Editorial – Issue 74

Love and theft

At first glance, what does and doesn’t constitute literary plagiarism looks pretty straightforward. Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh certainly thought so. They tried to prove in a London court that Dan Brown took “at least 15 core ideas” from their 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and used them in his mega-selling The Da Vinci Code. Closer to home, children’s writer and illustrator Gavin Bishop is sure someone in Hollywood nicked the storyline of his 1997 The Secret Lives of Mr and Mrs Smith, widely distributed in the USA, and made it into Brad-and-Angelina vehicle Mr and Mrs Smith.

On the other side of the fence, English writer Linda Grant was accused of plagiarism in her Orange Prize-winning novel When I Lived in Modern Times. Claire Tomalin and others have debated at length whether or not KM’s early story “The Child-Who-Was-Tired” was a rip-off of Chekhov’s “Spat’ khochetsia”. And the finger was pointed at Witi Ihimaera for certain passages in The Matriarch.

If you use someone else’s published words without permission and pass these off as your own, you are infringing the author’s copyright and committing plagiarism. And if an English student downloads an essay on T S Eliot from the internet and hands it in as their own, that’s plagiarism too. So far, so plain.

But what about part of a text: a line or phrase from a poem, say? After all, T S Eliot famously claimed in 1920 that “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”, and demonstrated his own maturity two years later in The Waste Land by pick-pocketing lines and phrases from all over Western literature, some of which he acknowledged in his notorious Notes. More recent poets will deliberately work lines from song lyrics into their poems. We don’t call that plagiarism; we call it clever allusion or egregious pretentiousness, depending on what we think of poem and poet.

The title of Bill Manhire’s latest collection, Lifted, hints at transcendence, but also at this type of literary borrowing; it even raises the possibility that all literature could be thought of as “lifted”. But if we discovered a poet lifting whole poems by unaccredited others, would that be plagiarism or postmodernism? It might depend on circumstances. For every text a context, they say; and intent and context must be part of the picture. Unconscious repetition can occur, and the writer may be more surprised than anyone when confronted with it.

The very idea of personal ownership of text, implicit in the concept of plagiarism, is a relatively modern one. Traditional ballads from the Middle Ages were common property. Singers would change or adapt words and/or tune without a second thought (ditto 20th century blues musicians). Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights stole lines, plots, characters, whatever they needed. The cento was a popular 17th century literary form made up entirely of quotations from other authors’ works. So The Waste Land could be seen as a modern cento.

What changed things was the Romantic obsession with originality, the spread of literacy, cheaper book production, and the possibility of writers making serious money. If Dan Brown’s book had ended up in the remainder bin, the question of suing would never have arisen. But even allowing for that, the plagiarism of ideas is a trickier issue. While it’s true that students writing an essay must attribute their sources, ideas (at least in a cultural and philosophical context) cannot be owned in quite the same way as text. Courtesy, ethics and trust may demand that what is borrowed be properly acknowledged, but there is no copyright in ideas, and, except in the clearest of cases, trying to prove intellectual theft is, as Baigent and Leigh found out, a waste of time, effort and money.

Another option is the sanguine view of Japanese writer Junichi Saga. When told Bob Dylan had lifted lines and phrases from his 1989 gangster novel Confessions of a Yakuza and used them in various songs on his aptly titled 2001 album Love and Theft, Saga said, “I’m ecstatic that such an influential singer was inspired by what I wrote.’’


Harry Ricketts and Jane Westaway


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