Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Holy Plagiarised Madonnas!

Now Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code interests me not at all, and I'd happily go along with The Visitor's assessment of its literary merits. But I have been watching the press for news of the plagiarism trials against the author, because the issues raised are important to all fiction writers who use information from other published sources. At what point does using become plagiarism?

Last August, Brown appeared at the District Court in New York to defend himself against the claims of writer Lewis Perdue that he had lifted elements of the Da Vinci Code from two of his novels, Daughter of God, (2000) and The Da Vinci Legacy (1983). Purdue said he felt violated, like somebody had broken into his head. The judge concluded that:
Any slightly similar elements are on the level of generalised or otherwise unprotectable ideas ...
- a line that was used by Dan Brown's defence in the current hearing at London's High Court where two historians Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh are suing Brown over his plagiarism of their earlier work The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

As copyright lawyer David Hooper says in the Guardian:

If people were able say that's my idea, that's my theme, it would make the whole creative process incredibly difficult. ... It's one thing if somebody has picked up somebody else's book and copied large chunks of it, but how on earth do you know if somebody's taken too much of somebody else's theme?

Anyway, it's interesting to make comparisons with another case that came to light some years back. The following from Moby Lives:
You've got to admit, it's an unusual premise for a book: a little boy survives a shipwreck and winds up sharing a lifeboat with a large, predatory cat. Sound familiar? ... Well, if you're thinking it's the premise of one of the most talked–about novels of the year, "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, last month's winner of the Booker Prize, you're right. But it also turns out to be the plot of book called "Max and the Cats," by esteemed Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar ... which was published in 1981.
Scliar decided not to sue, although he certainly had a case. Purdue intends to appeal against the New York court's decision. I don't hold out much hope for him, but at least the publicity should be good for his book sales.

25 comments:

animah said...

Under the law, ideas are not protected by copyright, neither are facts. What is protected are the ideas reduced to a material form. So Sharon, you and I could have the exact same idea but written in slightly different styles. If I have got my idea for a plot from your story, but written in a different way, I have not infringed your copyright. If however I take a substantial chunk of your story (word for word, or perhaps a slight variation) and put it in mine, then I have.

I have read both Holy Grail Holy Blood and the DaVinci Code. The holy Grail book is more a factual book setting out a theory of what the holy grail actually is. I am sure Dan Brown got his ideas from there, but probably also did other research. TO my mind, he has not infringed the authors' copyright.

bergen said...

I got a strong feeling that's how the real Mona Lisa looked like, the one the world is so used to seeing is a compromised version between Da Vinci and the religious authority. Of course I wouldn't wanna bet my left ear on it.

bibliobibuli said...

animah - it's great to have our own resident lawyer in attendance! ... anyway this means then that i can nick your story about the owl and you can't sue me?

bergen - you could be right! i like the way its a plagiarised and distorted mona ... it fitted the entry better than the book cover

Anonymous said...

So there you are.. just rip off someone else's general theme and plot, and make sure there's a fair amount of marketing. How hard can that be ? :)

Diran Kesuma said...

I love that mona lisa with a little distortion! I wonder how people would plagiarize and distort my image... not to sound narcissistic but i'd like to see a muscular figure. Say... what do you think a feminist would say to this blonde monalisa?

Lydia Teh said...

What Animah said makes a lot of sense. Ideas/themes can't be copyrighted otherwise lawyers would all be multi-millionnaires and the lay people, paupers for having been sued left right and centre.

The Visitor said...

i disagree.

if i have an idea for a story about a videotape that kills anyone who watches it, and someone else came up with a story about a videotape that kills anyone who watches it, i sure as hell am going to sue the pants off the blighter.

isn't this a legit case to bring to court? aren't ideas protected too?

let's hear some opinions!

Jane Sunshine said...

I thought that Shakespeare plagiarised as well? Now somebody should sue him as well.

Lewis Perdue said...

