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Occupational Hazard

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The most dangerous street in Sydney is a quiet cul-de-sac. You’d walk past it without noticing. That’s because it isn’t there. It exists only on one particular street map. When the publishers – call them A – were preparing the map, they added this little item. Later, a competitor (B) brought out a rival town map, and guess what? It too showed the ghost street – clear evidence of copying. B got his comeuppance.

As the recent Da Vinci Code spat demonstrated, complaints of plagiarism reach far beyond Aussie mapmakers. When Arthur Halliwell created his hefty film guide, he added a non-existent movie which in due course trapped a rival directory of films. Justice was swift. When Nigel Rees – he of ‘Quote Unquote . . .’ – published his Dictionary of Twentieth Century Quotations, he slipped in a dummy quote credited to one Guy Simon (Rees’s pen name). Eventually HarperCollins bought the dummy and Guy Simon appeared in their Collins Dictionary of Quotations, a little bit of larceny for which they paid, in sterling. And when Antonia Fraser wrote her classic life of Mary, Queen of Scots, she thoughtfully inserted a burglar alarm. At Mary’s execution (Lady Antonia said) Lord Shrewsbury’s face was ‘wet with tears’. It was an invention. Later, James Mackay’s book on Mary copied it, and the alarm rang.

Those are obvious cases of literary light-fingering. Heavier charges of plagiarism are another story (and often another story of another story). Few writers are as careless as Llinos Dafydd, aged 20, who liked the stories of Heidwenn Thomas so much that she entered them as her own at a big Eisteddfod and won the crown. Further recognition came when one story was dramatized for television, where a surprised Thomas saw it. So ended Dafydd’s fifteen minutes of monarchy.

Copy the whole work and they’ve got you bang to rights. It rarely happens, although an American did clone a biography of Howard Hughes so f

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The most dangerous street in Sydney is a quiet cul-de-sac. You’d walk past it without noticing. That’s because it isn’t there. It exists only on one particular street map. When the publishers – call them A – were preparing the map, they added this little item. Later, a competitor (B) brought out a rival town map, and guess what? It too showed the ghost street – clear evidence of copying. B got his comeuppance.

