Sunday, 7 October 2007

Plagiarism--the Sincerest Form of Flattery

"Imitation isn't the sincerest form of flattery, its plagiarism."--Red Skelton

"Art is either plagiarism or revolution."--Paul Gauguin

Perhaps the simplest definition of the word plagiarism is artistic or intellectual thievery. Our word plagiarism comes from the Latin word plagiare "to kidnap," the origins of the word being perfectly understandable given the nature of the act. Plagiarism is the misappropriation of another's ideas in order to present them as one's own.

While plagiarism is easy to define, it seems to me that it is much harder to prove that any given work, in any given medium, was produced through plagiarism. In fact, throughout the history of popular culture there have been lawsuits in which it was fairly obvious that plagiarism had taken place, and yet others in which one had to wonder why a lawsuit was even taking place. Curiously, there have been cases in which authors have sued claiming a given work, although very dissimilar to their own, was plagiarism and actually received money for it.

Indeed, one of the most famous plagiarism lawsuits in the history of film involved an obvious case of theft. Although regarded as a classic, the silent film Nosferatu is essentially an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. In fact, the production company Prana-Film GmbH had tried to get the film rights to the novel and failed. They then set about creating their own version of Dracula (with "Count Orlok" instead of "Count Dracula"), changing the novel's plot in only a few respects (Orlok does not create other vampires and he is vulnerable to sunlight, quite unlike Dracula). Anyone who has both read Dracula and seen Nosferatu can only conclude that Prana-Film GmbH wilfully stole from Bram Stoker's work. This was certainly the conclusion of Bram Stoker's estate. They sued Prana-Film GmbH and won. What is worse is that the Bram Stoker estate did not simply ask for money. They ordered every single copy of Nosferatu destroyed. Fortunately, collectors around the world preserved the film, allowing it to survive. Although a work of plagiarism, it is undoubtedly a work of genius. Although the film would survive, the company that made it would not. The plagiarism suit drove Prana-Film GmbH to bankruptcy. Nosferatu would remain the only film it ever made.

Another well known plagiarism lawsuit involved the movie The Terminator. Anyone who has watched the original Outer Limits will notice similarities between the movie and two episodes of that show written by Harlan Ellison ("Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand"). In "Soldier" two soldiers from a post apocalyptic future were tossed back in time. "Demon with a Glass Hand" centred on a man with a advanced computer contained in his left hand (which resembles glass) who is sent into the past. Of course, while The Terminator has a good deal in common with "Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand," arguably there is enough differences between them that it could have been possible that writer and director James Cameron did not intentionally plagiarise Harlan Ellison. After all, it is possible for someone to have an idea similar to one previously used in a work without ever having been exposed to that work; however, that does not appear to have been the case with James Cameron. While initially claiming that the inspiration for The Terminator came to him after being ill in Rome, he later told the magazine Starlog that he had drawn the idea from two episodes of The Outer Limits. And while The Terminator resembles "Soldier" but little, anyone who has seen "Demon with a Glass Hand" would have to wonder about Cameron's true inspiration for the movie.

At the outset Harlan Ellison was not inclined to sue James Cameron. Unfortunately for Cameron, his actions would lead Ellison to believe that he had wilfully plagiarised his work. Cameron had managed to have the Starlog article edited so that his quote regarding the origins of The Terminator resting with two Harlan Ellison Outer Limits episodes were removed. Unfortunately for Cameron, Starlog still had the original article. Ellison presented this evidence to Orion Pictures as proof that Cameron had plagiarised his work. As a result, the studio settled with Ellison out of court for $400,000 and story credit on all prints of the film. The bitter irony of the whole affair is that if Cameron had only approached Ellison prior to making the film and let him know that it was inspired by his work, he would have only settled for a Special Thanks credit on the film.

Of course, there have been plagiarism lawsuits in the world of cinema in which, at least to me, it seems obvious that plagiarism did not take place. I can think of no better example than a case involving the classic movie Alien. From the beginning writer Dan O'Bannon has always admitted where found the various inspirations for the film. Among them are Forbidden Planet (the sci-fi classic in which the crew of a spaceship face an invisible creature, inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest), It! The Terror from Beyond Space (in which the crew of a spaceship inadvertantly brings a murderous alien on board their ship), the Clifford Simak story "Junkyard (in which the crew of a spaceship stumble upon alien eggs)," Planet of the Vampires (involving the discovery of an ancient alien found dead at the helm of his spaceship), the Philip Jose Farmer story "Strange Relations (which involves alien reproduction), The Thing From Another World (based on John Campbell's Who Goes There, it centred on a murderous alien at an Arctic base), and many stories published in Weird Tales One story which O'Bannon never mentioned as a source for Alien was A. E. van Vogt's short story "Black Destroyer," the first story in a series centred upon the exploratory spaceship, the Space Beagle.

