From the mail bag: Stop thief!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007 at 5:53 PM

We’re always excited to hear about interesting uses of Google Book Search, and in this edition of “from the mail bag,” we check in with Jamie from China, who writes:
I typically receive GRE/SAT/TOEFL test preparation manuscripts from local authors. Passages by the native Chinese speaker often sound strikingly natural in English. To be sure, I run a quick search for the complete phrase in Google Book Search. When exact hits come back with Barron's, Princeton Review, or Kaplan, we know to contact our author and revise accordingly.

Although you may have already read about this phenomenon in a well-publicized Slate article from a couple of months back, it may come as news to some folks. In short, Jamie and others are taking advantage of the fact that you can search for any sentence across our wide index of books to see how it’s been used in the past. If, as in Jamie’s case, a piece of work sounds too good to be true, why not plug it in to Google Book Search to see if the author was feeling particularly “inspired” by some other muse?

Paul Collins, the Slate journalist, points out that literary plagiarism has, in fact, a fairly distinguished history. For example, Lawrence Sterne pulled off a clever literary heist at the beginning of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, in which he asks, “Are we forever to be twisting, and untwisting the same rope?” This appeal for literary innovation was itself lifted almost directly from Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. Just follow the links to see for yourself!

Incidentally, Sterne was quite a literary innovator, and I strongly suggest leafing through Tristram Shandy. It’s such an influential work that you might even be able to find a few phrases that latter-day practitioners of the art of plagiarism have stolen -- artistically, of course.


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