Plagiarism and Authorship: A Review and Retrospective of the CCCC Intellectual Property Annual

Clancy Ratliff

Scene from True Detective: Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, peers thoughtfully.

Several IP Annual articles have analyzed plagiarism by prominent professional writers and politicians. Wendy Warren Austin (2014) reflected that "famous and/or popular people who are accused of plagiarizing receive both more attention and more leniency from others and more forgiveness for the action, because they are given more credibility (or second chances?) than 'regular people'/students." In most of the cases, there are no consequences for what is obviously outright plagiarism.

In the 2014 issue of the IP Annual, Steven Engel, Kerry Howell, Jacklene Johnson, and Jessica McGinnis wrote about the case of John Walsh, a Democratic Senator from Montana. Walsh had been appointed to the Senate seat when it was vacated because President Barack Obama had selected the sitting Senator, Max Baucus, to be Ambassador to China. Shortly after, the Senate seat was up for election again, and Walsh won the Democratic primary. The Republican party began opposition research and discovered the problems with Walsh's final paper for his master's degree from the US Army War College. Engel, Howell, Johnson, and McGinnis explain:

Walsh’s 19-page paper is a mix of citation errors, patchwriting, and large sections of cut-and-paste text from other sources. He cites some sources but fails to indicate that the passages are direct quotations. He incorporates several passages that are paraphrased but not cited. He also ends his paper with a handful of recommendations pulled directly from an unacknowledged source.

Walsh admitted that he had not correctly cited sources, attributing this poor academic performance to struggling with PTSD from his deployment to Iraq; when he was a student at the US Army War College, he had only recently returned from there. He maintained that he'd had no intention to cheat. The allegations stuck, however, and he was forced to withdraw from the election. Months later, the US Army War College rescinded his degree. This case carries a tinge of hypocrisy. I realize I'm talking about someone in my ingroup here, but Walsh did good work in the US Senate. He advocated for preserving Native American languages, funding Medicare, supporting wind energy, and other laudable initiatives. The people who were disingenuously outraged over his plagiarism already didn't want a Democrat in office and may overlook plagiarism among their own ingroup.

The ingroup/outgroup hypocrisy about plagiarism applies to progressives as well, certainly, as we see in Kathrin Kottemann's piece on Mitt Romney, who in his 2012 presidential campaign would say in his speeches "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!" This expression is from the television series Friday Night Lights, and it is so recognizable that it can't even seriously be called plagiarism, but rather allusion. Still, the creator of the show, Peter Berg, publicly criticized Romney for using the phrase. Other staff involved with the show voiced their objections as well, and shortly after that, the Romney campaign started selling merchandise with the phrase printed on it.

Kottemann (2013), a progressive herself, observed the hypocrisy in the disgusted reaction from Romney's opposition, noting that they probably would have been happy if Obama had used the phrase. Extrapolating to the writing classroom, Kottemann remarked that writing teachers are similar to the hypothetical Obama in this situation, freely using each other's course materials without attribution. She went on to say:

This hypocrisy reveals a certain mistrust: students are the opposition, and we judge and punish them accordingly. What we must strive to do, however, is not condemn our students the way the media and Friday Night Lights’ cast and crew condemned Romney. Instead, we must alter the way we view plagiarism, and we should use our students’ “academic dishonesty” as fodder for discussion about attribution, authorship, and production, not violation, punishment, and retribution.

For Walsh, the opposition succeeded in ending his candidacy. Romney experienced no specific consequences for his appropriation of the Friday Night Lights phrase, but he went on to lose the election. In both instances, the rhetoric of plagiarism had a distinctly eristic tone, with accusers seeking to sabotage the candidates' campaigns.

