It doesn't surprise me in the slightest that legendary Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree has admitted to mistakenly "lifting" passages from legendary Yale law professor Jack Balkin's published work.
It isn't because I believe, as the headlines will surely scream, that "plagiarism" is running rampant in the top echelons of Ivy League universities, or that "academic dishonesty" is on the rise. It's that so much academic writing is a product of what I would call collaborative authorship -- that is, researched, drafted, edited, rewritten, edited again, fact-checked, proofread, etc., by more than one person. A research assistant doesn't often get his or her name put on the book cover, but that doesn't change the fact that the work is collaborative.
Professor Ogletree says he read the final copy of the book with quote marks mistakenly deleted from the excerpted passage, but didn't recognize that the words were not his own. Again, no surprise. I certainly don't remember every word I've written over the past few years here at Copyfight, and writing a book often takes quite a bit longer than that. In addition, the editing process can take a piece of writing quite a distance from the original draft, and Professor Ogletree, scanning the six paragraphs quickly under a tight deadline, may have assumed that they were indeed his own -- only modified through the editing process.
Finally, it's likely that Professor Ogletree originally chose to include an excerpt from Professor Balkin's work in his book because it resonated with him. And because of that, the passage may indeed have sounded "familiar"-- the way a really good song sounds like you've heard it before. I find this perfectly understandable.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting that copying passages wholesale and calling it your own is okay. That's unethical. I'm simply pointing out that the fictions we create about authorship -- the solitary author who creates something out of nothing (rather than, say, responding to the work of his peers), who then "owns" his words the way he owns a car -- can lead to unfair judgments in situations like this. All artists are "borrowers" in some sense -- because we only have one world, under one sun, and there isn't anything new under it. There are variations we might call unique, but each of us is drawing from the same well. That's nothing to be ashamed of. Humbled, perhaps, but not ashamed.
If this were Capitol Hill, a PR professional might have advised Professor Ogletree to announce that "mistakes were made," so as to spread responsibility. I would say that "books were written" -- and that spreading responsibility in this instance is the only honest thing to do.