then played them back. The songs included Yankee Doodle; Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home (perhaps better known as Swanee River); and the Star-Spangled Banner. Edison sang and whistled and then howled like a dog, all faithfully reproduced by the phonograph.
I have no first-hand knowledge of these facts; I wasn’t there after all. All of this is based on an account from the New York Times of June 4, 1878. These aren’t quotes from the article, but all of the facts derive from this article. Do I have to have a footnote? If facts are in the public domain, why should I need to source them?