A Tale as Old as Time

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January 2024

You Can't Catch Me, Chuck Berry, 1956

 

Come Together, The Beatles, 1969

Lately we seem to read about accusations of plagiarism every day. Farther down this page we will discuss a one hundred-year old case that strikes close to home and was discussed at many family gatherings during my lifetime. This might end up being a two-part episode as we are looking to acquire some additional backup data..

Borrowing stories is as old as written language.  The Cuneiform text of the Great Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh could be the basis for the story of Noah's ark. That cannot be plagiarism as the stories are similar but not the same. "A tale as old as time" is my way of borrowing from Beauty and the Beast.  Now that I have provided an attribution, Howard Ashman and I are good and he cannot sue me.

What constitutes plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the "act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author's work as one's own, as by not crediting the original author" (Dictionary.com, 2023) In other words, plagiarism is copying someone else's words or ideas and letting people think they are your own.  It's ok if you credit the original author with proper citations (as we did with the definition, above), and it's ok if you are expressing a similar idea in entirely your own words. It's not ok to out-and-out copy someone else's work without permission, even if you change a word or two.

It gets complicated when you are talking about art. In music, Chubby Checker's recording of The Twist (originally released by singer and songwriter Hank Ballard) is a near duplicate of the first recording. Alas, Ballard had sold the rights to the song for $5000 so it was fair game for Dick Clark to procure it in a shady deal and have a more acceptable (lighter skinned, no history of sexy lyrics) Chubby Checker perform it on American Band Stand for white audiences. The Beatles (Come Together)  and the Beach Boys (Surfin USA) both learned the hard way not to rip off Chuck Berry.

John Lennon caved to Chuck Berry's protest about Come Together and paid an unknown amount of restitution.  Here is the entire lyric that the plagiarism argument was over.  

Chuck Berry, You Can't Catch me, 1956: Here come a flat-top, he was movin' up with me

John Lennon (Beatles), Come Together, 1969: Here come ol' flat top, he come grooving up slowly

There is more to the Lennon/Berry kerfuffle, as there were some musical style influences between the two songs  But if Lennon didn't use the name "flat-top", this would not be a teachable plagiarism moment.

Plagiarism checkers on-line

You'd think that people would learn that the internet has built-in plagiarism checking. IEEE committee members are encouraged to check all submissions using the "Crosscheck" portal.  I have personally witnessed papers rejected for failing the crosscheck. But you have to be approved by a conference chair to get access to the software.

As a student, your homework often gets checked. Here in Tucson, Brenda was accused of plagiarizing herself in a paper when she copied two paragraphs from something she wrote for an earlier assignment.  Both had been submitted through the school's TurnItIn portal.  Apparently, if she had cited herself, it would have been fine. If you plagiarized before the internet grew up, you probably did not anticipate this use.

Grammarly's checker worked for free when we tested it, but it might throw up a paywall for a second try. For some reason plagiarism checkers don't seem to be able to check text by web page URL, so if you want to check a page at Microwaves101 you'll have to cut and paste the text into the checker and see what happens.

Speaking of Grammarly, who decided to name a grammar business something that looks like a typo?

Plagiarism in the recent news

Plagiarism in the past- a family legend...

Harry A. Franck

As some of you know, the Unknown Editor is the grandson of travel author Harry A. Franck (1881-1962).  Check out his website!.  HAF is only well known to a small bit of the world population; his books offer a American's contemporary viewpoint of societies long gone, like Panama during construction of the canal, Germany between the wars, China before communism took over, and Alaska during the Klondike gold rush. Speaking of China before communism, is anyone else sick of the commercials for "Shen Yun, China Before Communism?". It's kind of like "Cabaret, Germany before Nazism" would have been during the 1940s...