If O'Bannon never mentioned "The Black Destoryer" as a source of inspiration, it is perhaps with good reason. The story resembles the movie only insofar as both feature monsters aboard a spaceship. In "The Black Destroyer," a sentient, panther like creature called Coeurl boards the Beagle and systematically begins killing crewmen in order to feed on the potassium in their bodies. Coeurl then less resembles the Alien of Alien that he does the Salt Vampire from the original Star Trek episode "Man Trap." Regardless, A. E. van Vogt sued Twentieth Century Fox, who then settled out of court despite very little resemblance between "The Black Destroyer" and Alien. As to why Twentieth Century Fox did not fight the lawsuit I do not know. To me, it is fairly obvious that Dan O'Bannon did not plagiarise A. E. Van Vogt. Indeed, the movie more resembles Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and the movie It! The Terror from Beyond Space than it does "The Black Destroyer."

Curiously, while I can think of various plagiarism suits in the world of cinema, I cannot think of nearly as many plagiarism suits in the world of television. I find this curious as television has historically been a very imitative medium and I am sure that the average person can think of instances in which TV shows have, to put it bluntly, ripped off movies and even other TV shows. B. J. and the Bear was obviously inspired by Smokey and the Bandit (although it lacked a chimp). One Tree Hill obviously drew upon Dawson's Creek. Even a classic show, Star Trek, bears more than a passing resemblance to the movie Forbidden Planet. Perhaps it is because television is imitative by its very nature that plagiarism suits seem rare in the medium. Quite simply, without plagiarism on some level perhaps American television simply could not function.

Regardless, two plagiarism lawsuits in the medium of television come to my mind. The first involved the short lived TV series Future Cop. It also once more involved the author Harlan Ellison. The tale of the Future Cop plagiarism lawsuit began with the short story "Brillo," written by Ben Bova and Harlan Ellison. "Brillo" centred on a robotic police officer in the near future. Published in 1970, the two authors eventually pitched "Brillo" as an idea for a TV series to Paramount Pictures. Paramount Pictures passed on the idea, but shortly thereafter began development on the TV series Future Cop. Like "Brillo," Future Cop centred on a robot police officer. The differences only lie in that Paramount moved the setting of the series to the present, made the robotic police officer (named Haven) humanoid looking, and gave him a crusty mentor played by Ernest Borgnine. It took two pilots before the series finally made it to the air. When it did make it to the air, Future Cop only lasted for seven episodes on ABC. Still, Paramount had not given up on the idea. The series was revived in 1978 as Cops and Robin, in which Haven and his crusty mentor must protect a six year old girl who witnessed a murder. A new series did not emerge.

Despite its short run, the presence of Future Cop on American airwaves was not lost on Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova. Ellison sued ABC and Paramount Pictures, alleging that Future Cop was a plagiarism of "Brillo." Ellison would ultimately win $337,000 from the suit. Ellison would use part of his winnings to pay for a billboard across from Paramount Pictures which read "Writers -- Don't Let Them Steal From You! Keep Their Hands Out of Your Pockets!" The lawsuit is considered a landmark victory for writers in Hollywood.

Of course, as in the case of A. E. van Vogt and Alien, there have been plagiarism lawsuit brought because of TV shows even though it might be obvious to the average person that no plagiarism took place. Such was the case of the original version of Battlestar Galactica. Battlestar Galactica debuted on ABC in 1978. Concerning a fleet of refugees fleeing the Cylon Empire, there can be no doubt that it was riding the coat tails of Star War Episode IV: a New Hope. George Lucas suspected something more. He thought that in creating Battlestar Galactica TV producer Glen Larson had plagiarised Star Wars. To be fair, one cannot blame him for thinking so. After all, Larson's previous TV shows were pretty blatant with regards to their sources of inspiration. Alias Smith and Jones obviously drew upon Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. While Switch differed from The Sting in many respects, it was still obviously inspired by it. And as mentioned earlier, B.J. and the Bear took liberally from Smokey and the Bandit. That having been said, Battlestar Galactica appears to have been Larson's first original idea for a series. Beyond a few minor elements, it resembled Star Wars only insofar that both concerned wars in space. In fact, it seemed to me that this would be fairly obvious to anyone who had watched both. Regardless, at the urging of George Lucas 20th Century Fox sued Universal Studios, claiming they had plagiarised Star Wars.

It would be on August 22, 1980 that Judge Irving Hill ruled in favour of Universal, citing what the average person probably thought at the time, that there were substantial differences between Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. Among the differences Hill cited was the most obvious--that Star Wars centred on a rebellion against an galactic empire while Battlestar Galactica centred on refugees fleeing from a hostile, foreign power.

