Saturday, 17 April 2010

Plagiarism and Borrowing


Some years ago, a friend suggested to me that another writer had ‘borrowed’ some aspects from one or more of my novels and utilised them in his own work. I took a look at the ‘offending’ work, and thought I could see what she meant. But it didn’t amount to plagiarism, and frankly it didn’t bother me.

Writers do need to avoid plagiarism. When I gave a presentation at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Fiction Festival at Harrogate in July, I told the story of the legal case where James Herbert was sued by an author of an author of a non-fiction book who claimed that a Herbert book called The Spear was excessively derivative. The judgment makes rather entertaining reading, but is a salutary reminder that care is required when using research materials. Thankfully, though, plagiarism cases that reach court are rare.

That is as it should be. The fact is that the borrowing of ideas and so on happens all the time, and it is a perfectly healthy activity, as long as it is kept within bounds. Shakespeare is the classic example of a recidivist borrower, but there are plenty of others. Coming up with a truly original idea (or witty one-liner, come to that!) is far from easy. Several writers have used the trick that Christie pulled in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, but so long as they give it a fresh spin, that seems fine to me. Christie even did it herself, with Endless Night. Sometimes, of course, there is no borrowing at all, conscious or unconscious – two writers just have a similar idea at much the same time. For instance, I doubt whether Christie was influenced, in writing And Then There Were None, by the American mystery The Invisible Host, which appeared a little earlier. And I was startled when my wonderfully original idea of finding a corpse on a waste tip (All the Lonely People) turned out to have been anticipated by G.D.H. and M. Cole, many years before!

It has, though, amused me on several occasions to give a nod, in my own fiction, to some of my favourite stories by other writers. Part of the idea for the main plot of The Devil in Disguise is a sort of spin on Christie’s After the Funeral, though I don’t know of any reader who has ever commented on it (although there is a pretty big clue in the book, which actually mentions the Christie novel.) In the same novel, I recycled a few of my favourite lawyer jokes. And my very first short story, ‘The Boxer’, was a homage to Conan Doyle’s wonderful story ‘The Red-Headed League’, but set in modern Liverpool. This sort of thing seems fine to me, and I enjoy it when I come across it in the books of others. The key to making it work, as so often in life, is not to over-do it.

15 comments:

Jilly said...

An interesting post I thought. Many people seem to forget there is no copyright in ideas. Two authors having the same idea at the same time seems to happen more often than we might think. David Lodge - The Year of Henry James - is an interesting discussion of this phenomenon

crimeficreader said...

And in other interesting developments, something I picked up on on Friday. A few book blogs (general) were writing posts about plagiarism in reaction to someone experiencing theft of their blog review material by another. Sad news eh?

Dorte H said...

There are only so many plots, aren´t there?

And I suppose you could see it as a compliment that you are good enough to imitate? Besides, as long as they only borrow plot ideas, I think the books will seem very different anyway.

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thank you for bringing up this point. There is a line between giving the nod to other authors (which is complimentary) and plagiarism, which is, as you say, to be avoided. Writers can't help but be influenced by others' ideas, and I know that I've benefited immensely from what I've learned from authors. So it makes sense that we see a certain amount of borrowing. I think that, as with almost anything else, it's best in moderation.

aguja said...

I enjoyed reading this post. I found it interesting and your outlook healthy regarding borrowing and plagiarism. Thank you!

Xavier said...

For instance, I doubt whether Christie was influenced, in writing And Then There Were None, by the American mystery The Invisible Host, which appeared a little earlier.

I have often wondered whether Christie had read Belgian mystery writer Stanislas-André Steeman's "Six Hommes Morts". It won the French Prix du Roman d'Aventures in 1931 and as was (briefly) custom back then enjoyed an English-language translation the following year as "Six Dead Men". The main theme of ATTWN, as well as some elements of its solution (I won't say more not to spoil anyone's pleasure) can be found in Steeman's book - Steeman provides a happy ending, though.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Jilly - I don't know that one and I'd be interested to seek it out. I've enjoyed a number of Lodge's books.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Crimefic - interesting! Another example of several people thinking about the same issue at the same time.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Dorte - I quite agree.

Martin Edwards said...

Margot - moderation is the crucial thing, I very much agree.

Martin Edwards said...

Aguja - thanks.
Xavier - I've never heard about this book, but it sounds fascinating. Can you tell me more about it, please?

Jane Finnis said...

I'm always worried about inadvertently picking up and borrowing small details from other books dealing with my period, i.e. the Roman Empire. Not plot especially, but tiny historical points which add so much to the depth of a setting. So I never read anyone else's novels about the Roman era while I'm working on one of my own. As my current w.i.p. has taken an unconscionable time, I've built up rather a backlog of books I'm longing to read by other Roman-era mystery authors - I'm in for some serious binge-reading when I get this MS done!

thousandmonkeys said...

Every writer borrows ideas, deliberately or not. Often an idea in a story isn't truly original but was picked up from an article in a newspaper or an overheard conversation - the originality comes in with the way that idea is developed. Say to two writers 'a man leaves his wife, quits his job and takes a holiday where he bumps into an old friend and learns to play guitar' and you will get two very different tales even if they're in the same genre.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Jane - very self-denying of you! But I do know several authors who do the same as you.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, thousandmonkeys!