The Borrowed Pen and Thought Crime

“Plagiarism, which many people commonly think has to do with copyright, is not in fact a legal doctrine. True plagiarism is an ethical, not a legal, offense and is enforceable by academic authorities, not courts. Plagiarism occurs when someone – a hurried student, a neglectful professor, an unscrupulous writer – falsely claims someone else’s words, whether copyrighted or not, as his own. Of course, if the plagiarized work is protected by copyright, the unauthorized reproduction is also a copyright infringement.

By the way, I cribbed every word of that first paragraph from Black’s Law Dictionary, which, in turn, was quoting (with attribution) from copyright guru Paul Goldsteins’ book Copyright’s Highway. If I hadn’t bothered to mention Professor Goldstein, I would have been guilty of the sin of plagiarism, but not the actionable offense of copyright infringement.”

-Mark Fowler, “The Unoriginal Sin: Differences Between Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement.”

We live in the Age of the Reboot, Remake, and Reinterpretation. Every Austen and Shakespeare reboot is pure profit because the original texts are in “public domain,” but retell LOTR, James Bond, or Lisbeth Salander in any form without permission from the respective author’s estate and the lawyers will be at your door. In 2009, Amazon erased Orwell’s two popular novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, from all Kindle devices because “the books were added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to them, using a self-service function.” It was very Big Brother of Amazon to enter houses all across the land like Santa Claus with nary a sound, stepping over sleeping cats and dogs, and stealing back kilobytes. Amazon did issue refunds; but there were many irate customers who woke up to discover that they couldn’t read George over their cup of Joe.

The line between honest (and creative) imitation and plagiarism lies in giving or not giving credit. The credit shouldn’t be necessarily explicit: it can simply be, for example, a character name or a setting that pays homage to the original work. Shakespeare took inspiration for Romeo and Juliet from Ovid’s story of Pyramus and Thisbe in the Metamorphoses, and yet there is no acknowledgment in the play or in the Folio; but he acknowledges his debt by placing the mythical story into Midsummer Night’s Dream as an intermezzo. It’s as if Shakespeare was saying: “I’m not trying to cheat, I know the story was done once before and I know you know it” (In the case of Pyramus and Thisbe, they did, because Chaucer had already rewritten it).

Borrowing an idea from the repertoire has always been permissible if the writer and the audience are literate to understand the reference. For example, the idea of visiting another world is as old as Greek and Roman mythology, so Dante called upon it when he wrote his Divine Comedy. No one would even dream of calling Dante a plagiarist; in fine arts, the Last Supper and the Doomsday were well-established topoi when Leonardo and Michelangelo created their respective masterpieces; but nobody calls them plagiarists. Karel Čapek borrowed the idea of “robots” from Yiddish stories around the Golem, which Gustav Meyrink brought to life in his 1914 novel, The Golem. Science fiction, the contemporary equivalent of mythology, is a genre particularly rich in borrowing and copying ideas. But Dan Brown did plagiarize Baigent & Leigh’s 1982 book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail since the ideas around Christ’s bloodline were not his own, not common knowledge, nor did Brown give credit or a nod to readers in the slightest way for them to judge for themselves; he never mentioned B&L in any interviews and when asked he refused to admit he had taken some of his ideas for The DaVinci Code from their book. B&L sued DB and lost.

Plagiarism has now become such a vital (and legal) question because “culture” is a business proposition. This is particularly true at a time when writers, like Dan Brown, are a “brand” and a “franchise.” There is the Tom Clancy franchise that allows approved writers to continue his characters and plots under the author’s scrutiny and his designated readers. Clancy gets a portion of the royalties from all these novels and also from video games developed from his novels. In Dante’s time (or Shakespeare’s for that matter) an author did not expect to make millions in royalties. There were no action figures of Virgil to be sold, no Inferno video games for Xbox or PS3, or any Halloween costumes of Cerberus or demons. What an author then might earn is meager for obvious reasons. There were no mass-production publishers or distribution systems such as Amazon. He may acquire some prestige and the hope for royal patronage. Some nobleman or king could decide to protect him, provide a stipend, and moneyed clients might come and also sponsor works because the author was much copied (therefore, good). On the other hand, if an author borrowed from Tradition without giving something back, the result was the shame and humiliation of being utterly derivative – a hack. Writers, from Dante to Shakespeare, may have written for faith, money, and patronage, but it was an honor-based system rather than law-based then. Invert all of this and you’ll see that Dan Brown’s publisher has more at stake than Dan Brown does.