Of course, while plagiarism suits seem rare to me in the world of television, they seem to be more common in the world of music. Indeed, they seem downright frequent. That having been said, it seems to me that when it comes to music, it can often be hard to prove an instance of plagiarism. There is no better example of this that the case of George Harrison's song "My Sweet Lord." It was not long after the song's release that a lawsuit was brought against Harrison alleging that he had plagiarised the song "He's So Fine," a hit for The Chiffons in the Sixties. Admittedly, the chouruses of the songs are very similar, as anyone who has heard both will soon realise. But Harrison was not ruled to have intentionally plagiarised "He's So Fine." Instead, it was ruled that in 1976 that George Harrison had unintentionally, subconsciously plagiarised the song. That is, when he wrote "My Sweet Lord" he did not realise it was inspired by "He's So Fine." Harrison was forced to pay Bright Tunes Music (who owned the copyright) $587,000.

While George Harrison was found not to have intentionally stolen from He's So Fine, the same case cannot be said for R. Kelly. Kelly wrote the song "You Are Not Alone" for Michael Jackson, a hit for the singer in 1995. Just last month a Belgian court found that the melody to "You Are Not Alone" was too similar to a song written by veteran Belgian composers Eddy and Danny Van Passel in 1992 to be coincidence. As a result, "You Are not Alone" was banned from Belgian airwaves.

Of course, Eddy and Danny Van Passel are relatively well known (at least in parts of Europe). Perhaps the majority of plagiarism lawsuits in music are brought by unknown songwriters and performers. In the Eighties Patrick Alley, a Jamaican reggae performer, alleged that Mick Jagger had plagiarised his song "Just Another Night." During the trial Jagger produced evidence to show the development of his song "Just Another Night" and how it was not created through plagiarism. Ultimately, the jury found that Jagger had not plagiarised Alley's work and the two songs actually had very little in common (the phrase "Just another night with you" being about the only thing). At least Alley's song had that much in common with Jagger's song. Other times lawsuits have been brought by unknown composers when the songs have virtually nothing in common. Amateur songwriter John J. Benson sued Coca-Cola in 1983 alleging that their jingle "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" plagiarised his song "Don't Cha Know." He copyrighted "Don't Cha Know" in 1960 and spent years trying to sell the song. Benson claimed that Coca-Cola used his music but replaced its lyrics. Ultimately, the court ruled that apart from a few notes, the melodic content of the two songs did not resemble each other in the least.

The vagaries of music copyright would eventually produce one of the most bizarre lawsuits in history, not mention a landmark one. In 1994 John Fogerty (best known as the leader of Credence Clearwater Revival) left Fantasy Records for the greener fields of Warner Brothers. Owning the music rights to Credence Clearwater Revival's songs, Fantasy Records owner Saul Zaentz sued Fogerty, maintaining that his solo song "Old Man Down the Road" plagiarised the Credence Clearwater Revival song "Run Through the Jungle (here it must be noted that both songs were written by Fogerty)." In a landmark decision, the court decided in Forgerty's favour, pointing out quite sensibly that one cannot plagiarise himself.

I won't discuss literary plagiarism here, as it seems to me that most literary plagiarism lawsuits have been fairly well covered elsewhere. Indeed, perhaps the best known of late was Nancy Stouffer's lawsuit alleging that J. K. Rowling has plagiarised her work. Not only did Stouffer's work, The Legend Rah and the Muggles resemble the Harry Potter series only insofar as both used the word "muggle," but it was uncovered that Stouffer had both submitted fraudulent documents and offered fraudulent testimony. Ultimately, her lawsuit was dismissed and she was fined $50,000 and forced to pay the plaintiff's legal fees due to her "intentional bad faith conduct."

Speaking as a writer, I can safely say that plagiarism is wrong. That having been said, I must also admit that it can also be hard to prove and even hard to recognise. When does a work cease to be inspired by another work and begin to plagiarise from it? In some instances, this can be fairly obvious (Nosferatu and Dracula being a prime example). In other instances, it might not be so clear. And it seems possible that many cases of plagiarism are not intentional. Although the scientific validity of the phenomenon of cryptomensia (in which someone believes they are creating something original, when in truth they may be drawing upon something he had heard or read years ago, but forgotten) has been questioned, I believe it does occur. I think most writers, including myself, can recall times when we thought we were creating something original only later to realise it was drawn from something we had read or seen. Fortunately, most of us catch such things before they reach publication. But not all of us do. I believe George Harrison did not realise he was plagiarising "He's So Fine" when he wrote "My Sweet Lord." I also believe that Helen Keller did not realise her story "The Frost King" was inspired by "The Frost Fairies" by Margaret Canby. For better or worse, the complexity of the human mind can result in unintentional acts of plagiarism.

Sadly, intentional acts of plagiarism are all too common. There can be no doubt that Paramount wilfully stole from Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova in creating Future Cop. And Prana-Film GmbH full well knew what they were doing when they turned the novel Dracula into the film Nosferatu. When such instances occur, the only resort the original author has is to turn to the courts. Fortunately, the past many years have seen the courts favouring authors as opposed to corporations, making it less likely that plagiarism will take place. Of course, as always, there will be those who will try to kidnap other's ideas.

1 comment:

Bernard Cohen said...

I know the actuality of the just another night song. are u interested?