Copyright Absurdity: Reagan Biographer Gets Paraphrased, Demands $25 Million

This week in preposterous legal threats


…and we can't build our dreams/on suspicious miiiiiinds…
Simon & Schuster

Craig Shirley, the author of two books on Ronald Reagan, has sicced his lawyer on Rick Perlstein, whose '70s history The Invisible Bridge was published by Simon & Schuster this week. Shirley's attorney is demanding that the publisher pulp Perlstein's book, pay $25 million in damages, and take out ads apologizing to Shirley in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, The Nation, The New Republic, Slate, and Salon.

What provoked these demands? Basically, the 810 pages of The Invisible Bridge include some information that can also be found in Shirley's book Reagan's Revolution, and in some places Perlstein paraphrases Shirley. Shirley thinks this constitutes copyright infringement. If you'd like to read the bill of particulars, Dave Weigel has posted the attorney's letters and Simon & Schuster's response at Slate, and Shirley himself has posted a litany of alleged thefts on his website.

In the first item on the latter list, the two books do sound alike: Describing the red-light district in Kansas City, Perlstein echoes not just the info in Shirley's text but Shirley's words "festooned" and "smut peddlers." After that, though, we essentially get a list of places where the two writers cited the same facts. Facts are not copyrightable, and one pair of similar sentences does not an infringement make. I don't see a dollar's worth of damages here, let alone 25 million.

Perlstein has posted his source notes online, and they include dozens of citations to Shirley's book, often with direct links to the pages he's drawing on. So it's not as though he's trying to conceal where those facts were found. Shirley is upset that the references do not also appear in the physical text, but the book tells readers exactly where to find them. The worst you can say is that there are a few spots where the notes call Shirley's book "The Reagan Revolution" instead of "Reagan's Revolution." I believe the legal term for such an error is "a typo."

I have both praised and criticized Perlstein's writing in the past, and I'm writing a review of The Invisible Bridge which will both praise and criticize it some more. Mostly praise—I think it's a good book. But where I do find fault with it, I'll take issue with its arguments, not with the fact that it incorporates information from a text the author cites repeatedly.

NEXT: A.M. Links: Incumbents Win on Primary Tuesday, John Kerry Calls For "Bigger" Approach During Temporary Gaza Ceasefire, San Antonio Spurs Hire Becky Hammon

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  1. I blame Bush.

  2. Abolish IP, problem solved.

    1. Exactly. Then we wouldn’t have any books for people to rip off. Problem solved.


  4. And don’t call me Shirley.

    1. Oh no, you just quoted Airplane! That means you owe David Zucker $25 million!

  5. Abolish IP, problem solved.

    [Now, how much do I owe An Innocent Man?]

  6. I think if you look through my comment history, you will find numerous examples of my use of the words “and”, “the”, “it’s” and “that”, the usage of which words this posting gratuitously infringes upon the intellectual property rights inherent within. You shall be hearing from my lawyers.

    P.S.: To the extent that this post ineluctably summons to mind the term “shit weasel”, I shall add that to the damages.

  7. Who wouldn’t do this? It’s way easier than writing a whole book!

  8. If you’d like to read the bill of particulars, Dave Weigel has posted the attorney’s letters and Simon & Schuster’s response at Slate

    Wiegel? That rat-bastard still owes me money!

  9. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I click on a Wiegel link!

  10. Copyright is supposed to protect literary expression, not ideas. There are only so many ways you can say “festooned with red, white, & blue bunting”, so you might as well use the same words in that case. What, should it’ve said, “bedecked with white, blue, & red bunting”? “Red, white, & blue” is the common phrase everyone knows, might as well be a single word.

    You want to protect this? Don’t publish, make it a trade secret!

  11. Ha, lookit…..stories/4/

    They’re both “infringing” on CBS News!

  12. “If you’d like to read the bill of particulars, Dave Weigel has posted the attorney’s letters and Simon & Schuster’s response at Slate.”

    I don’t agree with people being sued for linking to David Weigel, but I understand the thinking behind it.

  13. Perhaps Perlstein could have avoided this if he had included footnotes and a bibliography. Not including a single footnote or citation in a book like this, as if all of the information is common knowledge or drawn from memory, is pathetic.

    1. The book has a note on sources at the end that directs readers to the endnotes on his website. Personally, I think it would have been good to include them in the physical text as well, if only because that website won’t necessarily be there in the future. But it’s false to suggest that they don’t exist or that the book pretends “all of the information is common knowledge or drawn from memory.”

    2. Yes!^ If you don’t want to include footnotes and a bibliography to make your work more professional, then for fuck’s sake do it to protect yourself!

      It’s hard for people to accuse you of stealing when you’ve listed their names and their works in your book.

      Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.

  14. Cavanaugh weighs in:…..-cavanaugh

    1. Everyone here should read that post on The Corner. I don’t know if Perlstein is guilty of plagiarism. But it took about two minutes on Google to find out he is one of the most repulsive pieces of shit on the left, and that’s saying something.

      Endnotes? Bibliography? Howard Zinn didn’t need them when he spoke the truth to power. Why should Perlstein use them?

  15. Um, first prove the ‘extent of your damages’ and let’s go from there…

    Case closed?

    An ‘artist’ sucked $700 out of me for having a copy of a Photoshopped version of one of his works copied onto my web page.

    His real damages… Zero. My real profits/benefits from having the copy? Zero. But he’s got a law firm that tracks down folks like me.

    Beware the Moochers.

  16. So I see that Perlstein is a left-wing douchbag who generally believes that other people’s money and property constitute theft from the masses, to be remedied by government coercion.

    No way a guy like that would steal anything.

  17. And for the record, taking this:

    ‘Even its ‘red light’ district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed in the windows of several smut peddlers.’

    And turning it into this:

    The city’s anemic red-light district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting; several of the smut peddlers featured dancers in elephant costume in their windows.'”

    is plagiarism at any academic institution. Just sayin’.

    Thanks to…..mf7Ui0u.99

  18. I just checked out Perlstein’s site, where he allegedly has the notes and sources for his book.

    Are you fucking kidding me????? What a goddamn clusterfuck that is.

    So when we end I.P are we also going to end all standards for non-fiction works as well?

    We really will be Somalia, I guess.

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