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Take a Few Notes From History

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stealing from one author, to borrow an old homily, is simple plagiarism. Stealing from two is research.

Whatever the definition, history and the recent past indicate that achieving public success often can be a steal.

Shakespeare is believed to have cribbed from Plutarch and Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe got his own back by stealing from Shakespeare. The carousel was completed by Ben Johnson who snitched from both.

And Adventist Ellen G. White threw his own honor and morality into question when it was learned in 1982 that he had plagiarized from at least five dozen sources.

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More specifically:

* Two years ago, presidential wanna-be Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) became a primary has-been after heavy traces of others were found in his speeches. Some phrases had been snitched from British Labor leader Neil Kinnock; others came from Robert Kennedy, who, as it turned out, actually had been speaking the words of Washington speech writer Adam Walinsky.

* Honest Abe might not have deserved that sobriquet. For the end of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“government of the people, by the people, for the people”) bore a striking resemblance to the words of Boston abolitionist Theodore Parker, who earlier described democracy as “government over all the people, by all the people and for the sake of all.”

* In 1946, Winston Churchill decreed that Communism had raised “an iron curtain” across Europe. Two years earlier, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels used the same phrase to describe a global political division.

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* “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Ask not if John F. Kennedy created that instruction. Forty years earlier, President Warren G. Harding suggested: “Think more of what you can do for your government than of what your government can do for you.”

* Alex Haley paid up for salting “Roots” with the uncredited writings of Harold Courlander; The Chiffons earned $400,000 after claiming in court that “My Sweet Lord,” a song by Beatle George Harrison, bore a striking musical resemblance to their tune, “He’s So Fine”; and columnist Art Buchwald won a court verdict against Eddie Murphy and Paramount for allegedly stealing one of his stories to produce the film “Coming to America.”

* Even “Why We Can’t Wait,” a report of the Birmingham, Ala., riots by Martin Luther King Jr., wasn’t written by King. It was ghosted by Al Ducket, Jackie Robinson’s biographer.

The point is clear: Good writers borrow but great writers steal.

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Or did T. S. Eliot say that?


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