Thursday 5 July 2012

On plagiarism...

I've come across some really interesting stuff this week, and I highly recommend you check out They have a huge collection of (links to) amazing articles by people like Malcolm Gladwell, the late and so-lamented Christopher Hitchens, Margaret Atwood, etc. etc. etc. You can read already published articles, submit your own, buy new content, and so on.

It was there that I came across Gladwell's 2004 New Yorker article "Something Borrowed." In it, Gladwell charts his thinking on the nature of plagiarism after a story he wrote about Dorothy Lewis, a psychiatrist who worked with serial killers, was basically hijacked and turned into a Tony-award winning play, Frozen, by Bryony Lavery. The article starts like this:

Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?

One day this spring, a psychiatrist named Dorothy Lewis got a call from her friend Betty, who works in New York City. Betty had just seen a Broadway play called Frozen, written by the British playwright Bryony Lavery. "She said, 'Somehow it reminded me of you. You really ought to see it,'" Lewis recalled. Lewis asked Betty what the play was about, and Betty said that one of the characters was a psychiatrist who studied serial killers. "And I told her, 'I need to see that as much as I need to go to the moon.'"

Lewis has studied serial killers for the past twenty-five years...showing that serial killers tend to suffer from predictable patterns of psychological, physical, and neurological dysfunction: that they were almost all the victims of harrowing physical and sexual abuse as children, and that almost all of them have suffered some kind of brain injury or mental illness. In 1998, she published a memoir of her life and work entitled Guilty by Reason of Insanity. She was the last person to visit Ted Bundy before he went to the electric chair...

But the calls kept coming. Frozen was winning raves on Broadway, and it had been nominated for a Tony. Whenever someone who knew Dorothy Lewis saw it, they would tell her that she really ought to see it, too. In June, she got a call from a woman at the theatre where Frozen was playing. "She said she'd heard that I work in this field, and that I see murderers, and she was wondering if I would do a talk-back after the show," Lewis said. "I had done that once before, and it was a delight, so I said sure. And I said, would you please send me the script, because I wanted to read the play...(and that's when Lewis realizes Frozen isn't about a psychiatrist LIKE her but that it was ABOUT her, that it had appropriated much of her life and her book. But what really bothered her were the parts NOT based on her life: the character has an affair with a colleague. Lewis worried that those who knew her and saw the play would think that she had had an affair with her collaborator in real life...)

(Near the end of the piece, Gladwell writes) When I read the original reviews of "Frozen," I noticed that time and again critics would use, without attribution, some version of the sentence "The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom." That's my phrase, of course. I wrote it. Lavery borrowed it from me, and now the critics were borrowing it from her. The plagiarist was being plagiarized. In this case, there is no "art" defense: nothing new was being done with that line. And this was not "news." Yet do I really own "sins and symptoms"? There is a quote by Gandhi, it turns out, using the same two words, and I'm sure that if I were to plow through the body of English literature I would find the path littered with crimes of evil and crimes of illness... (Read the whole thing at


Posting the link to the article on Facebook led to a discussion of plagiarism itself. And that reminded me of this related issue: does an artist "own" her/his artistic act? Is it appropriation to turn someone else's acts into a novel? Here's food for thought on this, about the artistic event that inspired Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo. Another piece on't, from CBC, titled "Famous cellist claims story stolen by Canadian author."

(How did I miss all this when it actually happened, I wonder??)

"Cellist Vedran Smailovic, a musician made famous during the Bosnian conflict in 1992..."

Please feel free to comment on any of these issues...

And let me leave you with this, perhaps the most loved cello piece in recent memory, Yo-yo Ma playing Bach Cello Suite No.1 - Prelude...

1 comment:

  1. Using the idea of other writers is a different thing, but using their lines amounts to plagiarism. Therefore, you need to remain conscious about content stealth.