Frank Owen Sues Gerald Posner Over Plagiarism Charges in Miami Babylon

Categories: Media Watch
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photo by Bill Cooke
Back in March, we were the first to detail local author Frank Owen's charges that Gerald Posner had plagiarized dozens of passages in his latest book, Miami Babylon, from Owen's 2003 book Clubland. The case opened the floodgates on what looks like Posner's career-long habit of filching words and led the author to threaten a lawsuit against New Times over our reporting.

Now the charges are headed to court -- but not on Posner's terms. Owen's lawyer filed a suit in New York this morning against Posner and Simon & Schuster, which published Miami Babylon, seeking damages for the alleged plagiarism. "What Simon & Schuster is doing is flat-out fraud," Owen tells Riptide.


In the suit, Owen says that the Miami Beach-based Posner cobbled together Miami Babylon out of his research without giving the proper credit.

"(Miami Babylon) is little more than a frequently verbatim précis of significant portions of Clubland, a verbal reduction sauce in which 30,000 words are reduced down to approximately 10,000 and yet the flavor remains the same - Clubland flavor," the suit says.

Simon & Schuster, while acknowledging that Posner used Owen's words "without proper attribution," says the lawsuit is without merit. Here's the full statement from Adam Rothberg, a Simon & Schuster spokesman:

"Gerald Posner has acknowledged that in some instances he inadvertently used phrases from Mr. Owens book without proper attribution in his own book, Miami Babylon, and has apologized to Mr. Owen for this usage. Simon & Schuster and the author have made clear that this will be corrected in any future printings of the book.

To suggest that this usage amounts to copyright infringement is entirely without merit. As the complaint makes clear the unattributed use of phrases at issue was limited and in the reporting of factual events. Mr. Posner and Simon & Schuster will vigorously defend this lawsuit."
Owen doesn't specify how much he's seeking in damages from Posner and his publisher. Riptide sent an email to Posner about the suit, but he hasn't responded.

You can read the full complaint here.posnercomplaint

Here's Owen's full statement:
Simon and Schuster has known since March that Miami Babylon contains dozens of plagiarized passages, yet six months later, they continue to sell the book. It's obvious that Simon and Schuster not only condones plagiarism but continues to profit from it. Any ethical publishing house would have immediately withdrawn the book and apologized to readers and apologized to me. What Simon and Schuster is doing is flat-out fraud. The company is defrauding the reader who has a right to expect that the words contained in Miami Babylon are the work of the author listed on the cover. The publishing house has made a business decision that it's more profitable to continue to sell plagiarized work than admit that Miami Babylon not only steals numerous passages from my book Clubland, but steals multiple passages from other writers' work too.

If a student plagiarizes, the student is expelled from college. If a magazine writer or newspaper reporter plagiarizes, then they're fired. But the book publishing world seems to operate under a different set of ethical rules. Simon and Schuster's argument is that because Posner cites Clubland in the footnotes -- though nowhere in the main body of the text -- it's OK to plagiarize my work. Citing an author in footnotes is not a license to steal that author's work. The book company made a similar argument when The Weekly Standard revealed in 2002 that another Simon and Schuster book, Stephen Ambrose's The Wild Blue stole liberally from Wings of Morning by Thomas Childers. At the time, a Simon and Schuster spokesperson released this laughable statement: "Stephen Ambrose's The Wild Blue is an important work of WW11 history. All research garnered from previously published material is appropriately footnoted." Again, citing an author in footnotes is not an excuse for wholesale plagiarism.

Simon and Schuster has a history of defending plagiarists. Look at the Doris Kearns Goodwin case. Her book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, contained significant plagiarized passages from another book, Lynne McTaggart's Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times. Simon and Schuster struck a hush-hush agreement with McTaggert to allow Simon and Schuster to continue to sell The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys with the plagiarized passages intact. Readers who bought the book had no idea that in many instances they were reading not Doris Kearn Goodwin's words but Lynne McTaggert's. Again, this is flat-out fraud.

Compare the way The Daily Beast handled Gerald Posner's plagiarism. When Tina Brown was alerted by Slate's Jack Shafer that Posner had ripped off numerous other writers for his articles in The Daily Beast, the online magazine conducted a thorough investigation and then forced Posner to resign in disgrace. By contrast, Simon and Schuster continues to defend Posner when the evidence is crystal clear that Miami Babylon is rife with stolen passages from other writers.

A kid who illegally downloads songs from the internet is subject to fines of $20,000 a song. What Posner and Simon and Schuster are doing is a lot worse. They're not just stealing copyrighted material, they're claiming that they own the material they stole and are trying to make a profit off of it. It's as if someone downloads a bunch of Nick Cave songs, then slaps their name on it and tries to sell it as their original music.

As Posner himself said in 1999 in another case (Tasini v New York Times), this one a successful class action suit -- in which Posner participated -- brought against The New York Times for licensing freelancers' articles in their electronic database without permission or compensation: "The Court of Appeals has stated a simple but powerful legal principle. Publishers can't sell what they don't own. The words I write are my principle asset. By affirming that I own what I have created, the court has increased the economic value of my work."

We know that Gerald Posner is the Bernie Madoff of journalism. That's been proven again and again by Miami New Times' Tim Elfrink and Slate's Jack Shafer. We now know that Simon and Schuster is the literary equivalent of a fence who knowingly sells stolen goods. Shame on Gerald Posner; but more shame on Simon and Schuster for aiding and abetting his thievery.

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