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Plagiarism &
Intellectual Property

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Essay Mills


section heading icon     literary plagiarism

This page highlights some incidents of plagiarism in poetry, novels and other literature over the past three hundred years.

It covers -

It supplements discussion of issues, consequences and responses to plagiarism.

section marker     introduction

As that discussion indicated, plagiarism - or accusations that it has occurred - is not restricted to undergraduates, the humanities or sciences.

From the perspective of reputation management such accusations are of interest because they can serve to set the dogs on the hunt, with an author's work being examined and in some instances found to embody recurrent acts of plagiarism.

section marker     literature

Self-conscious 'Literature' is founded on aspirations of originality and quality. It is thus uncommon to encounter instances of substantial plagiarism in major works. In recent years appropriation has indeed been shrugged off as a witty pastiche, homage or deconstruction of archaic notions such as 'the author'.

It appears, however, to be more common in works that have been produced on an industrial or conveyor belt basis, for example in thrillers (especially where the writing is subcontracted to ghosts) and bodice-rippers.

Ana Rosa Quintana's Sabor a Hiel supposedly featured chunks of Ángeles Mastretta, Danielle Steel and Colleen McCullough. Rhoda Broughton (1840-1920) reportedly lifted a chunk of George Eliot's The Mill On The Floss.

The book version of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray borrowed from J-K Huysmans' A Rebours. A s Michèle Mendelssohn notes in Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Uni Press 2007) Wilde had told Max Beerbohm "Of course I plagiarise. It is the privilege of the appreciative man".

The Famous Plagiarists site notes claims that TS Eliot borrowed from the otherwise unknown Madison Cawein (1865-1914); past critics have noted Eliot's acknowledgement of sources such as The Golden Bough.

Germany novelist Frank Schätzing was accused in 2005 of lifting chunks of his bestseller Der Schwarm - promoted as a "gripping ecological thriller" - from text by marine biologist Thomas Orthmann on the scientific website Orthmann demanded €15,000 in compensation from Schätzing. Wolfgang Koepmann had more brazenly republished Jakob Littmann's scarifying Holocaust memoir under his own name as a novel.

Edwina MacDonald claimed that Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 Rebecca relied heavily on her Blind Windows, rather than Daphne Du Maurier's 1938 Rebecca. The court found in favour of Hitchcock, noting that the "second wife plot" was common and evident in works such as Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (later discussed in Patsy Stoneman's Brontë Transformations (London: Harvester 1996)).

Bestseller Lynda La Plante was accused in 2008 of appropriating text from Olga Lengyel's 1947 memoir Five Chimneys for her 1993 novel Entwined.

Notoriously difficult author Laura Riding accused sometime partner Robert Graves of plagiarism, claiming that he had "sucked, bled, squeezed, plucked, picked, grabbed, dipped, sliced, carved, lifted the body of my work" after the relationship broke down in 1939.

In 2005 critics argued that elements of The Bear Bryant Funeral Train (Athens: Uni of Georgia Press 2005) by Brad Vice had been lifted from Carl Carmer's 1934 Stars Fell on Alabama and from Jim Dent's The Junction Boys (New York: St Martins Press 2000).

Vice has a doctorate and is professor of English Lit, so observers were apparently underwhelmed by his comment that the plagiarism was attributable to "ignorance concerning the principles of fair use". Carmer's publisher commented "This seems a flagrant case, intentional and indefensible, with the feeble efforts to alter the original all the more blatant evidence of unacknowledged borrowing"; Vice's publisher recalled and pulped the offending volume.

In 2006 Dan Brown's pulp The Da Vinci Code was denounced by Michael Baigent & Richard Leigh as plagiarising their The Holy Blood & the Holy Grail. The authors sued Brown, claiming that he "plagiarised" the "whole jigsaw puzzle" of their research.

The claim provoked the response that

Can you copyright an idea? Previously copyright has applied just to how the idea is used. This is why we are confident. If the claimants win, it's the end of John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Robert Harris, Helen Fielding - and Shakespeare.

Leigh griped that

It's not that Dan Brown has lifted certain ideas, because a number of people have done that before. It's rather that he's lifted the whole architecture - the whole jigsaw puzzle - and hung it on to the peg of a fictional thriller.

Joel Rickett of the Bookseller sniffed

In a sense they're admitting their work has elements of fiction to it. If it was pure history, how could they copyright history? When historians discover something they can't copyright it.

Mr Justice Peter Smith later ruled that Brown did not infringe Baigent and Leigh's copyright

Dan Brown has not infringed copyright. None of this amounts to copying The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. ... Even if the central themes were copied they are too general or of too low a level of abstraction to be capable of protection by copyright law. Accordingly there is no copyright infringement either by textual copying or non-textual copying of a substantial part of HBHG by means of copying the central themes.

The judge ordered that they should pay 85% of Random House's costs (est £1.3m) and their own costs of £800,000.

UK novelist Ian McEwan, accused of plagiarising from the autobiography of romance novelist Lucilla Andrews in his novel Atonement, was defended by figures such as Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Thomas Pynchon and John Updike. Thomas Keneally sniffed that

If it is sufficient to point to a simultaneity of events to prove plagiarism, then we are all plagiarists, and Shakespeare is in big trouble from Petrarch, and Tolstoy stole the material for War & Peace. Fiction depends on a certain value-added quality created on top of the raw material, and that McEwan has added value beyond the original will, I believe, be richly demonstrated. ... If not, God help us all.

Nineteen year old novelist Kaavya Viswanathan, whose How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (Boston: Little Brown 2006) earned her a US$500,000 two-book contract and DreamWorks film deal, was accused in 2006 of lifting text from Megan McCafferty's 2001 novel Sloppy Firsts and other works by McCafferty and Sophie Kinsella.

She explained that her copying was "unintentional and unconscious", a defence dismissed by her publisher who commented that "based on the scope and character of the similarities, it is inconceivable that this was a display of youthful innocence or an unconscious or unintentional act" and that she was guilty of "nothing less than an act of literary identity theft". Little Brown recalled copies from bookshops, with Opal Mehta thereupon jumping from 64 to 10 in the best seller list overnight.

In 1997 US author Janet Dailey, responsible for some 93 bodice rippers (with sales of a mere 200 million copies), confessed that she had appropriated the work of rival Nora Roberts. She explained

I recently learned that my essentially random and non-pervasive acts of copying are attributable to a psychological problem that I never even suspected I had. I have already begun treatment for the disorder and have been assured that, with treatment, this behavior can be prevented in the future.

Lillian Hellman's role in plagiarism of Meyer Levin's dramatisation of Anne Frank's diary is discussed in Ralph Melnick's The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank: Meyer Levin, Lillian Hellman and the Staging of the Diary (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1997).

Ailing author Ian Fleming (1908-1964) - 'sex, sadism and snobbery' - based his Thunderball on a screenplay that he had written with Kevin McClory (1926-2006) and Jack Whittingham (1910-1972). Crucially, he did not allude to their involvement. McClory failed to gain an injunction prohibiting publication of the novel but then sued over "plagiarism and false attribution", eventually gaining £35,000 plus £17,000 court costs.
Subsequent editions of the novel indicated that it was "based on the screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming". The incident is explored in Robert Sellers' The Battle for Bond (Sheffield: Tomahawk Press 2007).

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version of August 2008
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