May we please have our description back?

Plagiarism has been in the air lately.  Its latest draft blows our way from a recent report in the Guardian about an award-winning poet whose award-winning poem (with many others) turns out to have been written by someone else.  And he wasn’t even the first prize-winning British copy-cat poet this year.

You might expect otherwise, but the latest victim, Canadian poet Colin Morton, is more puzzled than angered by what seems to be a growing trend. Why steal a poem, of all things? Well, there was a prize, but the imposter has had to give it back.  It has not been mentioned whether Morton now gets the prize money instead. He is probably disqualified by some technicality, but I doubt he will complain. Poets are like that.

And besides, in most cases when this sort of thing comes to light the author whose work was cribbed does not actually suffer as a consequence.  If anything, his stature is enhanced and his creative work receives public attention that might never have come to it otherwise. It was, after all, the poem’s previous lack of recognition that made it suitable for theft.  No more.  One can well imagine that it has been read more times during the  last two weeks than during the first 30 years following its publication.   Its author has become, for the moment at least, a celebrity among his peers

All of which I would not have thought worth commenting on if it had not been for a book we almost bought at about the same time.

The book was Les Jardins Precieux by Raymond Charmaison, a copy of which appeared at auction in Paris last week. It is a book we know well.  There is not much to it in the way of text, but the 8 large plates are a tour de force of pochoir color printing. It is a beautiful book that begs for display, or, unfortunately,  for sacrifice to the framer.  If you happen to be in possession of a copy of Hinck & Wall Catalogue # 54 (“Garden History,” copyright 2002) you will find a lengthier and even more enthusiastic description of it at item number 29.  For those who do not have a copy readily at hand I will reproduce our description here:

Edition limited to 300 numbered copies. Illustrated with eight stunning pochoir plates colored by Jean Saudé. Each plate presents a garden view focused on a special garden feature – a yew walk, an oil jar, a berceau, etc. – rendered in the richest colors of the pochoir technique: for example, the “Salle Verte” is a profound green hedge room with a yellow sky and a pool reflecting all the green variation as well as the vibrant color combinations of the flower plantings in the setting; the rose trellis is set against a star-lit, full-mooned midnight blue sky, again with pool reflections and with a rich parterre and border planting colors. These imaginary “Precious Gardens” are a testament to the power of the printed book as a vehicle for transporting the viewer/reader into the garden and a world of dreams. As Henri Régnier observes in the book’s gold-printed preface, “Il contient quelques feuilles avec des lignes and des couleurs, à peine les aurez vous considerées que vous serez transporté dans un pays de lumière et de soliel...” Pierre Corrard, novelist and poet, established his publishing house in 1912 and began working with such noted illustrators of the day as Georges Barbier, Charles Martin and A.E. Marty. After his death his wife, Nicole Corrard, resumed his publishing efforts under the name “Collection Pierre Corrard. Successive issues of “ALBUM DES MODES ET MANIERES D’AUJOURD’HUI and similar luxury productions made the house’s fame. Much as their luxurious pochoir renderings of fashion designs helped express the artistry of French haute couture during this period, so did the stunning plates of LES JARDINS PRÉCIEUX give graphic expression to the new artistic visions of the “jardins d’artiste.”

It is, I think I can say, a nice book. We had easily sold our first copy and so thought we might like to buy another.   Naturally, before making a bid, we checked on viaLibri to see if any other copies might already be for sale.  We were not surprised to discover that there were.  What did surprise us, however, was how familiar the descriptions sounded.   Ann Marie had written our catalogue description over 10 years ago, but she immediately recognized her own words and comments in the current listings she found online.

Ignoring the framed prints, there were, in fact, two different copies offered for sale, and each of them included significant chunks that had apparently been copied from our original description. But not all the same chunks. In neither case had we been consumed whole. Instead, we had served more as a banquet at which the two cataloguers had each picked out just those dishes that appealed to them the most.  Some other parts were, on the other hand, completely ignored.  Perhaps those were parts that we still needed to improve.  We were never told. But if you are curious to know the parts which did satisfy the standards of these particular copy cats you will find them in boldface in the excerpt above.