Random House seems to be the only party which persists in trying to make the world think that themes, facts and other generalities are what I am trying to protect.

This is why they have tried so hard to keep matters from coming to trial and convinced the District Court NOT to admit the expert witness analysis or his data into evidence.

As shown by that analysis, the extensive and comprehensive plagiarism of my work consists of several hundred very specific instances of infringed expression.

In addition, many more have been documented after that report had been completed.

A complete archive of all legal filings can be found here.

qaminante said...

I can't comment on plagiarism of LP's novels since I haven't read them and so am in no position to compare them, but assuming that these novels were also written later than "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" (which I have read), I wonder why Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh aren't suing HIM as well as DB for using their "idea" (or are they?)? I was astonished at the public interest in the Da Vinci Code as the theories in question are far from new, there were several supposedly factual books and TV programmes about them, especially in France, years before this novel came out. If Baigent and Leigh succeed in suing novelists for fictionalizing what they are, after all, claiming as the correct view of historical events, presumably we can expect anyone who writes a novel featuring a real historical character to be sued by any historian or biographer who wrote a book describing the events of their life, in terms that the novelist follows.

Anna said...

I wonder how Leonardo would have reacted at the sight of his transformed Monalisa. It has been said that his male lover posed for the original one... Caricatures were not on fashion, at that time, copying or better 'emulating' the masters was. And they felt honoured! Maybe lawyers had not come up with the idea of copyright? Then, let's imagine that Leonardo (through a time machine) discovers that his well kept secret code has been tampered with, distorted for instance, and the guy who did it makes a lot of money out of it, and walks freely around without any fear of being burned (physically) at the stake of the Catholic church (ISA act of a few passed centuries. Thank God, they have lost that power). How do you think Leonardo would have reacted? Would he have called his lawyers on his cellular to think of a stategy to shut up the intruder? Well, the plot is open, and if I stick to it, I might be able to gain fame on the trail of all the other suckers.

The Visitor said...

Anna, ur waaayyyy off mark there. we're talking about ideas and themes, not secret codes. let's not bring time machines into this. and btw, copying a work for parodies and satires are recognised as legal. otherwise MAD magazine would have gone bust a long time ago.

hey, this blog is getting damn popular! the writer himself has just left a comment!

snowdrop said...

In relation to the discussion requested by The Visitor and without going into the actual merits of the LP v DB case (of which I am not commenting on since I do not know the facts): let me repeat what has been said by the others - IDEAS for literary works are not protected by copyright, never have been. And for that matter, facts are not protected too. What is protected is the EXPRESSION of that idea. Put very simplistically, copyright law seeks to strike a balance between protecting an author's work (and thence his income, reputation etc) and permitting growth and development of the arts and sciences and allowing the dissemination of information. I'm not saying it always manages to do so successfully, just that REALLY, people, be reasonable. How many truly original IDEAS have you come across in the many many books you have read? Would you rather the books not have been written at all?? Now bring that thought to a more macro level - would we now be talking about different "eras" and "periods" and "movements" - renaissance, impressionist, expressionist, just to name three - if one artist (please realise here that I use this term to mean a creator of artistic and literary work, not just a painter or sculptor) were not allowed to follow in the style of another? [yes I know this has gone beyond the simple "can you copy my idea" question, but that's how discussions go, hey? :) ]

Lydia Teh said...

Yeah-loh, Visitor. I did a double take when I saw his name up there.

Anyway, with regards to someone "stealing" your story of a videotape that kills anyone who watches it, I think you won't succeed in suing the fella. It's a very general idea. However, if there are specifics in it like say, the videotape was about this blogger with an AFro hair-do making up ghost-stories, then you may have a case.

aneeta said...

the visitor, you asked this about the scenario you created: isn't this a legit case to bring to court? aren't ideas protected too?

