Archive for Language and the law

Patchwriting by Rick Perlstein (and Craig Shirley)

Alexandra Alter, "Reagan Book Sets Off Debate", NYT 8/4/2014:

Mr. Perlstein’s new 856-page book, “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” which comes out Tuesday, is proving to be almost as divisive as Reagan himself. It has drawn both strong reviews from prominent book critics, and sharp criticism from some scholars and commentators who accuse Mr. Perlstein of sloppy scholarship, improper attribution and plagiarism.

The most serious accusations come from a fellow Reagan historian, Craig Shirley, who said that Mr. Perlstein plagiarized several passages from Mr. Shirley’s 2004 book, “Reagan’s Revolution,” and used Mr. Shirley’s research numerous times without proper attribution.

In two letters to Mr. Perlstein’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, Mr. Shirley’s lawyer, Chris Ashby, cited 19 instances of duplicated language and inadequate attribution, and demanded $25 million in damages, a public apology, revised digital editions and the destruction of all physical copies of the book. Mr. Shirley said he has since tallied close to 50 instances where his work was used without credit.

The controversy has three different parts: Perlstein's use of online notes instead of notes within the published book; the ethical status of Perlstein's use of material from Shirley's book, with or without attribution; and the legal status of that usage.  The most problematic of the accusations seem to be instances of what has been called "patchwriting", and that's the aspect of the controversy that I want to focus on.

My conclusion will be that Perlstein did indeed take idea-combinations and associated word-choices and word-sequences from Shirley; and he sometimes did this without specific attribution; but what he did seems to be within the normal boundaries of research methods for narrative histories, as indicated by the fact that Shirley did quite similar things with his own sources.

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Dead and alive: metaphors for (dis)obeying the law

Many Language Log readers are probably aware of the food scandal at OSI in Shanghai, the implications of which have spread throughout much of East Asia, to parts of Southeast Asia, and even beyond, wherever shipments of Chinese meat products have reached.

In reporting this, CNBC made the following point:

"The rules are dead, and people are alive, that's simple," a worker said in the report. "Dead rules and alive people" is commonly used in China to indicate corners have been cut. OSI did not immediately respond to the news report.

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Supreme Court steps away from fetishization of dictionaries, strikes a blow for usage and practice

Below is a guest post by Jason Merchant:


Yesterday, the US Supreme Court announced its decision in the case NLRB v. Noel Canning, a case that turns on the interpretation of the Recess Appointments clause, Art. II sec. 2, cl. 3 of the US Constitution:

"The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session."

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"Redskins" ruled disparaging

Ken Belson, "U.S. Patent Office Cancels Redskins Trademark Registration", NYT 6/18/2014:

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, part of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, canceled the trademark registration of the name Redskins for use in connection with a professional football team, saying that “a substantial composite of Native Americans found the term Redskins to be disparaging.”

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No "linguistics" on Indiana license plates

In Indiana, a police officer successfully sued the Bureau of Motor Vehicles for the right to have a vanity license plate reading "0INK." According to the lawsuit, the message on the officer's license plate represents "an ironic statement of pride in his profession," but when he applied for a renewal his choice was rejected for impropriety. As the Indianapolis Star explains, a superior court judge has ruled that "the standards the BMV used to assess the appropriateness of personalized license plates were so vague that they violated the First Amendment." The lawsuit has also exposed the guidelines that the Indiana BMV is supposed to follow in determining if a vanity plate is objectionable. One of the big no-no's? "Linguistics"!

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Is a fish a "tangible object"?

Or more precisely, is a fish a "tangible object" in the sense that throwing undersized fish overboard would fall within the purview of 18 U.S.C. § 1519, which states that

Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

John Brewer alerts us to the fact that the Supreme Court has recently agreed to review the holding of a lower court that the noun phrase "'tangible object,' as § 1519 uses that term, unambiguously applies to fish.”

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Affirmative action

Yesterday a journalist asked me about the background of the term "affirmative action". I turned up a few things like this, from a (2006 reprint of a) 1954 book French Administrative Law and the Common-Law World:

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"We're updating our novel-length Terms of Service?"

