How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Plagiarize the Ways...

by Tom Congalton

Tuesday, Mar 04, 2008

Plagiarize. To steal or purloin and pass off as one's own (ideas, writings, etc., of another). - Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1956 edition)

Well maybe plagiarize is too strong a term. Borrow? Appropriate?

If one were to read the proprietary discussion group of the members of the Antiquarian Booksellers of Association of America (ABAA), plagiarization would be one of the most avidly discussed topics, ranking right behind (in order of frequency): conspiracy theories, cocktail recipes, personal digestive issues, and the advisability, or lack thereof, of impeaching the current American presidential administration.

At any rate, little is more likely to rouse the ire of an ABAA member, or other professional booksellers, as it is to discover that another bookseller has appropriated a substantial portion of one's own magisterially composed book descriptions, and presented it as their own on a public forum, usually on an online listing site or eBay.

Professional booksellers have always been aware of, and willing to borrow from the scholarship of their fellows. Indeed in the mid-19th century, a judge found for the author and bookseller James Camden Hotten when he sought an injunction against another bookseller, Thomas Arthur, from copying his catalogue descriptions. Now however, the prevalence of information provided by the Internet has provided ample temptation to the harried bookseller to "autofill" information that he or she might not have discovered through his or her own diligence and research.

Booksellers apparently aren't alone. An article in the March 2007 issue of the Maine Antiques Digest, "Who Owns the Descriptions in Auction Catalogs?" by David Hewett explores a recent lawsuit brought by the Heritage Galleries auction house against another auction house, Superior Galleries, reputedly for copying lot descriptions to the letter.

If the varied responses of ABAA members to this behavior are typical, they run the gamut from righteous indignation, onwards to high dudgeon, and further beyond to threats of legal action, or the offer of the infliction of bodily harm.

A related phenomenon is the appropriation of bibliographic information. Who hasn't been tempted to cite bibliographic references that are invoked by reliable colleagues, but which come from references that one doesn't happen to have in one's own library, or which happen to be out of reach at the moment? My own bibliographic researches, never particularly profound, have suffered recently when we decided to move a substantial portion of my reference library to another room two floors above my office. One could argue, successfully, no doubt, that I needed the exercise, and indeed the spirit is willing, but the flesh, alas, is weak (if regrettably, also alas, abundant).

And while one could successfully dispute the advisability of copying and pasting standard information such as the author, title, or publisher of a book, one would be hard pressed to dispute the legality of such activities. Is it such a further leap for one to similarly cite bibliographical references? Rather than citing Howes, US-iana, can't I just cite William Reese citing Howes, US-iana?

Maybe not if you asked William Reese.

My favorite example of appropriation is the relatively new phenomenon of image theft. I recently was pointed to a self-promotional video posted by another ABAA bookseller on YouTube. In the video, which presented the bookseller's reputation in the trade as perhaps a wee bit grander than his fellows might affirm, I was startled to see several images of specific copies of rare books purportedly in his inventory, which just coincidentally, happened also to be in mine, the same images of which we had posted online.

My subsequent righteous indignation, high dudgeon, threats of legal action and offers of bodily harm, when directed towards the offending dealer resulted in a promise to remove the images, and an unlikely string of lame excuses, which, if boiled down to their essence might best be described as the bookselling equivalent of "the dog ate my homework," or to update the old excuse, "the dog put your images on YouTube."

Bad Dog.

The Internet has provided a unique opportunity to indulge in new combinations of legalization and bibliographical appropriations. For instance, when my business first began to post images, we experimented, very briefly, with using a "virtual watermark" on the posted images of our books — a ghostly "BTC" (for "Between the Covers," obviously) was superimposed on the front board or dustjacket. In one case, several years later we were surprised when not one, but two ABAA colleagues described for sale copies of a well-known first edition as being in "the variant dustjacket without BTC printed on the front panel." Gee, Mom, we're a point of issue!

At any rate, I imagine this is a phenomenon that we will see much more of in the future, and I look forward with delight to plagiarizing the published conclusions of those more intent and scholarly upon the subject.

Note: several anecdotes for this article were appropriated from other sources without attribution, or additional verification. But, what the hell...

This article first appeared in the December 2007/January 2008 issue of Rare Book Review.