HAF's first book was "A Vagabond Journey around the World" published in 1911 by the Century Company. Harry took an epic trip around the world right after he graduated from University of Michigan, taking with him only a cheap Kodak camera and $104 earmarked for photographic expenses. He did odd jobs to support himself, including employment on various ships to move from continent to continent, as opposed to today's able-bodied "begpackers".  What ever happened to self-respect? Vagabond Journey is now in the public domain, you can download it here.

Warning: HAF was a bit of a racist, and used the "N" word and other pejoratives in his books.  Apparently that was OK in the early 20th century, but today it is not.  Apologies to all who are offended by his work.

Harry served a dough boy in WWI, and lied about his age in WWII to serve as a Major in his sixties in the Ninth Air Force. His final book was Winter Journey Through the Ninth, the lead up to the fall of Germany.  That book included sensitive information about accidentally bombing allies and so was blocked from publishing by the Army Air Corps for a decade, at which point the public had lost interest in war books. We ended up forming our own publishing house in 2000 just to get this book into print; if anyone wants a copy of it, we'll be happy to send you a free copy.

W. Somerset Maugham

W. (William) Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was at one point one of the best-known British fiction writers of the 20th century, known for plays, novels and short stories. By WWI he had penned eight successful plays and a half dozen novels. He was too old to pick up a gun in WWI but served as a spy for the British government. In 1919 he had caught tuberculosis, and while in a sanitorium in Scotland he wrote the novel The Moon and Sixpence, about a successful man who flees his family to become a painter (art, not houses). This book is public domain, you can download it here. 

Harry visits Marseille

      

Harry A Franck and W Somerset Maugham

So why do we bring up these two authors on a page about plagiarism?

Here's the Cliff notes version of chapter five of Vagabond Journey

  • Harry arrives in Marseille in early November with very little money and is hungry.
  • For a time, he stays at Asile de Nuit, an enterprise of a local monastery, where you can stay eight nights for free. It turns out it sucks there and he leaves on day five.
  • He cadges one large meal on board a British merchant ship by befriending the well-fed crew.
  • Out of work sailors hang out at Place Victor Gélu.  Someone he meets there takes him to find a "free breakfast."
  • He gets free bread at a place called Bouche de Pain, a city charity intended to reduce begging. We need more of those today!
  • The other half of the free breakfast is across town at a free soup kitchen, "Culliere de Soupe".  It turns out the soup is mostly salt water.
  • As he tries to get work on a ship that is eastbound (to the "Orient" in his words) he finds that the process is not a fair game.  It's not what you know, it's who you know.
  • Visiting the American consulate, they put him in touch with "Portuguese Joe" who is half African and corrupt, but can probably find him passage on a ship in exchange for a hefty part of the advanced payment. You can guess what pejorative Franck uses to describe him.
  • Portuguese Joe has a brother Pete who has a Caucasian wife. HAF ends up staying with them while waiting to sign onto a ship.
  • He does odd jobs for ships and fish markets to afford food.
  • Each time he is offered passage on a west-bound ship he turns it down.  Eventually Pete loses his patience and kicks him out of the boarding house.
  • He witnesses a murder but ducks out because he does not want to be a witness at the trial.  The murderer is eventually beheaded.
  • He tries to sleep in a box car in freezing weather with some other sailors and it does not go well.
  • He is hired with others to paint the bottom of a ship from Madagascar.
  • On the last day of November 1904 Harry signs on to the tramp steamer "Warwickshire" which is heading for Burma.

In Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence, the main character of the book is called Strickland.  In Chapter XLVII he is in Marseille.   The story is told in third person, and Strickand is joined by a "Captain Nichols". The story takes place "in the latter part of the winter", no year is given.