In Donald Trump's campaign, we also see plagiarism and reactions to it. For the 2016 IP Annual, Camryn Washington, Joseph Myrick, and Steven Engel gather and study three plagiarism controversies of his campaign and first days of his presidency. One minor case was the potential senior director of strategic communications, Monica Crowley, whose 2000 dissertation and 2012 book What the (Bleep) Just Happened? contained passages that were cited improperly. To someone who supports Trump, Crowley's misuse of sources is beyond trivial, but public pressure resulted in her withdrawal from consideration for the senior-level position. We are left to speculate about gender privilege in this situation, but I will note that while John Walsh's career was shot down, plagiarism did not affect William Meehan and, we will soon see, has not affected Slavoj Žižek or Nic Pizzolatto.

Another Trump plagiarism event reviewed by Washington, Myrick, and Engel in the 2016 IP Annual, probably the best known, is Melania Trump's address at the Republican National Convention, which was strikingly similar to Michelle Obama's address at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Melania Trump was dragged all over the news and social media, with an implied standard of, if not academic, then authorial honesty, which is confounding: we know, or should know, that the speakers don't even necessarily write the speeches they deliver at the DNC and RNC. It's Robillard and Fortune's point about forgery again—a speechwriter writes, or helps to write, a speech for Michelle Obama for the DNC, and another speechwriter lifts text from it for Melania Trump, another speech-deliverer. It becomes absurd: a forger plagiarizes another forger's forgery to create a new forgery. The genre shouldn't necessarily carry the typical expectations of attribution and authorship (whatever those are), but it still does. Additionally, the passage in question is a string of platitudes that arguably could have been written by two people coincidentally. I make these points not to defend Walsh, Romney, Crowley, or Melania Trump, but to notice the ulterior motives that accompany plagiarism accusations. It's dirt-digging, and plagiarism happened to be the dirt, but it could just as easily have been something else.

Devon Fitzgerald's essay in the 2010 IP Annual is an especially stark case showing the dynamic of privilege in matters of authorship and plagiarism. She reviews the case of Raymond McDaniel, who published a collection of poetry titled Saltwater Empire. After it came out, Abe Louise Young (2010) wrote an article for Poetry Foundation arguing that Raymond McDaniel had used the words of Hurricane Katrina survivors for the long poem "Convention Centers of the New World." The survivors had been interviewed for Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project led by Young, a native New Orleanian, and she argued that McDaniel did not ask for permission to use the oral histories and that his appropriation of their traumatic narratives was unethical. She made careful distinctions among types of poetry that involve textual appropriation, including poetry of witness, found poetry, and flarf, claiming that poetry of witness is a laudable tradition with high ethical standards that McDaniel falls short of. Poetry Foundation published a response by McDaniel as well. To say that the people whose words McDaniel used are not privileged is an understatement. The survivors interviewed for Alive in Truth were overwhelmingly poor people of color. Young mentions one survivor, "Antoinette," whose story is used by McDaniel, and says that since the storm, Antoinette has "worked a number of jobs, including cashier, parking lot attendant, and cook, while supporting her children and grandchildren," has lived in three different cities, been shot while crossing the street, had a massive heart attack, suffered the death of her son who was gunned down, and lost everything (again) in a fire. In McDaniel's response, he reminds readers that his poetry is not autobiography, that the poems have speakers that are not Raymond McDaniel, and that he cited Alive in Truth in the book and has been a strong supporter of the project and has sympathized with the survivors' loss, but he closes with a Barthesian copout:

But these are a reader’s questions, and while I was once the writer of the book, or its compiler, or the agent of its assembly, or the means by which it occurred, that part’s over now. I could fuss and lament, and protest that what I wrote has been wrestled from my intent and transformed. But that would be a redundant and fundamentally inaccurate complaint. It would make it seem as if, once upon a time, the book belonged to me, and now it isn’t mine.

Of course it isn’t. It never was.

Though I am not in a position to know whether or not McDaniel's career has been affected by this controversy, I see that he was a lecturer at the University of Michigan at the time and still is, and he has published two more books of poetry since Saltwater Empire. Fitzgerald's article shows the power differentials embedded in this plagiarism case, and she pointed out the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry, published by American University's Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, a document that rhetoric and composition scholars may not have known about at the time.