The answer: not necessarily so. the thing is, from what I remember of IP Law, the operative word is 'substantial'. how substantial is the copying/infringement? just because somebody created another movie based on your theme is not infringement. if they used the same words, the same setting, the same conversations then, yes, you might have a case. but if it's just the theme, then no.

I think, this is what LP is trying to get at. He claims that the report he's talking about, which from what I can gather has been deemed inadmissible as evidence in the matter, shows that there has been substantial copying of his works. that is a very subjective issue which needs loads of submissions by lawyers; we have had full lectures on this and one can get waylaid about how 'expert' the expert is.

i have not practised ip law in a long time so, i may be mistaken, here. Aminah ... your legal opinion here ...??

Anna said...

Ah Snowdrop, you make me melt with your 'macro level'. Are you a lawyer? If yes, gimme your number, never know when i'll be famous...! The Visitor, you display the typical male 'let's stay rational and on target or I might lose my erection'. Uh! Look, do not feel offended, it does not come from me, it comes from a book I read sometime ago: 'Why women can't read a map and men can't listen'. Now, I CAN READ A MAP, does that mean I am waaaaaaay out of the target! You have to let come out, it's a huge subject, so a little straying here and there will engross the flow of discussion. I guess, I am still not clear to you... You cannot please everybody!

The Visitor said...

Anna,

i have been told i am quite hard to please!

u talked about secret codes embedded in a painting. i believe that's a whole different ballgame. if i hide a secret message inside my story, then can i sue someone for discovering that secret message and tampering with it? i think that might not be a copyright issue, but something else altogether.

Animah, where are you???

The Visitor said...

OK, so maybe we've established that an idea alone cannot be copyrighted. so in the case of my scenario there, in which case forms the basis of the plot, i would feel it's unjust if i cannot sue someone for using the same scenario.

unless of course, the person uses a scenario where a DVD kills anynoe who watches it, or a cassette tape, or something else, then maybe there is enough of a difference between the two ideas.

Anna said...

Good exit, The Visitor. No one can say it was lame and tame nor... bloody. Although, next time, just for you, I'll make sure that I enunciate my ideas as i have been taught in school: 1. a) b) c)

The Visitor said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Visitor said...

OK, nevermind.

sheesh.

bibliobibuli said...

i was getting most frustrated yesterday as i was having serious computer problems and could read your comments but not respond to them thanks to the little worm that decided to take up residence on my hard disk ...

it was surely one of those magical days when i post up something that interests me and the topic gets taken up and expanded upon and debated by everyone else and i learn a whole lot in the process ... it was particularly good to have the lawyers turn up and add a different dimension and the visitor look at it from the filmmakers' perspective

to be honest with you, i'm not quite sure yet what i think ... it's so often a grey area and many writers have taken plots from elsewhere in the past inc. shakespeare ...

i was totally gobsmacked to see the comment from lewis purdue above ... and recommend that you do go and read what he has written about his own case ... i shall have to buy your books now, you know! very many thanks for taking the time and trouble to leave a post and i wish you all the best in your appeal

i know that now i will be reading about the ongoing court case with even greater interest

Anonymous said...

That's why it's easy to write. It's VERY easy to write. I could sit here and just go on and on, throw stuff together randomly from pieces of every book, a guy gets shipwrecked and decides to talk to a football until he meets a great cat which talks (and has black shiny fur and green eyes) and then the both go of exploring. Then you can explore human/animal dynamics, I mean it must be hard to live with a human, how inconsequential and ill-equipped for survival is that ? no claws, no real teeth (those aren't teeth, those are bony projections)...

So anyway, man and beast come to appreciate each other's advantages and learn to help each other instead of comparing. End of story.

This story's probably been written already somewhere, so sue me already.

Anonymous said...

Most worms are easy to remove. There're online dewormers, and stuff like that. Or maybe we can meet somewhere with Internet access and then we can see what needs to be done.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks - my computer guy has taken my cpu away for the weekend to fix a ram problem anyway