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The Real Plagiarism Scandal

In the midst of all this talk about Kaavya Viswanathan, David Leonhardt over at the New York Times has pointed out that the real significant plagiarism scandal has fallen under everyone's radar.

In today's article, Rule No. 35: Reread Rule on Integrity, Leonhardt reminds everyone about William J. Swanson, the chief executive of Raytheon. For many years, Swanson has given away a book titled "Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management," a list of "common-sense maxims" about doing well and doing right in the business world. But last month, engineer Carl Durrenberger discovered that about half of the maxims were lifted almost verbatim from a 1944 work by W. J. King titled "The Unwritten Laws of Engineering." Durrenberger blogged about this on April 20th, and the response from corporate America has been almost nil. Swanson has shrugged it off, and Raytheon is essentially standing behind him.

No matter what else we may say about Viswanathan, the fact is that she is a 19-year-old college sophomore. In our society, we tend to expect that younger people will make mistakes and then learn from then. I imagine that Viswanathan has learned some valuable lessons for the future, and I wouldn't be surprised if her experience leads her to become a better person for it.

But where's the outcry about Swanson? As Leonhardt points out, this man runs an 80,000-employee company and is supposed to be a leader. And a 57-year-old should presumably have better judgment than a 19-year-old. Shouldn't he admit his mistake and take steps to see that credit goes where credit is due?

At the very least, it does seem unfair that Viswanathan is undergoing such a public pillorying at the same time that Swanson's plagiarism is essentially being ignored.


The two problems with the Swanson case are:

- W.J. King or his heirs may not be aware of the plagiarism, and
- the book may be so long out of print that even if the rights haven't reverted to the copyright holder, the publisher may not give a damn.

Either way, there probably isn't anyone in a position to bring a suit against a big company like them. This differs significantly from the Viswanathan case, in which the author and publisher of the plagiarized book are still commercially interested in their book, and Viswanathan is not a deep-pocket corporation with Crane, Poole & Schmidt under retainer.
On the other hand Swanson has deep pockets, so once the copyright holder becomes aware of the violation, action may occur...
The two things missing from the Swanson case are:

1. Money (it's a give-away book)
2. Schadenfreude (he was already rich and powerful--the book did nothing to change that)

Yes, what he did was heinous too, but it's hard to get worked up about a freebie book of feel-good business aphorisms.
I agree, with the first point, but my second point would be:

2. One is a old man, the other a young pretty woman. Who would the media focus on, given it's recent trend of mass-distraction? That's why I see this taking precedence over the other.
Actually, I very much disagreed with McGrory's column in yesterday's Globe saying essentially the same as MAB says here. Because when a CEO "publishes" a book -- and it was mostly used as a vanity-press sort of thing, given out to business friends etc. originally and not for money-making -- of rules for business, I don't expect that they're in fact original in any way, just a list of things he goes by. He could have published the Beatitudes, for all I care, and it would have been interesting as a statement of how he believes he has succeeded in business, not as a set of original aphorisms. Yes, he should have given proper credit, but I suspect that the original use of the booklet was one where it didn't really matter, and then it got away from As to the concern that he took credit inappropriately: yes, he certainly did. On the other hand, did he take credit for coining the aphorisms, or for having his career run by them? And was there any commentary that he added to what King originally wrote? Did he have the newspapers six months ago saying that "his" work was worth a $500,000 advance on royalties?

On the other hand, when someone publishes a work of fiction, I assume every word, character, and plot point is wholly the work of the author. There's a greater betrayal of me as a reader when it's a work of fiction that's been plagiarized. Particularly when the author claims to be writing from her own experience as e.g. an Indian-American middle class smart girl trying to get into Harvard. And particularly when there's no cause for it -- it's hard to write nonfiction without using words that someone else has used before, particularly if you're not really covering new ground (as most nonfiction doesn't) but fiction? Come on.

McGrory's column in yesterday's Globe saying essentially the same as MAB says here

Did Leonhardt plagiarize from McGrory? Tsk, tsk.
This reminds me of an NPR interview I heard awhile back with a former IRS attack dog who'd written a book about the Service's collection practices. He said outright--and defended--going after the middle-class homeowner who defaulted on his taxes but said he often gave a pass to large corporations because if you damaged them, you might hurt the little guys who worked for them.

Which to me is a completely spurious argument--if you don't go after the corporations they'll know it, and just violate the tax laws that much more. But I wonder if some similar mindset is also at work here (on top of the obvious deep pockets reasons).
I think the main reason, as mentioned above, is that it's a free book, so what are you going to do? Sue him for the profits he hasn't made? You could try arguing that people would buy the older book if Swanson wasn't giving it away, but that's obviously not true, and I'm sure his lawyers could prove it in an hour (actually only 5 minutes, but they round up).

I think people have it backwards: it's old hat that old, rich white men are moral degenerates. The guy's a defense contractor CEO, he pretty much defines the image of the good-old-boy, pork-barrel backroom dealer. 19 year old college students, though, shouldn't have sunken to that level of moral decline. They should at least wait until grad school.
You're missing one point in your analysis. King could sue for punitive damages, and not just statutory damages. And the fact is that King's lawyers could say that Swanson could have given away copies of King's book that he himself had bought, rather than printing his own version. So there's still a very strong case to sue for the profits he hasn't made.

December 2016

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