A serious day today, and a serious post on the subject of writing.
It is generally a good thing for people to do their own work. In the writing profession, for example, penning your own words is a good start. Sure, linking to others and replaying good articles is a part of the blogging world, but out-and-out plagiarism is just … well, let’s call it cheating. And nobody likes a cheater.
It’s bad enough in politics, where we have come to expect cheating in a general sense and where we even see it creeping into the written word. Ted Kennedy, for example got kicked out of Harvard for cheating. Lifting text straight out of someone else’s speech and not giving credit, like Joe Biden did in the 1980s, does not go over well.
But when allegations of stolen ideas enter the world of literature, then we are talking about a threat to our very culture.
Or at least some deep pockets.
Because the latest “word theft” accusation just happens to target a book that has sold nearly 30 million copies around the world, has created an entire industry around it, and is the basis for what is likely to be Hollywood’s blockbuster hit of 2006, you are in a different league.
Yes, I am talking about Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” And yes, there is another lawsuit
, this time in the UK, claiming that he lifted the book’s theme and details from a 1982 nonfiction work about the Holy Grail and a possible Jesus bloodline.
The main problem for the plaintiffs is that when it comes to the written word, the law does not protect ideas but rather presentations of those ideas. So I was not surprised to hear that lawyers reached an agreement last week in London on technical details of the case, prompting the publisher’s spokesman to say that the accusers would drop a "substantial part" of their claim.
You might recall that a couple of months ago, a judge here in the United States decided that Brown’s book was not so alike in substance to the book “Daughter of God” that it infringed on the latter’s copyright.
Brown certainly read all kinds of things about the Holy Grail and studied numerous scholarly works—after all, his novel is massively popular worldwide because it links history, conjecture, and drama together so compellingly.
He may have even relied upon the very books in question for much of his research. I, for one, am quite OK with that: How else would you expect him to write in such detail about the historical controversies underlying his drama?
In a previous post, I mentioned that “The Da Vinci Code” succeeds more because of its sense of history than its literary gravitas. Let’s face it; Brown’s characters are not well developed. If the courts start to rule that writers cannot borrow ideas from different sources and combine them in creative new ways, we are all in trouble, because nobody can come up with entirely new ideas all of the time.
We would have, for example, no “Star Wars,” which George Lucas quite openly admits is a melding of ideas from early science fiction, Japanese cinema, and especially enduring common myths.
There just are not that many basic plots out there; some say seven, some say nine, and others say the number is in the teens somewhere. But the point is always the same.
It’s what the author adds to the basic storyline—the direction and the development—that makes a story unique.
I think most of us would hate a world in which the law forces us to watch our backs. To document every thought that occurs to us after seeing another work of art. To research sources that we have NOT used, simply to protect ourselves from potential lawsuits.
Writing can be hard enough, so let’s not go there.
(If I have borrowed these words from any of you, call my lawyer.)