It’s the Cardinal Sin for a writer, and it will get you kicked out of most universities. You can do it accidentally, you can do it to yourself, and it’s a long, and very expensive process to try and prove or disprove. What am I talking about?
/ˈpleɪ dʒəˌrɪz əm, -dʒi əˌrɪz [pley-juh-riz-uh m, -jee-uh-riz-]
1.the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.
2.something used and represented in this manner.
But what does that actually mean for the writer? Well, it’s a complicated topic, and, despite what you might think, it can be damn hard to prove (or disprove), and it can ruin careers. The worst bit is that it’s entirely possible to do it without even realising. Subconscious plagiarism is something most writers live in fear of, but is it as bad as intentionally stealing someone’s words? And is subconscious plagiarism really a defence?
You would be forgiven for thinking that most plagiarism takes place further down the food chain, obscure works in a different genre, or a different language, where the chances of getting caught are smaller. But you would be wrong. It can happen to anyone.
In 2006 Megan McCafferty received an email from a fan highlighting the similarities between her books and a highly publicised new release. In the subsequent storm several other big name authors found themselves the victims of plagiarism. Salman Rushdie, Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot and Tanuja Desai Hidier all found themselves part of the scandal that originated when Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan had her novel ‘How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life’ published by Little, Brown.
You can read the comparisons of the books here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaavya_Viswanathan
Viswanathan initially claimed that the plagiarism was unintentional, stating in an April 26, 2006 interview with The New York Times, the plagiarism may have happened because she read both of McCaffrey’s books multiple times and has a photographic memory. Viswanathan also appeared on NBC’s The Today Show where she maintained her innocence, saying that any and all similarities were “completely unconscious and unintentional” and that she must have ‘internalized’ McCafferty’s words, and stated that she planned an acknowledgement to McCafferty in the foreword of future printings of Opal Mehta.
But that was a hollow promise given that Little, Brown, who has initially stood by Viswanathan, did a U turn in light of the increasing amount of evidence and pulled the book from the shelves, destroyed all remaining copies and cancelled Viswanathan’s contract for that, and future books.
Let’s turn out attention to Cassie Edwards, who, in January 2008 was accused of plagiarism by the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books reviewers at http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com At the time, despite the evidence, Edwards publisher, Signet, stood by her, claiming that the passages in question were ‘fair use’, a concept that didn’t hold much water with those involved and just two days later Signet announced that they would be reviewing Edwards’ books to determine whether plagiarism had occurred. In April of that year, Signet stopped publishing Edwards’ books ‘due to irreconcilable editorial differences.’
Edwards, who had published more than 100 historical romances in her career, claimed that she didn’t know she was supposed to credit her sources when she copied or paraphrased passages from other works.
One of the writers who spoke out against Edwards plagiarism was Nora Roberts, the bestselling romance and crime writer who was herself a victim of plagiarism in the 90’s.
In Robert’s case it was another bestselling author who stole her work, romance writer Janet Dailey, who admitted to repeatedly plagiarizing Roberts’ work. In this case it was again a fan who spotted the plagiarism after reading Roberts’ ‘Sweet Revenge’ and Dailey’s ‘Notorious’ back-to-back.
Roberts sued Dailey, calling the plagiarism “mind rape.’ Dailey acknowledged the theft and blamed it on a psychological disorder, admitting that two of her novels, ‘Aspen Gold’ and ‘Notorious’ lifted heavily from Roberts’s work. Both of those novels were subsequently pulled from print and the case was settled in 2008 for an undisclosed amount.
It would be several years before Dailey would publish again, and although her sales are still impressive, I’ll bet her editors are paying much more attention to her words.
Now, while it’s awful to have your work stolen, consider how you would feel to be accused of plagiarism.
This happens a surprising amount in the writing world, and most of the time it seems to be a case of a small time writer trying to cash in on a big name authors success, and claiming ‘they stole my idea’ seems to be the method of choice.
