Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Plagiarism Everywhere.

I know no one reads this other than my girlfriend and some Greek Orthodox Fundamentalist law enforcement officer hot mom from Chicago. All the same, I want to blather about plagiarism and intellectual property rights a bit, if only so that I get it out of my system. I’m sparing my girlfriend the rant that’s building in me. She’s really good at nodding graciously when I go off on these dull tirades at dinner time, but I know they bore her. Given that she’s younger and better looking than I am, and may wake up to that fact at any moment, I’ll be wise to vent it here.

I worked for the Authors Guild for five years. The Guild is sort of like a union for folks who write books. It doesn’t have collective bargaining power, but it does offer other services one associates with a union. Dispute resolution, friend of the court briefs, industry research, blah blah. Mainly, people called in seeking membership because they had a problem.

Many of the problems they had were legit. The caller wrote and published a book and the publisher had just filed for bankruptcy. The author needed help getting their money out of the bankrupt publisher. Happens all the time. We could help with that.

Just as frequently, people called because they were crazy and thought they had a problem. The most common kind of crazy went like this. “I wrote a book about vampires in 1974. I self published it on a mimeograph machine and distributed the copies to homeless shelters in the North East. I have now discovered that Stephen King also wrote a book about vampires. It was released soon after my book was published. Stephen King obviously plagiarized me. Help me sue him.” I am paraphrasing a real phone call from a crazy person here.

We never assisted these people, and not merely because they were crazy. First off, the Guild has a standing policy of neutrality when it comes to inter-author disputes. We also did not assist them because anyone can write a book about vampires. No one owns the concept of vampires. Just like no one owns the concept of bank robbers, or hookers with hearts of gold, or sassy young professional girls just trying to make their way in the big city. Also, no one owns the idea of Christ on the Cross, Templar conspiracies, Jewish Conspiracies, teen love or animals that talk.

My boss instructed me to tell these people, “You can’t copyright an idea.” And it’s true. You can’t. Sorry. If I decide to assume the voice of an egomaniac with dead parents and a little brother in a memoir, or if I choose to write about my impoverished childhood on the dank shores of the Ten Mile River in North Attleboro, Mass., neither Dave Eggers nor Frank McCourt will successfully sue me so long as I don't obviously base my work on theirs. I can't name my little brother Topher or have my Mom fuck her cousin, that would be too close. But generally I can use the basic scenario.

You can only copyright the expression of an idea. That’s a fine point that gets by a lot of people. The concept of raising a little brother without parents is not copyrightable. The sequence of words that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius comprises is copyrightable.

I bring this up because lately people have gone a little crazy with their accusations of plagiarism. Maybe it’s that the Internet allows folks to more easily draw connections between works. Maybe it’s because people are bored and looking for trouble. I don’t know. But everyone needs to get a grip.

Some of the accusations are legitimate. That overachieving Harvard girl who wrote a Young Adult novel obviously stitched together paragraphs from other young adult novels. The case is so cut and dry, it’s not worth discussing. I believe the story got play because the theft was lazy, and almost anyone who didn’t attend an Ivy League college loves to see an Ivy Leaguer smeared with shit.

But most of the time, the outrage aimed at certain creative people is just a bit off the mark.

Today, implied that their favorite whipping-boy James Frey is ripping off the John Cougar Mellancamp song “Jack and Diane.” Why? Well because he’s written a bit about two young middle-american kids, a boy and a girl, who are obviously poor and in love. That’s it. That’s the similarity. Of course some lawyers should send a letter to Stephen Malkmus for “Jenny and the Ess Dog.” And Bruce Springsteen should be dragged into court too for "Thunder Road." Or maybe Bruce is the beginning of this daisy-chain of rip-off. But then there’s the Chuck Berry song, “You Never Can Tell” which tonally is different, but it’s still touches the subject matter of young lovers facing off against the world. Of course there’s a precedent to that song too. It's called Romeo and Juliet. Anyway, you get the idea.

Last week there was a pig-pile on Ian McEwan followed by a subsequent defense from other novelists. His novel Atonement drew heavily on the memoir of a war nurse. He cited the memoir in his book and at readings. Some of the passages in his book also echoed passages in the memoir, but really, how many ways can you describe the broken bodies of wounded soldiers? And why is this coming up now? The book was published in 2001.

Usually the rip-off accusations are limited to lower brow authors and songwriters, for lack of a better term. McEwan is a a bit of an exception to the rule. Daniel Brown, the definition of low-brow and the author of the Da Vinci Code, has fought off lawsuits from some people who think the notion of Christ as a literal father is their exclusive clever idea. (It is not. No matter what Seth Mnookin tells you.) Despite his earlier victories, more lawsuits have been filed. Meanwhile, David Mamet, god bless him, steals with impunity. “American Buffalo” is essentially an Americanization of “Waiting for Godot.” It is called homage, rather than rip-off. Glengarry Glen Ross blatantly, and artfully, synthesizes two earlier masterpieces, “Death of a Salesman" and the Maysles brother’s documentary “Salesman” into a work that is at least as good as the art that informed it. Sadly, Mamet has begun setting his sights a little lower these days. His new TV show, “The Unit", is an estrogen laced re-tooling of the “A-Team” that suffers from a lack of explosions, nifty building sequences, and most obviously, Mr. T. So far as I know, the Beckett estate, the Maysles brothers and Stephen J. Cannel have not retained attorneys to sue Mamet.

In the McEwan case, he’s somewhat inocculated against a lawsuit because he clearly lacked intent. He cited the woman’s work left, right and center. But this doesn’t stop the shrill haters out there. If it’s any consolation to McEwan, he is in esteemed company. When I was an undergrad a similar controversy arose, claiming Martin Luther King had plagiarized portions of his Ph.d thesis at Boston University. That was my alma mater, so I took a few minutes to check out the thesis. His crime? He forgot to write “ibid” in a few footnotes. It was obviously a copyediting error, but still people got their panties in a twist about it. How much do you need to cite your sources? I mean for Chrissakes, it’s Martin Luther King. I think he gets a mulligan on an ibid or two, don’t you?

Well ultimately, no. So long as there are Jack Shafers, Seth Mnookins and the biddy brigade from Gawker about, you’ve got to be on your toes.

So what, right? You don’t care. You’re not an author. What does it matter? Well, it does matter. Right now we’re seeing the way it matters in film more than anything. Intellectual property “rights” have run amuck in that art form. If you have the time, check out "Bound By Law" an instructive comic book put out by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

Now I know essayists for Slate and Vanity Fair don’t count as legal precedent, but judges are influenced by a lot of factors. And their tendency these days is to err on the side of restriction. How happy are you going to be when songwriters like Yusef Islam, nee Cat Stevens, decide to have another artist’s music pulled from the shelves because it shares a freaking chord progression with a b-side written thirty-five years earlier? Go on, shrug, but the Flaming Lip’s “Fight Song” is ten times the recording that “Father’s and Sons” ever was. And there’s a good chance that a book that “plagiarizes” earlier work will also be an improvement. That’s how art happens.


greencan said...

Soooo, you think I'm hot? Nevermind. I do see your point. We just had a shootout in Chicago because some idiot thought his lawyer stole his unique idea of portable toilets (which he couldn't patent because it was already patented). So he killed three people. Obviously he was crazy. But come on people!
I'm going to repeat another posting I commented it not conceivable that of the millions of people on this earth, someone has the same idea you do?

John McCloskey said...

Actuallly, my girlfriend is more into you than I am.