The Preternaturally Prolific Posner on Plagiarism

Dean Lawrence R. Velvel

Richard Posner has written another book.  The total mounts.  In the arithmetic of his output, his newest book must be some number in the mid or high 30s of the books he has authored.  One would be tempted to quip that he is on the book a year plan, except that sometimes he seems to write more than a book a year.  Most of his books, remarkably enough, have been written while he has had a full-time day job as a federal judge.  Even discounting the fact that he is plainly some sort of genius with an unparalleled work ethic, this massive output of books (plus hundreds upon hundreds of articles) speaks badly about other federal judges, who complain about their workloads and can barely keep up with them -- or can’t keep up with them.  It also speaks badly about law professors, whose day job, unlike Posner’s, supposedly includes writing books and articles.

Posner gets, and deserves, a world of plaudits for his output -- for his productivity, his breadth of interests and knowledge, his writing style, his views.  Occasionally, he also gets criticisms, even bitter criticism, perhaps stemming in part from what appears to be a reflexive conservatism and defense of the status quo, coupled with a habit of issuing ipse dixits, pronounciamentos, ex cathedra statements, call them what you will, that more liberal persons think totally without basis or significantly in error.  (He is not, on the other hand, immune to certain liberal sympathies, even if this is paradoxical.)

His latest book is entitled The Little Book of Plagiarism.  Unlike most of his books, which are long, hefty, this one is a little book.  The cover is only about 6½ inches by about 4¾ inches -- that is small.  I can’t remember reading or perusing a book so small since Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, which lived up to its name.  A full page of Posner’s new book has only 22 lines, each line is just a shade over three inches wide -- small, small -- and there are only 109 pages.  The book is a quick read, it should be needless to say.

I have read a couple of Posner’s previous books very thoroughly, and created relatively long outlines of questions about them, in preparation for taping one hour televisions interviews with him about the books.  Yet, to me, his newest book is the best one I’ve read.  It is very well written, covers a lot of ground notwithstanding its brevity, puts forth a lot of ideas one thinks sound, and has flashes of witty humor.  Perhaps, of course, my interest is the greater because the subject encompasses some matters explored here extensively in 2004 and 2005, and Posner appears to agree with a few of the ideas expounded here, e.g., that plagiarism is a species of fraud, and that one author accused of plagiarism may have had portions of the works he signed written by others -- who did the plagiarizing.

Posner’s book, it may be said, is in certain respects a lawyer’s book.  Not just in the sense that it was written by a lawyer, although in that sense too, of course.  But also in the sense that it deals with topics that are typical staples of legal thinking:  he discusses definitions; extensions of logic to a variety of fields, including music, painting, poetry and plays; similarities and differences between copyright infringement and plagiarism; plagiarism in titles; why given examples of plagiarism should or should not be punished heavily or meet with opprobrium.  Many of the topics he deals with are way out of my depth, e.g., the question of and issues surrounding Rubens signing paintings done by his students (Rembrandt did this too, one gathers), or Shakespeare using prior work as the basis for some of his plays.  But a few of the things he talks about, one does feel qualified to comment on, and sometimes one finds himself in sharp disagreement.

Oddly, some of the things Posner defends, at least in part, but that one disagrees with, are things that he is not guilty of.  Others are guilty of them, while he does the very thing that all ought to do.  Yet he defends the others.  One could consider this a paradox, or strange, or acclimatization to what is in this life, or defense of an unfortunate status quo.  Often I really don’t know which of these it may be.

Let us, then, consider a few of the points that Posner makes…

This entire February 5th article can be found at:

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Harvard Square Commentary, February 12, 2007