Author Plagiarism

April 5, 2019

Rumours and suggestions of plagiarism are a constant buzz in the world of literature. Some books cite inspiration from a predecessor hoping to tackle any comparisons head on, while others are too similar to merely be coincidence and it’s not long before critics and fellow authors are quick to point a finger; trying to restore justice.  It is important to draw a distinction between the use of cliché and plagiarism. Within genres, there are common plot developments or characters which are known as clichés: a similar trend that makes it obvious to some readers what is going to happen. Cliché’s are trends and as such are featured in a myriad of sources rather than one individual text – for example, take the typical hard-boiled detective – a prominent cliché character in the realm of Noir, the use of which features in a substantial list of works, including Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and use of which still continues today.

To define a work as plagiarism, one of several instances must have occurred: the most obvious example would be if lines of text were taken directly from an initial source without citation, a second option is if you take the essence of the authors narrative or meaning and just rewrite the words. Another incidence would be if a distinct plot or character from another work were used without approval from the original author or the author’s estate. For example, let’s say you chose to write a book which was set in a Scottish school for wizards and in which the wizards were sorted into four houses with the central character being an orphaned wizard with glasses and a scar on his face. It’s clear that this has huge resemblance to Harry Potter and therefore, without the permission of J.K. Rowling, you would be leaving yourself open to a lawsuit if you chose to publish. Plagiarism accusations can, however, often become tricky as cases are often not clear cut. There is no definitive distinction on what are acceptable similarities and what is damn right copying when it comes to work. If we take the example above: if you chose to write about a school for wizards without any of the other Hogwarts characteristics then you likely wouldn’t be considered plagiarising, but if you were to add in school houses and ghosts then things start to get a little more debatable.

Often the biggest problem is when connections are made with lesser known titles, the question becomes whether the accused author would have even heard of the supposed source material let alone read it. The cases are generally put up to a court of law but you can draw your own conclusions about these literary scandals of plagiarism that have caused a storm of controversy.

Borrowed thoughts, like borrowed money, only show the poverty of the borrower

Lady Marguerite Blessington

Spying and Lying – the accusations against Emma Cline

The Girls is a best-selling blockbuster of a debut novel, that catapulted Emma Cline into literary stardom and writing prowess when it was first published in 2016. But Cline’s reputation came under scrutiny in December 2017 when her ex-boyfriend Chaz Reetz-Lailo laid claims that aspects of the novel were stolen from him when Cline installed spyware into his computer and read his emails. Cline has refuted these claims and has stated that although she did install spyware onto the computer, this was a means of keeping track of his actions during their relationship as she believed he was being unfaithful and maintains she subsequently no longer had access to the software after she sold the computer to him. Cline has publicly voiced her opinion that Reetz-Lailo’s attempts at defacing her credibility are extensions of the emotional and physical abuse she was subjected to during the course of her relationship with him. Several media outlets also reported that Reetz-Lailo had made threats towards Cline regarding the potential release of sexually-explicit details and photos in the light of Cline’s new-found celebrity status.

Both Reetz-Lailo and Cline filed countering lawsuits against one another, with Reetz-Lailo’s dismissed in July 2018 after a judge acknowledged some similarities between both Cline’s and Reetz-Lailo’s work but deemed them insubstantial, also noting that the works ‘vary significantly in detail, breadth and texture’.

Harbach vs Green

In September 2017, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, a college baseball novel published in 2011, was the subject of a law-suit. Charles Green, a restaurateur, alleged that the author had misappropriated a large number of elements from his unpublished novel, Bucky’s 9th. Although unclear as to how Harbach accessed his work, Green stipulates that he was likely given a copy of his unpublished manuscript after it was circulated (widely) by his literary agent in 2006 and 2007. It is rumoured that Green had made associations between the two works for years prior to the lawsuit in 2017; however, it was news of a planned film adaptation of Harbach’s The Art of Fielding that was Green’s last straw. Green had previously tried to contact news outlets to amass publicity for his case. However, no story was published as a result of poor findings for a tangible link between Harbach and Bucky’s 9th. July 2018 saw the case dismissed, with Judge Alvin Hellerstein ruling that the similarities were small, trivial details and not copyrightable, with some features not even similar when taking into account context. Green is looking to appeal the ruling.

