4 Famous Cases of Plagiarism

fizkes/iStock via Getty Images
fizkes/iStock via Getty Images

With New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's plagiarism scandal making headlines, we figured it was 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

Haley 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

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

Was 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.

This article was excerpted from the mental_floss book 'Forbidden Knowledge.'

Rare First Edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Sold for More Than $56,000

UBC Library Communications and Marketing, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
UBC Library Communications and Marketing, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Publishers weren't very optimistic about the future of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone when they printed it in 1997. Only 500 first edition copies were made, 300 of which were donated to libraries. As anyone who's been to a bookstore, movie theater, or theme park in the past two decades knows, that prediction couldn't have been further off.

Book one of the Harry Potter series spawned one of the most successful literary franchises of all time and earned millions for author J.K. Rowling. That means those rare first edition prints are exceedingly valuable today, and one of the most pristine copies ever discovered just sold for $56,500 at auction, BBC reports.

The sellers, an anonymous couple from Lancashire, England, had stored their copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone—along with a first edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets—in a code-locked briefcase for safekeeping. The plan wasn't to wait for the books to accrue value over time; originally, they had wanted to protect them and pass them down as family heirlooms.

The couple changed their minds after learning that another first edition copy of Philosopher's Stone had sold for $35,000. That turned out to be a smart move. By locking it away, they managed to preserve one of the best first edition copies of the book experts had seen. The book also contained two errors that made it an even more appealing item for collectors. Its value was placed between $30,700 to $37,000.

At the auction, however, bidders blew past those numbers. It sold for a winning bid of approximately $56,500. The buyer will end up paying $70,000 in total to cover additional fees and taxes.

That's a significant amount to pay for a book, but it's not even the highest figure that's been bid for the title. Earlier in 2019, a first-edition print of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with several errors sold for $90,000.

[h/t BBC]

When Bram Stoker Adapted Dracula for the Stage

Lyceum Theatre, London, 1897, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Lyceum Theatre, London, 1897, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For one of literature’s most enduring works, Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t receive much of an audience turnout when it was first adapted for the stage. The classic 1897 novel was transformed into a play by Stoker the same year it was published—and only two paying customers showed up to its debut.

In Stoker's defense, it wasn't supposed to be a grand production; it was a copyright reading of the script, which was slapped together by the author in a hurry so he could submit it to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for approval and licensing and retain the dramatic rights. The play, titled Dracula: or The Un-Dead, was held on May 18, 1897—eight days before the novel was released—and was only advertised for a half-hour before the performance began. Considering that the play had a prologue, five acts, and 40 scenes, it’s unclear whether an audience would have felt compelled to stay for the entire thing anyway.

The dramatic reading starred actress and pioneering suffragette Edith Craig as Mina Murray. Stoker had originally wanted the actor who helped inspired the character of Dracula—the dark, mysterious Henry Irving—to act alongside Murray. However, Irving reportedly refused to get involved, telling Stoker that the script for Dracula: or The Un-Dead was "dreadful."

The play faithfully adhered to the novel Dracula’s plot, although many of the epistolary work's lush details were condensed for time purposes. A series of character monologues help move the story forward; Greg Buzwell, who serves as curator for Printed Literary Sources, 1801–1914 at the British Library, points out that they might have sounded wooden because Stoker was better at scenic details than straight-up dialogue.

Following Dracula's stage debut, Stoker’s bloodthirsty Count didn’t reappear in theaters until 1924. However, the original play’s script offers a peek into Bram Stoker’s artistic process as he translated his characters from page to stage. You can check out the hodgepodge of personal handwriting and galley proofs over at the British Library’s website, which gives a great overview of the play's historic legacy.

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