Plagiarism in Pop Culture: Lobachevsky

With the recent announcement that acclaimed satirist Tom Lehrer is placing all of his lyrics and much of his music in the public domain (or at least as close to it as practical), it seemed like a good time to take a look at one of his songs: Lobachevsky

Though not Lehrer’s best-known song (it’s often mistakenly referred to as the “Plagiarize!” song) it is certainly one of his most memorable and distinct.

Filled with a variety of music changes, lines in Russian and a story of a successful academic career, Lobachevsky packs a great deal into a three-minute song.

However, what makes the song extremely interesting is that Lehrer was, first and foremost, an academic. Not only did he get his start selling copies of his record at Harvard, he ultimately left music almost entirely to teach mathematics and musical theater history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

This raises a simple question: How well did Tom Lehrer satire the subject of plagiarism? The answer, as with most things Lehrer, is very well.

The Song

Named after the real 19th century mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky, one of the inventors of non-Euclidean geometry, the narrator of the song attributes his personal success in the field to Lobachevsky’s advice.

That advice was simple: Plagiarize!

With that advice in hand, the narrator then uses a string of connections to get access the work of another mathematician and then publish it first.

My name in Dnepropetrovsk is cursed
When he finds out I published first!

Lom Lehrer, Lobachevsky

The narrator then goes on to write a book, from which he says “Every chapter I stole from somewhere else” and even says that the index was “from old Vladivostok telephone directory.”

Though reviews of the book are not kind, with two reviewers saying “It stinks,” MGM winds up buying the movie rights to the book for “six million rubles”. This is roughly $78,440 using the current currency conversion. Since the song was first performed in 1951, that amount would be worth roughly $785,000 today.

The narrator then ends the song by saying that Ingrid Bergman will play the part of the hypotenuse. However, in a bid to update the song, the name that was changed out for various other celebrities including Bridgette Bardot, Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day in later versions.

Ultimately, there’s no comeuppance for the narrator and the song ends with the narrator gloating about the movie deal and thanking Lobachevsky for his success.

Understanding the Plagiarism

To really examine the plagiarism in the song, we have to clearly understand two things. First is that Tom Lehrer is an academic and a mathematician himself and second is that the song is a complete satire.

It’s pretty clear that Tom Lehrer is not actually condoning plagiarism nor saying that it is the key to academic success. Instead, he’s singing to a fear that academics have had for centuries: That others ARE building successful careers off of plagiarism.

To that end, he describes two separate incidents of plagiarism. The first involves stealing someone else’s research and publishing before they are able to. Though how regularly this happens is unknown, it’s a concern that many in academia share.

Though this issue has been muted some in the age of digital publication, it has always been theoretically possible for someone to gain access to another’s research, write a paper based on it and publish it before the original author can get theirs out. Because of this fear, many academics are careful about who they share their work with.

The second plagiarism described in the song dealt with a book that had each of its chapters copied from a different source. Obviously, an index lifted from a phone book wouldn’t be useful, but this kind of verbatim plagiarism was a fairly significant problem both in Lobachevsky’s time and in the 1950s, when Lehrer wrote and recorded the song.

Today, plagiarism that blatant is likely to be caught by any legitimate publisher. Even a cursory plagiarism check would likely spot it. However, before the advent of plagiarism detection software, such plagiarism could, at least in theory, work. That said, it would be crucial to lift only little-known sources but, outside of a reader or editor recognizing the work as copied, it could work.

However, all of this raise on question: What about Lobachevsky himself?

Lobachevsky was thought to be a plagiarist in his lifetime. He and another mathematician named János Bolyai came up with non-Euclidian geometry at about the same time. However, Lobachevsky was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing and he and Bolyai are now considered co-creators.

Lehrer never intended the song to besmirch Lobachevsky’s name. In fact, in the PDF version of his lyrics, he says:

The author would like to make it clear that. although Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky (1793-1856) was a genuine, and indeed eminent, mathematician, the peccadillos attributed to him herein are not substantiated by history.

Tom Lehrer

He goes on to say that he chose the name “for purely prosodic reasons.” In short, he liked the way it sounded and how it fits the meter of the song.

So, while he was singing about fears many academics do hold (though it’s unclear if Lehrer himself does) he wasn’t telling a true story, Lobachevsky or anyone else’s.

Bottom Line

What’s most interesting about the song is that it drew heavy inspiration from the song Stanislavsky by the actor/comedian Danny Kaye. This is something that Lehrer himself openly acknowledged in the liner notes for the album and in the PDF of the lyrics on his site

Both songs share similar music and a similar structure. However, where Lobachevsky is the tale of a young mathematician learning to become the best through plagiarism, Stanislavsky is the tale of a young actor learning to become the best through suffering.

Ultimately, the two songs are almost identical, including their refrains, with only the topic changed.

Perhaps the greatest irony in Lobachevsky is that Lehrer wrote a song about plagiarism, which itself was an adaptation of a previous song. However, he attributed it clearly everywhere he could.

Even while satirically extolling the virtues of plagiarism, Lehrer was avoiding become a plagiarist himself.

That says more than anything in the song about Lehrer’s views on plagiarism.

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