Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Inventing doesn't mean borrowing

Yesterday I suggested that fiction writers should invent everything, and should certainly not indulge in thinly disguised autobiography. For several reasons. First, in this litigious era, it is highly dangerous. Second, it's unnecessary, because making stuff up really isn't very difficult. Third, it's lazy. Fourth, it's demeaning.

And so on. And, at the risk of labouring the point, I suppose it's worth adding that you shouldn't borrow stuff from other people.

True, we have all seen films, for example, in which certain scenes are obviously influenced by, if not exact copies of, scenes in other classic or commercially successful films. And you may be forgiven for riposting that the plot of every romance or whodunit is essentially the same as the plot of every other romance or whodunit. Nevertheless, don't borrow is a good rule.

I am prompted to make this point by the emergence of yet another little 'scandal' in the publishing world. The Book Standard has the story. Seems that a Kirkus reviewer was looking at a new children's book by publisher/author Harriet Ziefert and noticed (terrific memory here) that it had more than a passing resemblance to a book published by Judi Barrett in 1983. When this was drawn to Ziefert's attention, she decided to withdraw her book.

In response to the Book Standard's enquiries, Ziefert said that she had 'no recollection of ever seeing Ms. Barrett’s book—though it would be foolish of me not to consider the possibility that I might have seen it decades ago and that its structure and some of its language imprinted themselves somewhere on my subconscious.'

I do not pretend to know anything whatever about this case, which may range all the way from honest mistake to deliberate theft. However, I do have some sympathy with those who are accused of plagiarism.

In my youth -- yes, I confess it now -- I did on at least one occasion borrow the ending of one of my efforts from someone else. And although I don't think it would have been punishable at law, I still remember the occasion with some embarrassment. T'ain't a nice thing to do. And I am also tolerably certain (although I have no personal experience of it) that one's memory can play tricks. It is perfectly possible, I think, for someone to produce an 'original' line or story, only to realise, when it's pointed out, that the line/story is not original at all.

I was about to write here about a case that I remembered from forty-odd years ago, involving the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. The story, as I remembered it, was that MacDiarmid was accused, in the columns of the Times Literary Supplement, of producing 'poetry' which was actually lifted from other documents. My memory was that he defended himself against the charge rather convincingly.

However -- and this may be a case where my memory has misled me! -- now that I come to look him up on the interweb, I see that, in the course of time, MacDiarmid seems not only to have admitted plagiarism but gloried in it. 'The greater the plagiarism the greater the work of art,' he is quoted as saying. Hmm. Well, that rather spoils my point, but it's interesting.

Also interesting is the Wikipedia article on plagiarism, though it deals with the problem in an academic context.

Hollywood, of course, has been facing the charge of stealing people's stories for the best part of a hundred years, and there is, I believe, considerable case law on this issue in the state of California. But if you wish to prove that a Hollywood producer stole the plot which was embodied in your screenplay, then you're going to have a hard time. The writers of Ladies Night tried to do it, in relation to The Full Monty. They had, in my view, a pretty good case, but they lost.

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