Ann Coulter and plagiarism by the numbers

Her publisher says it's the word count that matters.

Published July 7, 2006 4:14PM (EDT)

Notice to would-be Random House authors: Plagiarism's fine, so long as you keep the word count down.

As the New York Post reported over the weekend, a plagiarism expert has found three passages in Ann Coulter's "Godless" that appear to have been lifted pretty much word-for-word from other sources: a 24-word bit from the San Francisco Chronicle, a 25-word passage from a Planned Parenthood publication and a 33-word chunk from a newspaper in Portland, Maine.

Is there a problem here? Apparently not if you're Crown Forum, the conservative imprint from Crown Publishing, which is in turn part of Random House. Crown's Steve Ross tells the Post that the plagiarism charges involving "Godless" are "as trivial and meritless as they are irresponsible."

It's not that they're false, see; neither Crown nor Coulter has claimed that. It's just that there isn't enough plagiarism in "Godless" to cause Crown any concern, at least not when the word count is weighed against the profits it's making from the book. "The number of words used by our author in these snippets is so minimal that there is no requirement for attribution," Ross says.

It seems that the Post didn't ask, so we will: At Random House, how many words can an author steal before the theft counts as plagiarism? If 24 or 25 or 33 words isn't enough, what is?

It's like we always say: "We've already established that you're a whore, madam. Now we're just dickering over the price." Actually, we don't always say that. Those are somebody else's words. But since there are only 15 of them, we're apparently entitled to claim them as our own.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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