Honesty the victim in Dylan’s derivative Nobel Literature Prize speech –  to live outside the law you must be honest

By Stephen Pate – It appears from the evidence in Slate that Bob Dylan has plagiarized his speech for the Nobel 2016 Prize for Literature. Slate writer Andrea Pitzer has uncovered 20 “striking similarities between (Bob Dylan’s)… thoughts on ‘Moby-Dick,'” and the published ‘Moby Dick’ entry on  SparkNotes in the acceptance speech he delivered to the Nobel Academy.

Dylan delayed as long as he could in making his acceptance speech, a condition for receiving the $891,000 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. He stopped into the Nobel Academy in April and delivered a recorded speech on June 5th, 2017 six days short of the June 10th, 2017 deadline.

The problem seems to be that he cribbed some of the four thousand and eight words. The evidence is pretty clear many of the words and phrases are lifted directly from SparkNotes.

If Dylan plagiarized his comments from SparkNotes, the 76-year-old Dylan can be commended for his internet savvy. However without attribution, using the online version of Cliff Notes will get you a sophomoric F. In some institutions, you would be expelled for the same stunt.

SparkNotes is copyrighted like Dylan’s songs. Perhaps the brazen appropriation of Michelle Obama’s speech by Melania Trump last year set a bad example. Or perhaps Dylan wanted to thumb his nose at the award, but not the Academy’s money. The speech became the limited property of the Nobel Academy under the terms of the award.

The Nobel Prize plagiarism evidence against Bob Dylan

“During his official lecture recorded on June 4,’ wrote Andrea Pitzer, “laureate Bob Dylan described the influence on him of three literary works from his childhood: The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. Soon after, writer Ben Greenman noted that in his lecture Dylan seemed to have invented a quote from Moby-Dick.” Slate

Bob Dylan delivers a rambling speech at Musicares 2015 (CBS photo)

Bob Dylan delivers a rambling speech at MusiCares 2015 (CBS photo)

“Across the 78 sentences in the lecture that Dylan spends describing Moby-Dick, even a cursory inspection reveals that more than a dozen of them appear to closely resemble lines from the SparkNotes site.”

Dylan might be thumbing his nose at the literary set who awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature and its $891,000 cheque but certain rules apply.  Bob Dylan’s book of songs/literature implies a core of honesty in the 60’s Boomer rebellion.  “To live outside the law, you must be honest / I know you always say that you agree,” he wrote in ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie.’  Plagiarism in literature is the height of dishonesty.

Personally, I’ve considered Dylan’s recent speeches to be tripe, manufactured to create media click bait.  They contain little wisdom and at the worst indicate an artist in intellectual decline.  It doesn’t seem illogical that he is cribbing the content.

How similar is Dylan’s Nobel Prize speech to SparkNotes?

Pitzer’s research is relentless. She pins Dylan “wriggling on the wall” like the protagonist in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  She even created a table of notable similar passages from SparkNotes.

Bob Dylan's alleged plagiarized Nobel Speech Notes and Spark Notes references on Moby Dick (chart from Slate)

Bob Dylan’s alleged plagiarized Nobel Speech Notes and Spark Notes references on Moby Dick (chart from Slate)

Plagiarism and Bob Dylan

The Oxford Dictionary defines plagiarism as “The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.”  Wikipedia defines it as “the “wrongful appropriation” and “stealing and publication” of another author‘s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions” and the representation of them as one’s own original work.” Wikipedia

When appropriation of a written work is plagiarism is often up for discussion but wholesale lifting of phases, sentences and ideas is generally spot on the definition.

Dylan has been appropriating lyrics for decades. It’s considered part of the folk music and blues tradition.  See Bob Dylan Borrowed Liberally From Robert Johnson

Literary plagiarism is something different. “Plagiarism is not in itself a crime, but can constitute copyright infringement. In academia and industry, it is a serious ethical offense.” Wikipedia

Bob Dylan’s engaging autobiography Chronicles 1 apparently contains numerous passages Dylan lifted from other books.  “Somewhere along the line, and most evident in his album Modern Times and his memoir Chronicles Vol. 1, Bob Dylan appears to have crossed a line and has resorted to plagiarism,” wrote Alexander T. Deley in Bob Dylan and Plagiarism, To Catch a Master Thief .

Media coverage of Dylan’s apparent Nobel Prize plagiarism

Rolling Stone wrote “Bob Dylan may have plagiarized portions of his Nobel Prize lecture from SparkNotes, an online version of Cliffs Notes, according to a new piece from Andrea Pitzer on Slate.” Bob Dylan Accused of Plagiarizing Nobel Lecture From SparkNotes

Consequence of Sound made a case for plagiarism then hedged. “Throughout his 30-minute lecture, the music legend reflected on how various musicians and bodies of literature — such as Moby Dick…  — inspired his own songwriting. The only problem? Part of it may actually have been lifted from SparkNotes.”

“As Slate reports, Dylan’s discussion of Moby Dick included a number of phrases that are curiously very similar to those used in the SparkNotes edition of the classic novel. What’s more, a majority of these descriptive sentences and characterizations don’t appear anywhere else except SparkNotes…  Dylan reportedly never once mentioned utilizing outside sources for his lecture, and appeared to pass off the entire thing as his own.” Consequence of Sound

Spin was less generous “Slate has published a report offering surprisingly compelling evidence that Bob Dylan referenced and outright quoted passages from the Spark Notes for Moby Dick in his recent literature-focused Nobel Prize Lecture without citation.” Spin 

“The singer’s Nobel lecture might have just been a giant wink at art culture—or a surprising oversight,” offered Vanity Fair in a weak attempt at exonerating Dylan. It was just a prank prof, really.