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People Think Bob Dylan Plagiarized His Nobel Lecture From SparkNotes

Like a trolling stone.

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Remember when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year and everyone lost it?

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He was the first songwriter to receive the award — considered the highest honor in literature. Writers and musicians deliberated about whether he should have been eligible, and Dylan himself was characteristically rebellious about the whole thing, declining to attend the Nobel ceremony in Sweden. A member of the Nobel committee concluded that Dylan's behavior was "impolite and arrogant."

Well, earlier this month, he delivered an official Nobel lecture on a topic in literature of his choosing — a requirement for honorees before they can receive their $900,000 prize money.

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The lecture, about his relationship to literature and its power to distill the vast mysteries and complexities of life, was mostly well-received.

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He focused on three literary classics: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey.

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But this week, Slate's Andrea Pitzer noticed that a segment focused on Moby-Dick contains a lot of similarities to... SparkNotes.

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Yes, the same SparkNotes that definitely wasn't the basis for that one English Lit paper you wrote during prom season.

Below are some similarities Pitzer identified. An example: Dylan: "There's a crazy prophet, Gabriel, on one of the vessels, and he predicts Ahab's doom." SparkNotes: "One of the ships ... carries Gabriel, a crazed prophet who predicts doom."

On social media, people debated if it was plagiarism and wondered what it might mean if the freshly minted recipient of the world's most prestigious literary prize cribbed from SparkNotes.

Point: Bob Dylan isn't guilty of plagiarism and it's silly to pretend he is. Counterpoint: That's completely true. https://t.co/BHAuXRxkHI

Husband finally conceding I was right about Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize. #sparknotes

This is just plain depressing: looks like Bob Dylan cribbed from SparkNotes for his Nobel lecture. https://t.co/m4XD4zkqK3

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Even SparkNotes itself joined the fray, reattributing a famous Dylan line to create its own mashup.

With no direction home / probably should have spent less time on Ogygia also. - Homer

In interviews with BuzzFeed News, two English professors who have studied Dylan agreed that there was little doubt he used SparkNotes as his source material...but neither was eager to call it plagiarism.

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"I was a bit surprised, but not troubled," said David Gaines, professor of English at Southwestern University. "It's someone refreshing their memory and then making it their own."

Gaines argued that it's wrong to judge Dylan's speech by the standards of a term paper.

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"This is not an address in which someone is supposed to cite sources; it's not a refereed journal article," he said. "It's a popular address and I think we're holding it to a standard that's not appropriate for the genre."

Kevin Dettmar, chair of the English department at Pomona College, pointed out that Dylan has never been shy about borrowing from other works in his art.

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Dylan's 2001 album "Love and Theft," for instance, takes its name from Eric Lott's nonfiction history of minstrelsy and includes lines from the Japanese novelist Junichi Saga. His 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, apparently lifted passages from Jack London, among others. And, after all, he began his career covering blues songs — some of which he later copyrighted.

"He's crazy-making on the intellectual property front," Dettmar said.

Dettmar thinks Dylan might have appropriated from SparkNotes in order to make a point. "I kind of think he's doing it not to get away with it, but trying to provoke a conversation," he said.

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"He doesn't lift phrases from CliffsNotes — which is a print publication and harder to trace — he does it from SparkNotes, which lives on the internet where it's so easy to very quickly find the origins of these phrases," Dettmar said. "I would love to think that in his indirect way he's making an argument that borrowing is central to creativity."

Basically, then, it may just be Dylan being Dylan.

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"[With the lecture] people thought, Oh, finally Dylan's gonna sort of beg and scrape and do the thing he's supposed to do," Dettmar said. "But of course he's not — he's got his tongue in his cheek again.”

Reggie Ugwu is a features writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Reggie Ugwu at reggie.ugwu@buzzfeed.com.

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