Words, Just words: 4 Famous cases of Plagiarism

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With the recent Obama plagiarism flap dominating the media, we figured it'd be a good time to revisit a few other famous cases of word borrowing.

1. Martin Luther King Jr: I Heard a Dream (Which Subsequently Became My Dream)

When writing about the Lord God Almighty, one is generally well advised not to break the eighth commandment, but Martin Luther King Jr. managed to turn out pretty well in spite of his tendency to borrow others' words without attribution. King received a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955 on the strength of a dissertation comparing the theologians Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Weiman. In a 1989"“1990 review, though, the university discovered that King had plagiarized about a third of his thesis from a previous student's dissertation. And although it was closer to liberal adaptation than outright plagiarism, King's seminal "I Have a Dream" speech was, well, let's say "inspired by" a speech that an African American preacher named Archibald Carey Jr. gave to the Republican National Convention in 1952.

2. Alex Haley and the Roots of Roots

a.roots.jpgHaley initially gained prominence for being the "as told to" author behind The Autobiography of Malcolm X and then went on to publish the epic Roots: The Saga of an American Family in 1976, supposedly a true story that traced Haley's ancestry back to an African man, Kunta Kinte. Haley won a Pulitzer the next year, and the book was made into a wildly popular miniseries. After the book's publication, though, Haley admitted that he made up large swaths of the Roots story and, in a further embarrassment, was sued by author Harold Courlander for plagiarism. Haley acknowledged
lifting (accidentally, he claimed) three paragraphs from Courlander's work and settled the suit out of court.

3. Stendhal: The Politician's Plagiarist

a.sten.jpg When asked by Oprah Winfrey about his favorite book during the 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore cited Stendhal's The Red and the Black, a novel set in post-Napoleonic France. The book's protagonist, Julien Sorel, is an ambitious young womanizer who adopts the hypocrisy of his time in order to move up in the world. In his own time, Stendhal, whose real name was Henri Beyle, was most famous not for his novels, but for his books about art and travel. In one, The Lives of Haydn, Mozart and Metastasio, Stendhal plagiarized extensively from two previous biographies. Confronted with overwhelming evidence of theft, Stendhal added forgery to the list of his literary crimes, manufacturing correspondence in the hopes of exonerating himself.

4. John Milton: In His Own Words

a.milton.jpgWas the half-blind creator of Paradise Lost a plagiarist? Well, no. But William Lauder, an 18th-century scholar, sure wanted you to think so. Bitter about his professional failures, Lauder published several essays in 1747 claiming to "prove" that Milton had stolen almost all of Paradise Lost from various 17th-century poets. One problem, though. Lauder had forged the poems, interpolating text from Paradise Lost into the original documents. For a while, many (including the great Samuel Johnson) supported Lauder, but it soon became clear by studying extant copies of the old poems that Lauder, not Milton, was the cheat. And cheating, at least in this case, didn't pay: Exiled to the West Indies, Lauder died an impoverished shopkeeper.

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February 19, 2008 - 4:55am
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