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The art of copying

Dame Jane Goodall’s use of Wikipedia is part of a more decisive shift in authorial culture.

Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall pictured earlier this year in Nairobi (Photograph: Getty Image)

In the 21st century, a writer facing allegations of copying is in for a distressing time. The veteran naturalist Dame Jane Goodall certainly discovered this for herself several weeks ago, when she admitted that her forthcoming book Seeds of Hope lifts passages verbatim, without proper attribution, from several internet sources including Wikipedia. Goodall, known for her pioneering primatology work in the 1960s, has seen the publication date of her 25th book put back as well as finding herself the subject of intense media scrutiny.

I was immediately reminded of the literary self-destruction last year of another science author. The New Yorker's young star Jonah Lehrer’s  suicidal fabrication of Bob Dylan quotations for his book Imagine aroused the suspicions of the Tablet’s Michael Moynihan. Lehrer had already been caught out for "self-plagiarising" and inevitably he was forced to resign from his position at the New Yorker. In a similar move earlier this week, Moynihan turned his critical eye on Goodall, riffling through Seeds of Hope to uncover not only instances of borrowing but also her disturbing "embrace of dubious science". )
 
The kamikaze tendencies of Lehrer and Goodall, who both had big intellectual reputations, are bewildering at best. What drives such writers to run the risk of forever tainting their stellar careers? In a startling assessment of Lehrer, the New Statesman’s Yo Zushi found that Dylan’s actual sentiments and Lehrer’s pseudo-quotations were far from mismatched: "Lehrer could easily have used bits from real interviews to make his point," Zushi observed. "The perplexing thing is that he didn’t." )
 
It is unsatisfactory to dismiss Lehrer and Goodall as cases of creative burnout. What is particularly interesting about the two science writers, with Lehrer truly a child of the digital age and Goodall surely embedded in print culture, is that both have fallen victim to more powerful obsessions with intellectual property that run through 21st-century western society. Such extremes have been criticised by the journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who recalls being asked to "match" stories from other newspapers. "The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences," he damningly writes about the nature of news copy, "because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence." ).
 
Several years ago, the French novelist Michel Houllebecq was pushed into making a spirited defence after facing accusations that his book La carte et le territoire had lifted passages from Wikipedia. Instead of denial, Houllebecq turned round on his critics and pointed out that the whole ethos of his literary style was premised on incorporating the derivative into an act of transformative creation. "This approach, muddling real documents and fiction, has been used by many authors," Houellebecq argued. Creation and copying exist in a state of symbiosis.
 
The truth is that this century has been littered with such stories. As we invest ever more in the construction of copyright and the possession of intellectual property, violations of such emotionally charged boundaries have surged. But do authors deserve to see their careers ruined in the process? As Houllebecq suggests, artistic plagiarism can be imbued with aesthetic qualities. And ultimately, does it really matter if banal sources such as Wikipedia are plundered in the quest for creating something greater? Wikipedia itself is subject to the Creative Commons licence which demands proper attribution. But the open commonwealth of knowledge that fills the virtual world is often hazy, frequently messy. Who and what exactly were Goodall and Lehrer violating?
 
Attempts to distinguish "good" and "dishonourable" acts of literary poaching are missing the point. In the digital age, we are all plagiarists. There are also powerful geographical forces that point to a different future. We need only look a little further east. The gold rush fever that infects the Chinese cultural world has turned global attention onto a new set of artistic entrepreneurs. China has carried a long classical tradition of pedagogical copying. Enforced by the Maoist rejection of private ownership, this ideology has exploded in the reform era into outright "plagiarisms". This has been most persuasively expressed by the Chinese novelist Yu Hua, writing on the "copycat phenomenon".  Yu describes his encounter with a pirated edition of his seminal novel Brothers. “No, it’s not a pirated edition,” the street vendor informed him, “it’s a copycat”.
 
Whether or not we choose to accept the unceasing stream of ideas that inundate the creative landscape, China’s cultural scene heralds a new age of unabashed artistic emulation.