Speaking Volumes: Plagiarism: the mashup defence

(Published in the Business Standard, February 23; my apologies for the late post, haven’t had time to update this blog for a while.)

The case of the estate of Adrian Jacobs versus JK Rowling is swiftly summarized: the late Jacobs wrote about wizards and wizard school before Rowling did, therefore she plagiarized him.

And the case of Helen Hegemann, the 17-year-old German literary sensation accused of plagiarizing material from creative artist Airen’s Strobo is just as swiftly summarized: there is no such thing as originality, Hegemann said, only authenticity.

Somewhere in between these two extremes, our definition of plagiarism as a literary crime will have to change.

Adrian Jacobs published The Adventures of Willy the Wizard: No 1 Livid Land in 1987, apparently through a vanity press. The author died in 1997. Jacobs’ estate didn’t file their plagiarism case earlier for technical reasons; now his lawyers charge that Rowling stole various ideas from Willy the Wizards, most notably for her book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Rowling calls the charges “laughable” and rejected the plagiarism charges fiercely. But as one of the world’s most successful authors, she is also inured to being at the receiving end of plagiarism charges.

A brief look at the excerpts from Willy the Wizard are enough to establish the vast, yawning gap between Jacobs imagination and writing skills, and Rowling’s far more intricate technique. Here is Jacobs in one of the contested passages—his lawyers allege that Rowling stole the idea of wizards playing chess on wizard trains from him:

“Willy had been on Cloud 84 which was for Wizard Chess Players.

These were pullman-like trains made of see-through platinum, and inside the trains were chess rooms. Willie was handicapped 18. There were Wizard Chess Masters who were virtually unbeatable. Willie had made a daring move.”

The Jacobs case is based on a simple, naïve assumption: content matters more than style. Unfortunately, there are only eight original plotlines in the world, if you believe Aristotle, and with literary fiction, what really counts is what you do with your material. In journalism and in narrative non-fiction, plot—and sources—are key, which is why we have the tradition of footnotes, attributing quotes and giving credit to those who come up with original ideas and analysis. The rules change with fiction: Jacobs no doubt honestly believed that he was the only author in the world to come up with the idea of wizard colleges and wizard transport. (Terry Pratchett invented the Unseen University for wizards before Jacobs, and Jill Murphy came up with Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches back in the 1970s, to name only two of Jacobs’ predecessors.)

If you followed the principle in Jacobs lawsuit to its logical extreme—the first person to write about an idea has absolute moral copyright over it—Stephen King would have been unable to write horror novels, because MR James had preceded him, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings would effectively have been ruled plagiarism from the Norse sagas. The Jacobs lawsuit will continue, but it is highly likely that Rowling will be able to prove the originality of her work.

Hegemann’s case is strikingly different. Her novel, Axolotl Roadkill, has been critically acclaimed despite the plagiarism charges. Viewed dispassionately, Hegemann has done exactly the same as another teen wunderkind, Kaavya Viswanathan. Some years ago, Kaavya’s runaway success, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed…, was withdrawn from the market after it was proved that the author had borrowed plotlines, characters and fragments of dialogue from several different sources.

Hegemann has never denied incorporating work from other authors into her novel; her defence is that attribution is unimportant, because she’s remixed the material in a way that makes it her own. She, and several commentators in Germany, don’t see this as a case of plagiarism so much as a case of lack of attribution: Hegemann said recently that she should have acknowledged her sources.

In the Jacobs-Rowling case, the battle is over what constitutes originality—and Hegemann’s generation, brought up in the mash-up culture, will inevitably challenge the sanctity of authorship. If literature can have several versions—and multiple authors, just as a web page is a constantly updating version of itself, then the yardstick will shift to the quality of the mashup, as you evaluate the author as remix artist. Airen, the author of the stolen work, was reported to be less than indignant about the theft and more concerned with attribution—and perhaps that’s where the legal issues will eventually rest.

It’s an intriguing and disturbing shift: a generation used to viewing the written word as so much raw material already has trouble understanding the need for attribution. Hegemann understands this better than most of us in the over-30 generation: this isn’t about the death of authorship, but about the death of originality.





One response to “Speaking Volumes: Plagiarism: the mashup defence”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Minor point, but I wonder… did Aristotle in fact say that thing about the eight original plots? I think it's much more recent than that. Just googled this reference: http://sismedia.wetpaint.com/page/Denis+Johnston's+7+plotsNakul.

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