Mark Twain once joked that “whenever a copyright law is to be made or altered, then the idiots assemble.” A lesser-known fact of Twain’s life is that he lobbied vigorously for stronger copyright protections, vexed by piracy of his work both at home and abroad. “They talk handsomely about the literature of the land,” Twain told a House committee in 1906. “And in the midst of their enthusiasm, they turn around and do what they can to discourage it.”
The “they” Twain referred to were the laws and lawmakers themselves. And in the United States, copyright law is administered by the Copyright Office, which is a part of the Library of Congress. So it’s no small irony then that a new book about Mark Twain, “co-authored by” the Library of Congress, appears to contain text copied from at least five different sources, all with no attribution.
An independent scholar, Kevin Mac Donnell, whose sleuthing I’ve written about before, announced earlier this month on a Mark Twain web forum that he uncovered a hefty amount of plagiarism in Mark Twain’s America, an illustrated biography by Harry Katz and the Library of Congress, and published by Little, Brown.
In his review of the book, Mac Donnell noted that its chronology of Twain’s life seemed to be lifted without attribution from Mark Twain A to Z, a reference book by R. Kent Rasmussen. Mac Donnell counted over 400 lines of prose that match Rasmussen’s text almost word for word. More scholars have since joined Mac Donnell on the forum in scrutinizing Mark Twain’s America, and they now say the text includes over 100 factual errors as well.