All this is nothing new.  I probably would not have thought about it further if I had not made this discovery on the same day that I read the story in the Guardian.   At first I looked at the obvious parallels and thought that, in some diluted way, our copied catalogue description might be like a stolen poem.  I quickly realized, however, that it is not.

In truth, no one can steal a poem.  Once you have written it and shown it to the world you can always put your name on it and claim it for your own.  And that seems to be true of almost any published work that later comes into the grasp of a plagiarist.  Once the author reclaims his authorship the plagiarist is readily exposed.  An author never loses the ability to republish or recite what is rightfully his.

But I now see that there is an exception…

Once a catalogue description has been copied online it is, for all intents and purposes, no longer available to its creator.  In our case, we can no longer use our description of Les Jardins Precieux.  How could we?  If we tried to catalogue another copy our potential customers would almost certainly do what we did: they would check first to see what other copies were available online.  Doing this they would find two others  described with the same words we were presenting as our own.  Two thirds of our description would appear to be plagiarized from other booksellers.  Any expertise or integrity we might previously have had in our customers eyes would be destroyed.  That is something we dare not risk.


As I said before, plagiarism is nothing new.   The internet has, however, significantly changed its dynamics, both for the good and the bad.  Much of the commentary about Morton’s stolen poem focused on this.   One the one hand,  the plagiarist is presumed to have found the poems (there were many) by searching online.  This is certainly where the lazy booksellers hunt and trap.  A quick cut and paste and it’s theirs.  They will not always be foolish enough to copy current online listings, but any unlisted item that can be found by Google is regarded as fair game, especially if it doesn’t show up on the first one or two pages of results.

On the other hand, the internet is an equally powerful tool for discovering that copying has taken place.  The first stolen poem discovered in the most recent case was recognized  by its author at an online poetry site.  After that, it only took an hour to find a dozen more.  Obviously, internet search tools make this sort of thing much harder to get away with.  It may mean the end of an era, at least as far as poetry plagiarism is concerned.

It is an encouraging thought, and it inevitably lead me to wonder whether internet search engines might not at some point also bring a similar benefit to antiquarian booksellers.  Unfortunately, I tend to think not, at least as things stand now.   The reason is that, in order for the plagiarists to be easily exposed, the original material that they copy must be easily found.  At present, booksellers do everything they can to keep their descriptions off of the internet once the books are sold.  They do this precisely because they do not want others to copy them.   But the plagiarists will find them anyway, especially if they also once appeared in printed catalogues, as much of the most useful specialist material has always done.  By hiding their intellectual property from easy online discovery the only thing they really accomplish is making it safer for plagiarists  to use their material without fear of exposure.  Hiding material from search engines will become an increasingly futile task as the age of Big Data rolls forward. In the long run, the only protection that will work will be one that makes is it harder and harder for plagiarism to go undetected when it occurs.

Most booksellers claim copyright for their catalogue contents, and a few even threaten legal action against violators.  The law may be on their side, but I have never heard of a bookseller actually taking a plagiarism claim to court.  Copyright is, it seems, a useless protection.

But I have an idea for something that might actually provide the protection that copyright alone does not.  As you might expect, it involves, once again, the internet.  If that is where the crimes are now being committed, that is where we should put our cops to work.  What I have in mind is a descriptive bibliographic database where booksellers can publish all their copyrighted descriptions in a way that clearly establishes priority and ownership.  It would be a public place where you can claim what is yours.  But it would also be much more than that.  If enough booksellers participated, an open searchable database of this nature would soon constitute a valuable bibliographic reference that collectors, librarians, students and scholars could use for all types of research.  It would make a useful permanent resource out of information that is now mostly ephemeral.  It would also be a magnet for anyone with an interest in old books.  An entry could be freely quoted, but only with complete and unambiguous attribution to the bookseller who was its source.    This wouldn’t make it impossible to plagiarize, but any booksellers who tried to use these descriptions as if they were their own would be soon exposed.  Once established, I would expect the incidence of plagiarism in book cataloguing to decline dramatically, at least among any booksellers who hoped to claim a reputation for expertise and integrity.

And if such a database existed today we would still be able to use our own words to describe our next copy of Les Jardins Precieux.

This is my suggestion.  I think it is a good idea.  As it happens, I also have the means to put such a thing in place, but only if I knew that there were others who agreed and were willing to join in.  I am now, as they say “all ears”.




