Heavy Lifting

Plagiarism charges against pop historian Stephen Ambrose are mounting; as I write this column, as many as six of his books have been found to include passages lifted from other writers without attribution. Scandals like this erupt periodically: Gail Sheehy ceded 10 percent of her royalties from the 1976 best-seller Passages to UCLA psychiatrist Roger Gould, who sued her for copyright infringement. (She also borrowed liberally from the work of the late Yale psychologist Daniel Levinson.) Joe McGinnis was exposed as a plagiarist when his 1993 biography of Edward Kennedy was found to include passages from books by William Manchester and Doris Kearns Goodwin. But Goodwin, who was rather unforgiving of McGinnis, had previously committed a similar offense (as The Weekly Standard recently revealed): She took passages from Lynne McTaggart's 1983 book about Kathleen Kennedy for her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys -- the same book she accused McGinnis of appropriating. Literary copycats include genuine moral exemplars as well as amateurs and hacks: Martin Luther King's doctoral dissertation was not exactly original.

But originality is not much valued in our consumer culture, which is fueled by the urge to conform. Social trends reflect, in part, the impulse to look, act, or think alike;
your status, or fame, reflects your success in acquiring what everyone else wants to acquire or being what everyone else wants to be. (Britney Spears is a star partly because there's nothing unfamiliar about her.) Media moguls profit from our attraction to the familiar. In any given year, there are fashions in sit-coms, movies, music, and self-help books, just as there are in politics, not to mention clothes.

Of course, creativity can prosper in this culture, thanks partly to copyright laws that protect against the most blatant acts of plagiarism and give creators some right to control and profit from their work. (You can't copyright an idea; you can copyright the words or images you use to express it.) But what protects creators more than law is recognition in the marketplace. Plagiarists hardly claim credit for work that is publicly identified with someone else. The difference between ripping off an obscure writer and ripping off a famous one is the difference between plagiarism and homage.

Ambrose seems clearly guilty of the former, but while charges of plagiarism are embarrassing, for popular writers they're not devastating professionally. (In the academy, they do more harm.) It's clear that Ambrose expects to get away with it. When a Weekly Standard cover story revealed that his current best-seller The Wild Blue appropriated paragraphs from Thomas Childers's book The Wings of Morning, Ambrose promptly apologized -- sort of: He acknowledged that the work for which he had taken credit was, in part, created by Childers. But he characterized his apparent plagiarism as an innocent mistake -- an oversight, hardly more grievous than a typo. "I wish I had put quotation marks in but I didn't," he explained.

Ambrose's publisher is standing by its moneymaking "author," expressing impatience with people who question his integrity. Simon and Schuster publisher David Rosenthal denied that Ambrose's borrowing constitutes plagiarism: "There is no effort to deceive," he told The New York Times. "The material has been appropriately footnoted,
and if there have been omissions it appears to be in the methods of citing as opposed to the citation itself," he added unintelligibly. Rosenthal is equally protective of Goodwin, another Simon and Schuster moneymaker, who has denied being a plagiarist. Her borrowings were "inadvertent," he said; ". . . some papers got shuffled."

Ambrose offered his own incoherent defense of his work: "I am not out there stealing other people's writings," he said, ignoring all the evidence. "If I am writing up a passage and it is a story I want to tell and this story fits and a part of it is from other people's writings, I just type it up that way and put it in a footnote." Or, as his defenders explain, Ambrose churns out a lot of books; he can't be expected to keep track of all his borrowings. Some quotation marks are bound to be omitted. But this defense of Ambrose simply underscores his underlying offense: He doesn't author books, it seems, so much as he assembles them, relying on an army of researchers and other, less prominent historians. Given the number of books he's produced and the number of unknown works available to plagiarists, we may never know the extent of his borrowings.

"So what," fans of Ambrose will probably say. Some may remember copying grade-school reports from The World Book Encyclopedia years ago (as I did). Some will think that I'm nitpicking. They simply won't see the harm in appropriating the words of other writers. Politicians do it all the time; indeed, presidents become famous for the eloquence of their speechwriters. Writers should be flattered when someone borrows their words, people say.

I doubt, however, that workers in the corporate world are flattered when colleagues profit from stealing their ideas or their résumés. Ambrose appears to have built a $3-million-a-year career partly on the toils of other historians. Why does the money matter morally? It measures the number of books he's sold and the number of times he's passed
himself off as another. Writing, after all, is self-expression (for people who think and write with some originality). Plagiarism is a kind of identity theft.