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Another Da Vinci Code Plagiarism Case?

Don’t worry: This plagiarism case doesn’t involve Dan Brown directly; it’s a semantic tussle between two of his harsher critics. Language Log, one of the more popular linguistics blogs out there, picks up on some striking similarities in language between posts Geoff Pullum wrote in 2004 and 2005 and a review in this week’s MacLean’s by Mark Steyn. Specifically, one of Steyn’s lines (“Novelist Dan Brown staggered through the formulaic splendour of his opening sentence”) is a barely distorted echo of the title of one of Pullum’s posts mixed with a bit of Brown (“Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence”).

Well, is that plagiarism? Language Log contributor Mark Liberman observes that Steyn “took the terminology, most of the basic ideas, all of his three examples (in order), a couple of turns of phrase, and his punch line” from Pullum, and the slight acknowledgment Pullum gets in the piece covers none of that material. While Steyn’s prose might pass a copyright law test, Liberman suggests that it might not hold up under tighter ethical scrutiny. One of the key planks in the argument comes from Jonathan Baron’s blog item on “plagiarism as probalistic harm,” which declares: “Plagiarism exists only as part of a system in which people are rewarded for their work… When people pass off someone else’s work as their own, they butt into the queue. This weakens the system and makes it less trustworthy.”

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