Out of the West: Imitation can be the most expensive form of flattery

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WASHINGTON - First, since this is a column about plagiarism, let me acknowledge my source. What follows is directly inspired by a piece in the New York Times this week, dealing with the predicament of the historian Stephen Oates.

In 1978, Mr Oates published a best-selling biography of President Abraham Lincoln. The first rumblings of trouble came three years ago, when another historian delivered a paper pointing to some curious unacknowledged similarities between Mr Oates' work and a 1952 Lincoln biography by a Benjamin Thomas. The matter was taken to the American Historical Association, but the AHA's verdict was inconclusive. Now Mr Oates seems to have been nailed - and the method of his nailing should make every one of us who writes for a living tremble.

What got him was a 'plagiarism machine' invented by Walter Stewart and Ned Feder, a couple of scholarly bloodhounds who work out of the National Institute of Health in a Washington suburb. I had read before about the device, a computer that gobbles up thousands of documents at a time, identifying every occasion when 30 or more consecutive characters (about five average-length words) are identical.

Previously Mr Stewart and Mr Feder had confined themselves to exposing arcane scientific plagiarism. But when the Lincoln dispute came up, they couldn't resist the challenge. The computer whirred, and came up with 175 cases of 'possible plagiarism' by Mr Oates in his Lincoln biography - plus 340 more in two of his previous books for good measure. The implications of all this need no elaboration.

Plagiarism is as old as art, and by no means always frowned upon. Did not someone once say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? In some art forms, too, copying is all but inevitable.

Take music; there are but 12 notes in the scale; Handel and Verdi, the Beatles and Michael Jackson, have all had to cut their tunes from the same limited cloth - though that didn't save George Harrison from once having to pay dollars 587,000 (pounds 394,000) to make good the 'unknowing' similarities between his hit My Sweet Lord and a song by the Chiffons called He's So Fine. But the law of averages suggests a melodic combination of notes will crop up repeatedly over the years. For those, however, whose trade is in the English language with its 300,000 words, there is less excuse.

Journalists are in a particularly tricky position. Technically, hardly a thing we produce can escape the strictest definition of plagiarism. A clever theory devised by Columnist X, a lapidary interpretation of foreign policy put forward by Analyst Y, that perfect epithet for a man in the news used by Reporter Z: all are prone to find their way, without attribution, into our hastily assembled prose. Instant-access computerised data banks are an extra temptation. Just punch in two or three reference words - Clinton and McDonalds for instance - and every article about the President's eating habits over the past 10 years floats before you across the screen like magic.

Let me confess, too, that no one is more susceptible than a foreign correspondent, obliged to be an instant expert on everything under the sun. And nowhere is the risk greater than for British correspondents in the US, where lunchtime in Washington is deadline in London, where the language is the same, and where the domestic press is factually meticulous. Only a saint or a prodigy would do all his own legwork.

But authors have less excuse, which is why so many US works of non-fiction come with huge appendices of source notes, bibliographies and sundry other references. If not, then beware. As Mr Oates' current discomfiture shows, there is no statute of limitations where alleged plagiarism is concerned, and with people like the Feder/Stewart duo around, absolutely no guarantee of non-discovery. The trouble is, of course, how do you define and prove plagiarism: must the minutest borrowing be recorded? Must identical pithy phrases be shown - or are mere similar ideas and common interpretation evidence of sin? Must plagiarism be deliberate to qualify? And where do the laws of copyright come in?

The short answer is, there is no answer. For Mr Stewart (to plagiarise the New York Times) 'it should simply be a matter of manners' - in other words peer pressure. A scholar's most precious asset is his reputation. He should be a man whom nothing hurts more than the legendary put-down of Oscar Wilde, when Wilde was once moved to remark 'I wish I'd said that' of a colleague's especially pungent witticism. Which drew the devastating riposte: 'You will, Oscar, you will.'