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Plagiarism and Wikipedia

Posted by Janett Perry on Sep 21, 2010 2:06:00 PM

A recent case of plagiarism has created a great deal of controversy in France.  Michel Houellebecq was already a controversial author before a recent Slate.FR article pointed out the similarities between passages in his new book, La carte et le territoire, and specific Wikipedia articles. 

In one passage describing the reproductive process of flies, Houellebecq copies a Wikipedia article with near word-for-word accuracy.

Even Houellebecq himself admits that he copied Wikipedia articles intentionally as an ‘artistic statement’.   Slate transcribed a video interview with Houellebecq where the author describes his reasoning: 

“Lots of people have done it. I was especially influenced by [Georges] Perec and [Jorge Luis] Borges. Perec could do it even better than me, because he doesn’t rework the fragment at all, which always creates a very strong linguistic discrepancy. Me, I can’t manage that kind of discrepancy, so I rework the text a bit to make it closer to my own style. … I’d like to be able to modify them a little less than I do.”

Despite the facts, Houellebecq and his editors deny his act as one of plagiarism based on the collaborative nature of Wikipedia.  It is true that Wikipedia doesn’t cite a specific contributor as the single author for every entry. Contributors are listed either by user name or anonymous IP address in every article’s history.

However, Wikipedia employs a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike License for all of its articles.   The Creative Commons CC-BY-SA clearly states that works may be copied and distributed, under the condition that attribution is provided.  Below is a screen shot directly from the Creative Common’s license:

Even though Wikipedia doesn’t have a single author it still is Houellebecq’s responsibility to attribute the content he copied. 

As far as the ‘artistic’ nature of his actions – why should he be allowed the discretion to determine what plagiarism is and isn’t? 

Students around the world currently face repercussions based on their actions, even when copying from Wikipedia without citing their sources. 

Should Houellebecq be provided ‘artistic immunity’ just because he’s a big time author?


Glad, Vincent. “Houellebecq vs. WikipediaSlate. 10 September 2010.

Lichfield, John. “I stole from Wikipedia but it’s not plagiarism, says Houellebecq The Independent. 8 September 2010.