As the recent Da Vinci Code spat demonstrated, complaints of plagiarism reach far beyond Aussie mapmakers. When Arthur Halliwell created his hefty film guide, he added a non-existent movie which in due course trapped a rival directory of films. Justice was swift. When Nigel Rees – he of ‘Quote Unquote . . .’ – published his Dictionary of Twentieth Century Quotations, he slipped in a dummy quote credited to one Guy Simon (Rees’s pen name). Eventually HarperCollins bought the dummy and Guy Simon appeared in their Collins Dictionary of Quotations, a little bit of larceny for which they paid, in sterling. And when Antonia Fraser wrote her classic life of Mary, Queen of Scots, she thoughtfully inserted a burglar alarm. At Mary’s execution (Lady Antonia said) Lord Shrewsbury’s face was ‘wet with tears’. It was an invention. Later, James Mackay’s book on Mary copied it, and the alarm rang. Those are obvious cases of literary light-fingering. Heavier charges of plagiarism are another story (and often another story of another story). Few writers are as careless as Llinos Dafydd, aged 20, who liked the stories of Heidwenn Thomas so much that she entered them as her own at a big Eisteddfod and won the crown. Further recognition came when one story was dramatized for television, where a surprised Thomas saw it. So ended Dafydd’s fifteen minutes of monarchy. Copy the whole work and they’ve got you bang to rights. It rarely happens, although an American did clone a biography of Howard Hughes so faithfully that when a reporter showed him both versions, he was speechless; which seems appropriate somehow. Usually the charge produces a brisk rebuttal. ‘Nuts,’ is what Steven Spielberg’s lawyer called the author Barbara Chase-Riboud when she demanded $10 million because Spielberg, she said, swiped the story of Amistad from her Echo of Lions. James Reston Jr. found ‘a ton of similarities’ between Ridley Scott’s Crusader movie Kingdom of Heaven and his own history, Warriors of God, and he wanted half a million dollars’ compensation plus 5 per cent of the net receipts, but the studio’s attitude boiled down to: Never read the book. And hey, it’s all just history. Surely you can’t copyright history? Well, yes and no. The Charge of the Light Brigade definitely happened. Five screen versions had already appeared when, in the 1960s, Tony Richardson decided to film it again and commissioned John Osborne to write the script. Probably the best book about the Charge was Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why (1953), to which the actor Laurence Harvey owned the film rights. He saw a copy of the film script and hit the roof. Osborne, he said, had lifted it from The Reason Why. Plagiarism! Enter the lawyers. Now it got worse. Their gloomy opinion was that Osborne ‘had helped himself liberally to stylistic phrases and descriptions’. A preliminary hearing went Harvey’s way. It’s a complex story with a simple ending. Harvey sold the screen rights on condition that he had a role in the film. He played Prince Radziwill, something of a fop. Richardson’s revenge, maybe. Film studios and film stars can afford lawyers. Most authors can’t, and an accusation of plagiarism is any author’s nightmare. I know, because I went through the whole scenario, from soup to nuts. Breach of copyright is an unusual law because so much of it comes down to common sense. He sweated blood, you pinched his words. You profited, he lost. That’s theft. But how major does the copying have to be? Poaching one original and juicy figure of speech from a fat novel may be dishonourable, but it’s small potatoes. How about a whole paragraph? Ten paragraphs? Fifty sentences? Two chapters? There is no hard and fast rule. It comes down to what the judge thinks is too much, and that depends on several things, including (as one lawyer told me) whether or not he’s had a bad egg for his breakfast. The battle usually starts with a shot across the bows from a solicitor in the shape of an ‘unless’ letter. This is an art form that deserves a postgraduate course at the University of East Anglia. The letter takes two pages to say that our client is shocked and appalled to find that your new book Naked Came the Doctor is a thinly disguised copy of his bestseller The Surgeon Wore a Dress, from which you have lifted plots, characters, dialogue, metaphors, similes, puns, jokes, surgical techniques and obscure recipes for chilli con carne, thus causing our client not only intense distress leading to probable creative paralysis but also irreversible damage to his professional reputation and loss of income of staggering proportions. Unless we receive from you by return of post a cheque amounting to all you own, plus 50 per cent in earnest of your grovelling apology, our client – depending on the trusty sword of fair play and the shining shield of British justice – will seek redress in the courts for your gross and shameless breach of copyright. You can ignore the ‘unless’ letter if you like. It’s only a threat, an attempt to shake some plums from the tree without doing any hard legal work. At first, my ‘unless’ letter puzzled me: the complaint was about a five-year-old novel, now hard to find. Why wait five years to sue? Then I understood. Recently, the Daily Telegraph had reported LWT’s plan to make a £5 million mini-series based on the novel. Hollywood has a saying: ‘First the hit, then the writ.’ I suppose the plaintiff thought I’d get most of the loot. If only. The writ arrived. It concerned my Battle of Britain story, Piece of Cake, and the plaintiff ’s 1940 memoir, Fighter Pilot – fiction versus non-fiction. He listed seventy-plus instances of alleged copying. Some were pretty desperate. His book mentioned rumours of Nazi paratroopers disguised as nuns, and so did mine; but then so did a hundred others. He compared quotes from the two books, and at first glance they looked seriously alike; but that was because he’d cooked the books. He’d selected lines or phrases that were far apart and then run them together to create a fake sentence. The lawyers called it ‘amalgamation’. I called it ‘cut and paste’. Some efforts were on a heroic scale. One leap between selected phrases jumped 224 pages. That takes nerve. We exposed all the manipulations. The case never went to court. The plaintiff had Legal Aid. I didn’t, but luckily my publishers were co-defendants, so we shared the pain. The case dragged on for seven years: not so much an action as an inaction. Finally we challenged the plaintiff on the grounds of unacceptable delay, and won. We didn’t get our costs, of course. The plaintiff was broke. Charges of plagiarism are an occupational hazard. Yet, as a judge said in a 1980 copyright case, it’s important that knowledge can be built on knowledge. If novelists could write about only what they personally had seen and heard, fiction would be pretty thin. No War and Peace: Tolstoy was born sixteen years after Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Every writer dips his bucket in a deep well – something that David Lodge learned painfully. In 1992 he wrote a lengthy article for the Independent on Sunday, alleging that Rachel Ford’s novel The Iron Master plagiarized his own novel Nice Work. As a result she lost her publishers. She sued Lodge and the Independent for libel. They settled out of court. He published a long apology. He had been totally wrong. Far from plagiarizing his book, Rachel Ford had looked back to Mrs Gaskell’s novel North and South (which, no doubt, Lodge had read too). Her publisher took her back, and Lodge learned to look before he leaped on a fellow-writer. He said he was very sorry. You can quote him on that. It’s not copyright.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 12 © Derek Robinson 2006


About the contributor

Derek Robinson is the third greatest cultural icon in Bristol. (The other two are Wallace and Gromit.) He writes gung-ho stuff about air combat and con artists. His latest novel, Red Rag Blues, features the conning of Senator Joe McCarthy, who was no joke.

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