That George Orwell is a prescient writer is now a cliché, which is why the aura of plagiarism around him is disconcerting. He had argued for ethics in journalism, for lucidity in writing, and wrote, of course, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), two dystopian novels. Or did he? There is a suspicious cloud of coincidences around Orwell and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We. George Steiner, writing about Orwell in his essay “Killing Time” for The New Yorker, quotes Orwell as saying that the novel was “not a book of the first order” but “superior to Huxley’s” Brave New World, 1932. The irony here is that Orwell acknowledged Huxley, but not Zamyatin. I’m certain Huxley, on reading his ranking, did not invite Orwell to tea. Huxley would cite H.G. Wells as his primary influence. In 1982, Polish author Antoni Smuszkiewicz accused Huxley of plagiarism, pointing to two of Mieczysław Smolarski’s novels as evidence. Huxley was long dead (died in 1963). He had dodged the solicitors. Steiner alludes to Orwell’s support for an English translation of We but describes Orwell as “distinctly muted” about it. The inference from Steiner is that Orwell maintained his opinion: second-rate novel. I think not, but first to the lesser charge of cribbing Animal Farm from another Russian writer. Say it ain’t so, George.

Orwell had spent time in Russia and might have known about Nikolai Kostomarov’s Animal Riot (1859, reissued 1917). In addition to numerous plot points between Animal Riot and Animal Farm, the similarities between the bull’s and Old Major’s speeches are – you decide. Nineteen Eighty-Four, however, is more vexing and troublesome: there are numerous Orwell letters, journal entries, and conversations about the Zamayatin novel while Orwell was writing Eighty-Four. Orwell started thinking about writing a dystopic novel in 1943 or 1944, but began writing his last novel in 1946, finished the first draft in 1947, and revised and edited the text in 1948. Two rushed editions came into existence in England and in the U.S., because the two countries use different punctuation conventions; but I suspect the real reason for the rush is that the publishers knew that Orwell was dying from TB. The book bounced back and forth between couriers and Orwell’s sickbed as copyediting sorted out nits in American and British verb usage. The book came out June 8, 1949. Orwell died January 1, 1950.

Orwell knew that he was dying. Is there evidence of any plagiarism? In January of 1946, the Tribune published Orwell’s review of We. Orwell had read We in French translation. An English translation would appear in 1924. Zamyatin’s novel about a futuristic dystopia was an underground classic in Russia, officially banned in that country until 1988. Zamyatin bears the honor or misfortune of having angered the leaders of three successive governments: the Czar, the Bolsheviks, and then Stalin. With the help of Gorky, Zamyatin immigrated to Paris in 1931, where he died in appalling poverty in 1937.

“Inspired by” is one thing; lifting the entire engine out of the car — plot, characters and tone — is another altogether. This was supposedly the case with Daphne du Maurier’s 1938’s National Book Award winner, Rebecca, and Brazilian writer Carolina Nabuco’s 1934 novel, A Sucessora (The Successor), or more recently Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi and Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar’s 1981 novella Max and the Cats. The authors had Brazil in common, but the outcomes of the author’s individual calls for redress were different: Nabuco sued and lost while Martel averted a lawsuit after a phone call conversation with Scliar. The irony with du Maurier and Nabuco is both stories owe a debt to Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights. Scliar’s name appeared in an acknowledgement in later editions. Orwell offered no such acknowledgement in any of the editions published during his lifetime. His publishers had an easy out: Orwell died and Zamyatin’s widow did not approach the Orwell estate.

