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July 10, 2006


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» Ann Coulter, Plagiarist? from EdBlog
Professor Randy Picker just posted some interesting commentary on the APs suggestion that Ann Coulter committed plagiarism in her new book, Godless . It comes a little too close to the topic of our brief, last quarter, but its interesting... [Read More]

» Coulter: Plagiarist? from ProfessorBainbridge.com
U Chicago law professor Randy Picker offers a partial defense for Ann Coulter against the plagiarism charges. As he points out, many of the charges relate to statements of facts and there often are only so many ways to state [Read More]


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Ryan Walters

I agree with you until your last paragraph. Obviously you should source them unless they are widely known so someone can verify you're not making the facts up. No, one can't always source every fact in a newspaper article. But one can in the online version, and there's really no reason not to.

Ron Brynaert

um...there are many examples of Coulter plagiarizing and messing up "facts"

You can find links to the articles that Rude Pundit and I have written since last summer...and I have even more examples which will be revealed very shortly.


Randy Picker


I want to do this on paper. Try different versions of this:

(1) Honest-to-God footnotes or endnotes, set out as such in the text; readily apparent verification in the text itself; scares off non-academic readers.

(2) No footnotes, but notes at the end of the book, matching up pages with sources; not as transparent, but better for accessing the public

(3) A statement at the beginning of the book: detailed notes sources are available at [website]

As an academic I want something; I want to see the research trail and I want to know both that you are not making it up and how I could do it on my own. But should we prefer 1, 2 or 3?


Plagiarism is a concern, but I find more objectionable Godless' surfeit of misrepresentations, factual distortions, and lies.

Ryan Walters

I take it then that we agree that one should provide at least some form of sourcing?

(1) Endnotes are troublesome because they're relatively inaccessible. I like footnotes for sourcing in most contexts, but I agree it can scare non-academic readers.

(2) Pseudo-endnotes are about as good as endnotes. The lack of specificity is more than made up for by the absence of superscript numbers throughout the text.

(3) Have you seen what David Friedman has done with this? He annotates the text of his book with icons that correspond to various sections of his website, which also contains a full copy of the book. See http://www.daviddfriedman.com/laws_order/laws_order_guide2pplxd/laws_order_guide2perplexed.htm

Webster Hubble Telescope

Like pornography, the public knows plagiarism when they see it. No amount of rationalization can change that.

Richard R

"Keith Olbermann invokes Jayson Blair, but Blair did something far worse: he presented fiction as fact."

Ah, those innocent days, when the worst that the NYTimes did was present ficton as fact. How I miss them.


"But should we prefer 1, 2 or 3?"


Different discourse communities should and do have different preferences and conventions.

I think that's actually a key distinction between a uniform federal copyright law and various--and varied--institutional standards of plagiarism or misconduct.

Barry Adler

According to Randy's post, Coulter wrote: "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."

Were I attempting to convey these (and related) facts, I might have said the following:

"The proposed Dickey-Lincoln Dam was a $217 million hydro-electric plant that would have spanned the upper St. John River in Maine. The [EPA] canceled the project when it found present in the river the Furbish lousewart, a plant thought to be extinct."

Why the differences? I wouldn't have used "massive" as in my view that is satisfactorily conveyed by the proposed cost. And "previously believed" seems unnecessarily wordy. Also, and more importantly, I would not have used the passive "by the discovery of" because I believe the reader would want to know at that point who did the discovering and who did the cancelling.

These differences don't make me a better writer than Coulter, or the Portland-Press Herald; they simply indicate that I made independent choices. That is, I didn't copy the expression, though I did rely on the facts. If a writer does not make independent choices of expression, then, in my view, quotations should be used (and one should not get around this artificially, by substituting "huge" for "massive," for example).

Citation is a different matter, in my opinion. Imagine that I wrote the sentence as I did above but that my only source were Coulter or the newspaper. In an academic paper, I would cite my source so that my reader understood my basis for the facts I claim. In a blog or an op-ed, I would not.

For example, in the blog I wrote for this site, on General Motors, all my facts came from newspaper stories. I didn't cite them and if I turn the blog into an op-ed submission, which I may do, I don't intend to cite them. I believe the facts are correct becasue I trust the reporting and have not seen any of the facts disputed. But I'm not sure what is right here, as a matter of style or honesty. Any suggestions?

Seth Weinberger

It seems to me that there's a difference between types of facts. If I mention that Thomas Edison invited the phonograph or the light bulb or anything else, those facts are common knowledge; I didn't acquire them from any one source in particular. However, the facts about Edison you cite above are not common knowledge; as you acknowledge, you learned them from one particular source. Thus, they should be cited.


At some point, however, a sting of 'facts' copied from another source has to become plagiarism. What if Coulter simply copied a 30 page article for one of her chapters? If the article stated nothing but 'facts' in the public domain would she be innocent of plagiarism charges? I don't think so.

I see your point, making cosmetic changes to short paragraphs of basic facts to make them 'unique' does indeed seem to be a low value added activity. However, there's a line here somewhere and I suspect Coulter remains close to crossing it if she hasn't already.