Dan Brown – Champion for Authors or Thief of Themes

A name that you are sure to recognise is Dan Brown, a goliath in the bestseller lists since the 2000s with titles such as Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code and Inferno. Brown’s works are the subject of huge publicity with book sales reportedly over 200 million, leading them to be a common sight in second-hand book stores. His Robert Langdon series has spurned several successful film adaptations with Tom Hanks starring in the central role. But fame, it would appear, has its price for Brown as he has also been a target for several legal disputes, mainly regarding his most-successful novel The Da Vinci Code.

The most prominent claim against Brown was made in 2006 by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two of the three authors behind the 1982 non-fiction book The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail, a bestseller in its own right. In their book, the authors hypothesise that the Holy Grail could refer to the bloodline of Christ rather than a chalice or goblet as it is popularly believed to be. The book also speculates that a secret society exists to protect the bloodline from the Catholic Church. Both of these features are also obvious themes of Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and this didn’t go unnoticed, with Brown being sued for plagiarising and breaching copyright law.

The main counter-argument in favour of Brown’s use of the central ideas of the 1982 book is that the work is designated non-fiction and therefore reference to any historical non-fiction could be deemed ‘research’, with some comparing it to the use of WWI texts.

Leigh and Baigent see Brown’s use as stealing their years of hard work and, to add insult to injury, they have pointed out that the antagonist of The Da Vinci Code is given the name Leigh Teabing, borrowing the name of Leigh as a first name and using an anagram of Baigent as a surname – unlikely to be pure coincidence.

Unfortunately for Leigh and Baigent, after a three-week trial the case ruled in Brown’s favour without grounds for copyright infringement, Leigh and Baigent were ordered to pay considerable legal fees which, after an unsuccessful appeal, were reportedly in the millions. Brown admitted to being familiar with the work of Leigh and Baigent but insisted that it was only one of the books that he used while researching. He believes that his success in court reaffirmed the rights of novelists, allowing them to draw on historical works without fear of allegations and being sued.

A questionable romance?

2006 saw Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathen pen her debut novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. She landed a two-book deal for $500,000 with Little, Brown and Company and a contract with Dreamworks to adapt the first book. But her fate changed when not long after publication, Harvard’s own newspaper, Harvard Crimson, pointed out similarities between Viswanathen’s work and two Y.A novels by Meghan McCafferty, with several passages having been lifted from the latter. In the weeks following the outbreak, Viswanathen expressed denial towards the claims before stating that she had previously read the works in question and must have ‘internalised’ them without her knowledge. Due to the garnering of huge media attention, her book became the focus of more intense scrutiny and several more accusations of associations to other authors were made, including Salman Rushdie, Meg Cabot and Sophie Kinsella.

On 27th April 2006, twenty-three days after its initial publication, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was recalled by Little, Brown and Company. By May, both the two-book deal and film adaptation were off the table. Needless to say, Viswanathen hasn’t published a novel since.

The Asian Grave-robber?

Grave-robbers are so-called as they are known to steal the belongings of the deceased and that is precisely what South Korea’s Man Asian Prize-winner, Shin Kyung-sook, chose to do to Japan’s acclaimed Yukio Mishima. Albeit she wasn’t found at night in a cemetery with shovel in-hand, she did however choose to pilfer a passage from Mishima’s harrowing work Patriotism twenty years after his death.

The controversial work in question was titled Legend and was part of a short story collection published in 1994. The author originally released a statement in which she denied ever having read Mishima’s Patriotism but has since re-addressed her standing, saying that she has compared the passages and praises those for coming forward to notify her of the similarities. She still maintains that she has no recollection of ever reading Patriotism but she no longer feels ‘certain of her memory’. It is worth noting that Mishima’s Patriotism isn’t an insignificant or poorly known work; on the contrary, it has been adapted into a Japanese feature film and its plot has become famous for its resemblance to Mishima’s own death, both involving ritual suicide.    

Although these cases seem to have been resolved, at least for the time being, it is unlikely to be the last we see of literary plagiarism. Keep your eyes peeled.