Influence. Plato “influenced” every single western philosopher, but they acknowledge him, or at least it is understood amongst philosophers where Plato ends and the new argument takes off. No philosopher worries about the ghost of Plato visiting with a cup of hemlock. In literature there is certainly a tradition of “influence” and it is often handled in “allusion.” The author tips the hat – an act of homage, and it is assumed that the reader is cultured and knows the allusion.

2+2 = 5” in Orwell’s novel is an allusion to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, “two times two makes four.” The partial quoting is the homage and the “make it new” is tweaking it to “equals five.” My favorite allusion is more cryptic: T.S. Eliot wrote, “Time present and time past…” in The Four Quartets, as an allusion to Beethoven’s Opus 131. Two of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s titles are allusions to poems: Tender is the Night (Keats), and This Side of Paradise (Rupert Brooke), which he quoted as epigrams on the first few pages.

Readers have visited the Acknowledgements page in the front or back of the book in which the monastic author thanks neglected children, patient spouse, loyal agent and publicist, fretful editors, and the oligarchic publisher. Readers don’t see the epic invocation ‘Of books I have read’ or a list of “influential-works page,” the presence of which would improve the lives of graduate students. Allusions are covered in the clause in that contract between reader and writer. They are like Easter eggs on the latest DVD: you will either find them or you won’t.

Orwell discussed Zamyatin in private conversations with his friend and publisher, Fred Warburg, and in correspondences; but no editor or Warburg for that matter saw to it that the public would know what Orwell had done. Orwell did change things, such as names, but the parallels and similarities are uncanny. Then again, Orwell did not acknowledge James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, which Orwell also had reviewed and somewhat dismantled in Polemic. Burnham’s “great man” ripened the dark seed of Orwell’s idea of Big Brother. The benign version is L. Frank Baum and W.W. Denslow’s  Wizard. The pattern to Orwell’s possible thought crime is rather odd: the admired writer is the influence, not the second-rate contender. Orwell thought less of both Burnham and Zamyatin and yet these two authors influenced Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There is no doubt that other books could be called in as influences on Orwell: Jack London’s Iron Heel (1908), Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) but Zamyatin seems the most obvious, most overt and direct influence, and that is perplexing. We do know that Orwell had read all the books just mentioned. There are too many coincidences between Eighty-Four and We. Yet We would inspire other books and receive the author’s acknowledgement. Ursula K. Le Guin referenced Zamyatin in her The Dispossessed, as did Kurt Vonnegut in his Player Piano, although Vonnegut did it with aplomb: “cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.”

The problematic legacy of Orwell’s failed acknowledgement is that should an author come along and file a complaint today, it is to the detriment of that lowly author’s existence because now it is more than just receiving the cold stare of an established author, but also welcoming the snarl and growl of Legal which impugns the good name of Rottweilers and Pit Bull Terriers everywhere. Orwell’s two publishers and their teams of editors had done nothing. Sure, the accused author today may lose some credibility, but it is likely that the accuser will be dismissed as opportunistic, but the publisher stands to lose a lot more: money. The author is also a “property.”

Orwell’s case is ironic: isn’t the Net bringing us back to the times when the idea of copyright makes no sense? News articles appear page after page on the worldwide web, on numerous portals for various reporting agencies, different journalists, yet story for story, word for word, many of those reports are the same, verbatim without a comma unchanged. Nobody knows who is the true author. It is a Copy and Paste text and reality. Journalists call repeating text from article to article “backgrounders.”

“Anonymous” was a popular medieval author, but at least the guild systems believed in the self-regulatory virtues of the free market more than we do… funny, no? The common courtesy involved in borrowing pen is to write with it, return it after you have finished using it, and thank the owner; it is not all right to walk away with it.

Note: I plagiarized paragraphs two through five from a friend Claudio Ferrara. He didn’t want his thoughts back.

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About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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