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10 Responses to May we please have our description back?

  1. Sounds like a great idea! It is annoying even if you spend only half an hour researching a book, only to have someone copy it. I’ve had the same with images quite a lot, most of the time the sellers will remove the image on my request but if they don’t there’s basically nothing I can do. Watermarking does help with images though – but makes them ugly.

    It would just be nice if the sellers referenced the seller from whom they got the description, even just by name and date to give them a bit of a thanks.

    • Jim Hinck says:

      Hi Simon,

      You are right. It is annoying. If only that was all.

      And photos are another problem, as you note. It is a shame that the only way to protect them is to deface them. It reduces their value to the person might use them AND give you the credit that should be yours.


  2. Mike Park says:

    Hi Jim,
    Yes, a good idea I think. And whereas, at the moment, my catalogue descriptions are fairly basic, they will become less so in the near future as I start working on the rare book accumulation I have hidden away for the last thirty years !!
    And even now I do occasionally turn up a new fact on a relatively ordinary title.

    As ever, your plan needs a big response to make it really work. But the concept of a database of information is actually more exciting than the move against plagiarism.
    Best wishes

    • Jim Hinck says:

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for the comment. I would have replied sooner if I hadn’t been away on vacation.

      I totally agree that the plagiarism issue is secondary to other more important benefits that might come from the bibliographic database I proposed. For more on that, see my reply to Robert below. I don’t see the “big response” underway just yet. But I think it will come about eventually.

      And I can’t wait to see your 30-year cache when it finally comes out of hiding.


  3. Robert Brown (The Winchester Bookshop) says:

    Guess I agree with the drift of the article, but what booksellers really want is to be able to sell an item without all and sundry seeing the bibliographic detail for nowt. Most of us years ago used to spend a fortune on bibliographies of authors, usually very expensive, and other reference books, as well as investing our own years of knowledge built up in the trade. No wonder it used to be called the Clique. Once you put this description with a book for sale on ABE or elsewhere then the knowledge can be copied ad nauseam by any vendor. This is why I still prefer to sell a lot of stuff in the shop: at least my knowledge can’t be plagiarised there.

    • Jim Hinck says:


      (Sorry it took me so long to get your comment up. I’ve been away on vacation all week and not checking my blog.)

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad I have you with my drift. Personally, I don’t like to see my descriptions copied verbatim, but I am not at all bothered to have others reading and using what I write. It is stealing my words that bothers me; repeating my thoughts or learning from me what I have learned from others, which is almost everything, does not bother me at all.

      I think I probably have the same investment as you do in bibliographies and reference materials, but of all the publications that have found their way onto my shelves, it is the catalogues of other booksellers that have taught me the most. I am sure that I am not alone in this. Each generation of specialist bookseller passes its knowledge on to its successor by means of the catalogues it issues and the careful descriptions and commentaries they contain. Much of that knowledge was initially acquired from the catalogues of still older generations. It is a chain of accumulated knowledge that I have benefited from enormously and I feel a personal obligation to make whatever contribution I can to the continuation of that process. In no sense do I feel that I own the knowledge that has come to me from others. If I use that knowledge in a book description I don’t really feel that I have acquired, as a result, a special right to benefit from it.

      We should all be thankful that the generations of booksellers that came before us had to issue their catalogues in a form – ink on paper – that could not be erased with the click of a mouse. It is one of my great concerns for the future that the migration of antiquarian bookselling to the internet and other digital media will make ephemeral the kind of bibliographic discoveries that, in the past, would have been published in a more durable form. And it was really with that in mind, much more than the annoying problem of plagiarism, that my idea of an online bibliographic database was first conceived.

      I would really love to see a debate develop over this issue, on which I know there is much disagreement among booksellers.


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  5. Michael Sims says:

    Hi Jim
    I hope you don’t mind but I did not come across your post until some weeks after publication, so I have plagiarised your title in my blog, mentioned your post with a link and a suggestion that it be read and added some comments of my own in the hope of keeping your suggestion alive.
    Regards, Mike Sims (ABfaR)

  6. Juxtabook says:

    An excellent piece about a frustrating topic. I’ve commented on Mike’s piece as mentioned above. If someone did put together a database like you suggest I would certainly be interested.

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