Yesterday I got an email from airbnb.com, under the heading "We're updating our Terms of Service". It starts this way:

Hi Mark,

Our business and our community have grown, so we are updating our Terms of Service, Host Guarantee Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy. These changes will be effective for all users on April 30, 2014. When you use our site on or after that day, we will ask you to agree to the new terms.

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Phrase-hoarding

What do the following phrases or sayings have in common?

  • first-year experience
  • fast-track MBA
  • be the difference
  • cure violence
  • student life
  • students with diabetes
  • one course at a time
  • touched by a nurse
  • we're conquering cancer
  • working toward a world without cancer
  • imagination beyond measure
  • tomorrow starts here

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Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?

Whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect is a subject that we have touched upon many times on Language Log, e.g., "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (see especially the remarks in the second half of the original post) and "English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage ."

But now it has become a hot-button issue in China, especially in Hong Kong, where the government's Education Bureau recently made a monumental gaffe by declaring that Cantonese was not an official language of the Special Administrative Region:  "Education Bureau rapped over Cantonese 'not an official language' gaffe:  Claim Cantonese 'not an official language' leaves public lost for words."

Here's an article in Chinese on the uproar that followed the announcement of the Education Bureau that Cantonese is not an official language of Hong Kong.

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Syntax and semantics at the Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court is about to take up Noel Canning v. National Labor Relations Board, perhaps better known as "that case about recess appointments". The issue is the interpretation of Article 2, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution,

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

You can find a summary of the case at oyez.org, and complete background information at SCOTUSblog, including a recent "Plain English" summary by Amy Howe.

This case is rich in linguistic issues:  The scope of of the prepositional phrase  "during the recess of the Senate"; what "the recess" means;  what "happen" means,  and so on. There's some earlier LL discussion in "What 'the' means", 1/28/2013; no doubt there will be more to say after the oral arguments in this case, and especially when the decision is announced.

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A fair-use victory for Google in these United States

US Circuit Judge Denny Chin has ruled in favor of Google in its long-running copyright litigation with the Authors Guild over the scanning and digitization of books. Chin ruled that the Google Books project constitutes fair use because it is "highly transformative" and "provides significant public benefits." In explaining those public benefits, Chin cited the use of Google Books data for Ngram queries, and pointed to a research example that we've discussed several times on Language Log.

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Legal scope again

According to 35 USC § 271 (a):

Except as otherwise provided in this title, whoever without authority makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any patented invention, within the United States or imports into the United States any patented invention during the term of the patent therefor, infringes the patent.

A petition for a writ of certiorari, dealing in part with the semantic interpretation of this sentence, is now pending before the Supreme Court. The critical question is how to interpret the adverbial adjunct "within the United States" as applied to the phrase "offers to sell". Does it constrain the location of the offering, or the location of the selling, or perhaps both?

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The Slants v. the USPTO


Kat Chow, "Asian-American Band Fights To Trademark Name 'The Slants'", NPR codeswitch 10/20/2013:

The Slants, a six-member band from Portland, Ore., calls their sound "Chinatown Dance Rock" — a little bit New Order, a little bit Depeche Mode. They describe themselves as one of the first Asian-American rock bands. Their music caters to an Asian-American crowd, they've spoken at various Asian-American events, and they're proud of all of it.

But the Slants have been duking it out with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) over the past four years because of their name. The PTO refused the band's two trademark applications, saying that "slants" is a disparaging term for people of Asian descent. Now the band plans to take their case to a federal circuit court.

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Stupid police investigation of racist language

As I have frequently pointed out here on Language Log before, the contrast between the constitutionally protected free speech of the USA and the many legal restraints on speech in the UK is really striking. In the latest incident, a British lord posted a tweet with a photo of three Chinese toddlers dressed in watermelon-rind costumes. Two of the kids look delighted, but the one in the center is crying. To accompany the picture the noble lord tweeted a remark that I will position below the jump, because I don't want those of a nervous disposition to see it. His remark was the subject of a police investigation. The question was whether it was so racist that it should be regarded as violating the criminal law. If you think you can bear it, take a deep breath and read on.

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