  • Strickland and Captain Nichols somehow find their way to Marseille with very little money and arrive hungry.
  • For a time, they stay at Asile de Nuit, an enterprise of a local monastery, where you can stay eight nights for free. It turns out it sucks there and they leave on day five.
  • They cadge one large meal on board a British merchant ship by befriending the well-fed crew.
  • Out of work sailors hang out at Place Victor Gélu.  From there, Captain Nichols takes Strickland him to find a "free breakfast."
  • They get free bread at a place called Bouche de Pain, a city charity intended to reduce begging. We need more of those today!
  • The other half of the free breakfast is across town at a free soup kitchen, "Culliere de Soupe".  It turns out the soup is mostly salt water.
  • As he tries to get work on a ship that is eastbound (to the "Orient" in his words) he finds that the process is not a fair game.  It's not what you know, it's who you know.
  • Visiting the American consulate, they put him in touch with Tough Bill who is half African and corrupt, but can probably find him passage on a ship in exchange for a hefty part of the advanced payment. Tough Bill has a Caucasian wife.
  • They do odd jobs as stevedores to afford food.
  • Each time they are offered passage on a west-bound ship they turn it down as they want to head east.  Eventually Tough Bill loses his patience and kicks them out of the boarding house.
  • They try to sleep outside in freezing weather and it does not go well.
  • They move into another flophouse owned by a "one-eyed Chinaman" where you could sleep on the floor for three sous. You can guess what perjorative Maugham uses to describe him.
  • They are hired with others to paint the bottom of a ship from Madagascar.
  • Strickland gets into a nasty bar fight with Tough Bill, who vows to kill him. Strickland soon signs on to an east-bound ship, headed for Australia.
  • Weirdly, the narrator of Moon and Sixpence tells us that he heard the story from Captain Nichols, and would not be surprised to hear that it might have been entirely fabricated!

There are hundreds of details that are different in the two works, but it is obvious that Maugham took a work of non-fiction and fictionalized it. That's OK. But what you can download on the internet, and the "first editions" that you will find in used bookstores, are actually the second edition of The Moon and Sixpence.  According to family lore, the actual first edition that was released in England in 1919 contained four pages of Harry A Frank's exact words, with just the names and pronouns changed. That's not OK.

HAF's publisher, the Century Company, discovered this just before Maugham's publisher, Doran, was about to release the book in the United States.  The two respective publishers got together over cocktails to discuss it, and The Moon and Sixpence with the plagiarized pages was pulled from book stores throughout England and destroyed. The offending chapter was rewritten (to the version described above) to make it more palatable to the Franck family - or at least to their publisher - and a new "first edition" was released.  Harry's wife, Grandma Rachel, used to talk about having seen a copy of that first first edition, with the word-for-word duplication, but somehow the family now longer owns that volume.

The most interesting part of all this comes from Maugham's own words, published much later in the 1935 preface to The Moon and Sixpence volume of his Collected Works.  He wrote

"For the experiences of Charles Strickland in Marseilles, I used some passages from an interesting book of travels by Harry Franck called A Vagabond Journey round [sic] the World. In a novel it would be absurd to put the source from which you obtain information, it would destroy the illusion you seek to create."

"It is quite a modern notion that the writer should pretend to invent everything he writes out of his own head. It is an absurd one...I would say that any writer is justified in taking from another whatever can profit him." 

Later in the same preface, Maugham describes reading an article that turned out to be word-for-word identical to his chapter in the Moon and Sixpence that "contained not only the passages I had myself used from Mr. Harry Franck's book, but others that I had written from my own observation."  Maugham's response was to offer congratulations to the writer of the article on his ingenuity. (and yes, we have copy of the book that contains this confession).

My Grandfather's works and papers are archived in the Special Collections Library at University of Michigan Ann Arbor. Some of it has been scanned and is posted on-line at https://findingaids.lib.umich.edu/catalog/umich-scl-franck

Looking to the Future

We certainly do not agree with Maugham's take on taking from the work of others.  But what about AI?  when you "train it", aren't you just setting it up for plagiarism? There are plenty of strong arguments on both sides of the AI issue, but the jury is still out.

Citations:

Dictionary.com. (2023). Plagiarism definition & usage examples. Dictionary.com. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/plagiarism

 

Check out the Unknown Editor's amazing archives when you are looking for a way to screw off for a couple of hours or more!

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