In 2014, Wendy Warren Austin wrote about two plagiarism cases, one involving theorist Slavoj Žižek. With its layers upon layers, this situation shows the absurdity and capriciousness of claims of authorship and consequences for plagiarism. In 2006, Žižek published an article in Critical Inquiry titled "A Plea for a Return to Différance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua)." Eight years after it came out, a blogger showed that large portions of text consisting of remarks about the book The Culture of Critique by Kevin MacDonald had been lifted from another source without attribution. Žižek’s article in Critical Inquiry is about 23 pages. The second and third pages of the article are mostly taken straight from a review of MacDonald's book. The original review was published in the white supremacist magazine American Renaissance and written by “Stanley Hornbeck,” “the pen name of a Washington, DC area businessman,” as the review in American Renaissance lists him. The review itself consists of Žižek’s explanation of the plagiarism was that a friend sent him the writing with the understanding that Žižek was perfectly free to use it as a representative summary functioning as a stand-in for a line of thought. To break this down:

setting the stage for what is presumably his own declaration. Here’s Žižek writing in the paragraph immediately after the plagiarized material (emphasis in original):

We should have no illusions here. Measured by the standards of the great Enlightenment tradition, we are effectively dealing with something for which the best designation is the old orthodox Marxist term for “bourgeois irrationalists”: the self-destruction of reason.

It should be noted that Žižek apologized for this "misuse of sources," to use Rebecca Moore Howard's (2016) term—a term that emerged from her study of beginning student writers who are learning to work with sources. In a more full-throated justification of Žižek's plagiarism, Hollis Phelps (2014), writing for Inside Higher Ed, muses that

As someone who has followed and admired Žižek’s work I was initially disappointed, to say the least. Finding out that one of your favorite authors has plagiarized is the intellectual equivalent of learning of the infidelity of one’s partner. I also, however, wasn’t surprised. Four years out of my graduate program and now in a full-time faculty position, my views of scholarship and its production are less naïve than they once were. To be blunt: it’s simply impossible for someone who keeps Žižek’s schedule, which includes various appointments and a rigorous, international lecturing schedule, to singlehandedly read and research broadly and publish as much as he does. Whether in the form of research assistants or, as appears to be the case in this instance, plagiarism, the actual production of scholarship often depends on others, whose work often remains largely unacknowledged.

As consequences go, Žižek seems to have been relatively unscathed. It's important to note that while this plagiarism happened in 2006, it was only discovered in 2014. Since 2014, he has published many books and articles, and with prestigious outlets. People evidently overlooked it, and clearly Žižek still has a perspective that people want&emdash;when we encounter phenomena, heads still turn to him for a response or reaction.

The other plagiarism dustup that Austin analyzes is from the first season of the HBO drama series True Detective, written by Nic Pizzolatto. One of the main characters is detective Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey. In one scene, Rust is in a car with his partner, Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson, and he gives Marty a long explanation of his nihilistic worldview, and these lines serve as character development for Rust. Not long after the episode aired, Jon Padgett and Mike Davis (2014) demonstrated that key passages of Rust's dialogue were only lightly paraphrased from The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti. Pizzolatto has admitted that he was influenced by Ligotti, and opinion in the True Detective fandom has been generally that calling this use of text "plagiarism" is mislabeling because it isn't an academic context. What should Pizzolatto have done to cite Ligotti? Should he have had Rust hold up a copy of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race and say, "This guy Ligotti, he has it all figured out"? Should HBO have gone through a rights clearance process with Ligotti, getting official permission to use the text, even though it almost certainly qualifies as fair use under copyright law? What motivated Padgett and Davis to expose this use of text? Davis wrote that he sees it as a matter of the way writers treat other writers. Is it possible that Padgett and Davis realized they had an attention-worthy hot take about True Detective, a show that was a sensation, and they had an opportunity to show people that they'd been clever enough to catch the Ligotti allusions? (That's not a criticism; I actually am impressed.) In any case, Pizzolatto has not fallen out of favor after the plagiarism allegations, and season three of True Detective is in development.

Kairos 24.1