In these cases the bigger author almost always wins, so why even try to sue them? Well, I would hazard that the logic behind the action is the old line about all publicity is good publicity, and I guess that enough scandal might well drive up sales in the first instance, but I doubt the stunt would benefit an author long term.
To date there have been several attempts to sue JK Rowling for plagiarism. Neither of which were successful.
Back in 2001 Nancy Stouffer claimed that JK Rowling stole her ideas for Harry Potter from a series of books she written in the 80’s about a boy called Larry Potter and featuring “muggles”. The court found in favour of Rowling after it was found that Stouffer had fabricated evidence. As if that wasn’t enough of a disappointment for Stouffer, she was fined $30,000 (£19,363) for this “pattern of intentional bad faith conduct” and ordered her to pay a percentage of JKR’s legal costs. Sobering stuff for an author thinking of going down that route.
But it didn’t stop others trying, and in 2004 allegations were made by the estate of the late Adrian Jacobs that centered around supposed plagiarism of Jacobs 36 page book ‘Willy The Wizard’ in JKR’s ‘Goblet of Fire.’
Allegedly the manuscript for Jacob’s book was sent to Christopher Little, who eventually became JKR’s agent, but it was rejected. Apparently this was supposed to add strength to the argument, but instead shows a lack of any sort of knowledge of how the publishing industry actually works.
In 2009 legal proceedings were issued at the High Court against Bloomsbury and JKR, seeking an injunction to prevent further sales of ‘Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire’ and damages or a share in the book’s profits. The figure sought was rumored to be in the region of £500m. The resulting legal battle rumbled on until earlier this month when an American judge dismissed the case, stating that ‘The contrast between the total concept and feel of the works is so stark that any serious comparison of the two strains credulity.’
Last year Twilight author, Stephenie Meyer was accused of plagiarism by writer Jordan Scott. A cease and desist order was issued to Hatchette, parent company of Little, Brown. The claim was that Meyer’s latest book Breaking Dawn, showed a ‘striking and substantial similarity’ to Scott’s vampire romance ‘The Nocturne.’
This one seemed to fizzle out after a while and I haven’t come across anything else about it for a while. But in case you are interested, you can read the letter sent by Scott’s lawyers here http://www.aolcdn.com/tmz_documents/0803_meyer_infringement.pdf
Let’s talk about Stephen King for a minute. In December 2010 King was accused by Rod Marquardt of plagiarising from his novel ‘Keller’s Den’ in King’s novel ‘Duma Key’. He was seeking an injunction, destruction of copies, damages, and restitution.
Now, this one I’ve been following pretty closely, mainly because I read the court complaint at the time (it’s here by the way http://www.courthousenews.com/2010/12/07/StephenKing.pdf) and, once I stopped laughing, I started to wonder the lengths people would go to for a bit of publicity. Or is it a case that they are genuinely convinced that someone has stolen their work? Either way, this case makes for some pretty desperate reading. I won’t go into it all here, but if you have half an hour to spare, or just need cheering up, then give it a read.
Wanna guess how this one is going to end?
And finally, we come to Dan Brown (knew we’d get there eventually) and we are of course talking about the Da Vinci Code.
Brown was accused twice of plagiarism. The first was in 2006 when Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, authors of the nonfiction book ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail’ attempted to sue Brown for plagiarizing their “bloodline” theory, which claims that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, fathered a child and produced a royal bloodline and that evil forces within the Catholic Church protected these secrets for centuries. That, being the basis of their claims, the lawsuit failed because of lack of sufficient evidence.
Either way, less than a year later author Jack Dunn filed a $400 million lawsuit against Brown (and Random House, Brown’s publisher; Columbia Pictures; Imagine Entertainment; Sony Releasing; and Sony Pictures who produced the movie) for allegedly plagiarizing large portions of Dunn’s book ‘The Vatican Boys.’
I’m always interested when a writer sits back and waits until the other book becomes a big success, and then attempt to file for damages.
So, plagiarism can happen to anyone, and seemingly anyone can be accused of it. What is they say about imitation being the most sincere form of flattery….?