Did Bob Dylan Copy His Nobel Prize Lecture From SparkNotes?
DID BOB DYLAN PLAGIARIZE NOBEL PRIZE LECTURE?
Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature with his songwriting skills, a paradox he explored in his lecture. He used his three favorite written works as examples – All Quiet on the Western Front, The Odyssey, and Moby Dick. His descriptions of the latter have been discovered to closely piggyback the words of the online reference resource site SparkNotes.
Dylan fabricated some quotes from Abraham Lincoln in his song “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” so made up quotes aren’t too far out of the songwriter’s wheelhouse. He recounts that a “Quaker pacifist priest” tells the third mate, “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness.” This quote is not found in the actual text of Moby Dick, but a similar wording is found in the SparkNotes character description list, describing that character as “someone whose trials have led him toward God rather than bitterness.”
A reporter for Slate did a side-by-side comparison of Dylan’s speech and the SparkNotes text, and found that of the 78 Moby Dick related sentences in the lecture, at least 20 closely resemble lines from the reference website, none of which occur word for word in Herman Melville’s original text.
For example, SparkNotes says, “Captain Boomer lost an arm in an encounter with Moby Dick… Boomer, happy simply to have survived his encounter, cannot understand Ahab’s lust for vengeance.” Dylan in his lecture says, “Captain Boomer – he lost his arm to Moby. But… he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.” The phrase “lust for vengeance” is not found in Moby Dick.
Another example is their descriptions of Gabriel. “One of the ships…carries Gabriel, a crazed prophet who predicts doom,” says SparkNotes. “There’s a crazy prophet, Gabriel, on one of the vessels, and he predicts Ahab’s doom.” Again, Gabriel is not described as a “crazed prophet” in the original work.
Reappropriation is a theme throughout Dylan’s works. His first album even consisted of 11 covers and just two originals. Fan and writer Scott Warmuth has been tracking Dylan lyrics for more than a decade, finding lifted lines from travel brochures and other musicians. Even many of Dylan’s paintings are reproductions of already well-known images.
While some professors have weighed in on the issue, there has been no consensus on if this constitutes plagiarism or a punishable offense. While George Washington University English professor Dan Moshenberg said Dylan had done nothing wrong, Northwestern Prof. Juan Martinez disagreed: “If Dylan was in my class and he submitted an essay with these plagiarized bits, I’d fail him.”