Is it too much to expect of a writer to actually write instead of cutting and pasting? I think Barry Adler is right; writers need to take the time to ingest information and formuate their own words to support their claims. If they can do so with some ability, then terrific.

Coulter's problem is that she is a lazy writer with weak ideas. Plagiarist? Possibly.


I find it amusing to see a discussion of plagerism from the Law School since lawyers are the biggest plagerizers around. Anyone who has worked at a law firm knows that. In fact, many lawyers love their legal documents to be plagerized because it validates the work.

As for the immediate discussion, I tend to agree with Prof. Picker. There is really no need to rewrite sentences regarding the facts if that is all you are doing or to provide detailed cites. The point of granting the copyright monopoly as I understand it, is to encourage people to spend time creating useful compilations of ideas. To some extent, I think the difference of opinion relates to where the facts end and the idea starts. I think that Ann Coulter's sentence is fine in that regard as it does not present any idea or original thought on the part of the original writer.


These aren’t quotes from the article, but all of the facts derive from this article. Do I have to have a footnote?

Yes, absolutely, if your text reproduces the text of the NYT article as closely as Coulter's does the Portland Press-Herald article.

The facts are the facts, but somebody else's prose is somebody else's prose, no matter how daintily lawyers try to dance around it.

Are all newspaper articles "in the public domain" and thus free for the use of all without citation? I can think of countless books that cite sections from newspaper articles in the same way that one quotes anything: an indented block with a footnote. Too bad the authors didn't know they didn't have to do that, they could have just "freely borrowed"...

Eric Rasmusen

Coulter wrote:

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.

Would we really prefer to have had Coulter say:

The Portland-Press Herald reported in 1999 that

"The massive Dickey-Lincoln Dam, a $227 million hydroelectric project proposed on upper St. John River, is [sic; should have been "was"] halted by the discovery of the Furbish lousewort, a plant [previously] believed to be extinct."

No, of course not. The newspaper was just reporting commonly known facts, in mediocre prose. Coulter made a couple of changes to improve the prose. She could have made more, to improve it further, but there is no point in changing it just for the sake of change. She could have cited it, but probably she used Google or Lexis and found 20 sources that said the same thing, so it is a little misleading to write as if it is some special discovery of the Portland Press-Herald.

This situation is a good one to think about, though. In my academic writing, I probably would cite to a newspaper in such a situation, so the reader could look up details from the original article, but I would feel a little silly doing it. In a newspaper op-ed, I wouldn't cite to the source.

Barry Adler

A quick reply to Lugo, who should have plagiarized better, I think. In my post I said: "All my facts came from newspaper stories," while he apparently believed I said that all my facts came from *a* newspaper story. The choice of which facts to convey is itself expression, so if one takes all facts from a single source then I think citation is essential. The collection of facts from various sources conveyed in a unique way, not so sure, which is why I ask.


You've really made me think with this one. On some level, you've made the anti-plagiarism argument look like this type of anti-Google Print argument:

"I don't think copying the whole book is necessary to what I understand they're trying to do....Why don't they just scan the snippets?"

That's Charles Ossola, in the 3/2006 Wash. LAwyer. Ossola would argue that, say, the act of writing out or writing in each relevant snippet into a database is qualitatively different than simply scanning them in. And the anti-plagiarism group would likely say that Coulter's own recounting/translation of the PPH text is qualitatively different.

For more on the importance of small variations, take a look at the AFP v. Google complaint, which argues that headlines are copyrightable. THe complaint shows about 50 different ways of headlining a sample story. As Justin Hughes shows in his article on microworks, such a claim isn't so farfetched given the direction of (C) law.


Barry, my response was not to you but to the original post, in which Randy Picker asked whether he should have to cite a source for text that was derived from one single newspaper article (the New York Times of June 4, 1878). It still seems to me that he should absolutely have cited this article when he wrote his text.

In your case, I would say perhaps you would not have to cite your sources. However, if your text *exactly reproduced* the words of *any* of your multiple sources, then I would cite that source just to be on the safe side. It appears that however many sources Ann Coulter may or may not have had, she exactly reproduced them, and thus laid herself open to charges of plagiarism. When in doubt, cite! What's the downside of doing so, anyway?

Kimball Corson

I thought copyright law protects a specific form of expression and not the substance of that which is expressed, whether fact or fiction. Ideas or facts are not copyrightable. If the precise expression is copied, why is this not an infringement? As commentators here have pointed out, there are many different ways of expressing the same facts regarding this dam. Why not create your own, using the same facts, instead of swiping someone else’s? Why steal their work effort? Express it yourself. Coulter erred and should be found liable. As to the amount of damages, now that is something else, and a core problem in copyright law where megabucks can too often chase gnats, seeking vindication and burdening the judiciary.

K Solberg

Wouldn't surprise me if she plagiarized - the woman is not that bright. She also continues to capitalize on her looks, but she's going on 48 years old now? You can't work the blond hair and boobs as well in your 40s as you could in your 20s. I'm a woman, I know that.

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