While one might think of plagiarism as a problem primarily concerning students at university (by paying other people to do their work, or copying from other author’s without giving credit), it is also something that also plagues the arts, and works of literature in particular. Indeed, across the ages, there are tales of literary plagiarism, with some notable names being accused. One of the problems is that writers tend to be voracious readers by nature, and so they may well pick up many of their ideas from reading the works of others. Moreover, a writer might also admire the work of another author so much that they want to create a similar piece, and emulate the work of their idol – in much the same way that a budding musician might inadvertently create music that is similar to that of their influences.
Popular Cases of Literary Plagiarism
1. Helen Keller
One well-known case of literary plagiarism comes from a young Helen Keller, a deaf and blind American author. At the age of just eleven, Keller is known to have written a short tale about Jack Frost entitled ‘The Frost King’, after she learned about a story called ‘Frost Fairies’ written by Margaret Canby. However, although ‘The Frost King’ was published, it was later identified as having some remarkable similarities to Canby’s work, and Keller was accused of plagiarism – which is something that caused much pain for her. Nevertheless, whether this was done intentionally, or accidentally, shall never be known; but what can be said is that much of the responsibility for this oversight can be taken away from Keller, due to her very young age at the time.
2. Stephen E. Ambrose
Somebody who could not claim such diminished responsibility for plagiarism as a result of immaturity was that of American historian and biographer Stephen E. Ambrose. This is a man who had written biographies for two former Presidents of the United States, in President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, but who similarly got himself embroiled in a plagiarism scandal. Ambrose was found to have used other authors’ writing in his own books, without giving appropriate credit. Although Ambrose was accused of being a serial plagiariser, his book ‘Wings of Morning’ drew particular criticism for copying ideas and passages from Thomas Childers book ‘The Wild Blue’. Ambrose could not evade the allegations, as some passages were lifted word-for-word from Childers’ book, and he said that he would put quotations marks around these passages in later editions of his book. The fact that Ambrose died shortly after these allegations meant that he was never formally punished for these oversights, although a posthumous investigation revealed that many examples of plagiarism can be found in Ambrose’s work, leading to questions about whether literary plagiarists should face more severe punishments – just as students are punished with failure or expulsion when found guilty of plagiarism in their academic work.
3. Jacob Estein
While academic plagiarism is more clear-cut, and can be determined by long-standing and well-defined academic conventions in respect of referencing, the boundaries of plagiarism in literature are more difficult to determine. One such case to highlight this is that of author Jacob Estein, who was accused of plagiarising passages from celebrated British author Martin Amis. The case concerned Estein’s first novel ‘Wild Oats’, which contained passages from Amis’s earlier work ‘The Rachel Papers’. Epstein later admitted to the act of plagiarism, having copied various passages from Amis, along with other writers too. Nevertheless, Estein also claimed that the plagiarism was accidental, as it often is, and argued that it had been the result of unorganised note taking and lost citations. As such, whether this is true or not, it does seem to be a viable get-out clause for any writer who is accused of plagiarism, as it is very difficult to prove that such plagiarism was not an accident, and that it was done unintentionally.
It does seem, though, that there is a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism when it comes to literary works, and it might also be said that no work of fiction is truly original, as three-act structures are widely used, and certain themes and genres are well established. As such, it is permissible to reuse certain ideas in works of fiction, if a unique spin on the narrative is created. For example, the Star Trek stories revolve around a space bearing crew looking for life on other planets, and exploring the universe. Thus, there is nothing stopping anyone from creating another story that also involves a space bearing crew, on a similar mission, but the stories contained around this loose setting must be different, and must contain different characters within them. As such, inspiration from ones favourite genre or author can be used as a starting point, but the work must then deviate, and take on a life of its own – because if too many elements remain the same, or if specific ideas or characters are inserted into the text, then it could then be accused of being a work of plagiarism.
4. Jane Goodall
Plagiarism in literature, just like in the academic world, can also be a result of poor note taking, and can thus be unintentional by nature. This is what apparently happened to Jane Goodall, a primatologist whose 2013 book ‘Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From the World of Plants’ caused some controversy when she was found to have lifted some content for the book from various websites, which included free online encyclopaedia Wikipedia along with other websites that focussed on topics such as astrology, tobacco, and organic tea. Washington Post journalist Steven Levingston’s claimed that Goodall had borrowed passages for the book without attribution. Goodall accepted the claims, and promised to amend any future editions of the book with appropriate references. In determining the cause of such oversights, journalist Levington (2013) stated that:
“Often, the cause is speed and sloppiness in the research, sometimes performed by co-authors and abetted by technology that allows a writer to swiftly transfer passages from one place to another — and just as swiftly to forget it was done” (Source: The Washington Post)
As a result of these oversights though, the Washington post had refused to review Goodall’s book. In fact, in some sections of the book, the plagiarism was so overt and obvious, that if it was indeed unintentional as claimed, then it can be considered to be extremely sloppy work. Thus, one passage in the book states that:
“According to Oxfam, a British nonprofit agency working to put an end to poverty worldwide, the spraying of pesticides on tea estates is often done by untrained casual daily-wage workers, sometimes even by children and adolescents” (Goodall, 2013).
However, Levingston (2013) reports that this passage appears word-for-word on the website of Choice Organic Teas. As such, this lack of care with note taking has ultimately come back to haunt Goodall, if indeed the oversight was unintentional – which, as noted, is very difficult to prove one way or the other. What is particularly unfortunate about this case is that such humiliation could have been avoided if either Goodall or her publisher had simply run her work through a plagiarism detection platform such as Viper. In the Digital Age, publishing a piece of work without checking it for similarities with other works is highly unprofessional, and therefore deserves to be punished. It takes minutes to do such checks in the current epoch, and it can be done for a small amount of money – and this small investment can help to guard against any future lawsuits that claim plagiarism. So, it seems like a no-brainer really for writers to use such platforms to check their work; otherwise, accusations such as those faced by Goodall could become a reality.
Indeed, it might be said that every work of fiction is derivative in some way, as one cannot escape from one’s own culture easily, and the myths and legends that come with it. In this sense, every work of fiction is a text within a text, in some way, with even the very first work of fiction in history also likely to have been inspired by word of mouth, verbal stories, and cultural legends. This then, represents an evolution of ideas that has spanned uncountable generations across the aeons, and so one should not become paralysed through a fear of committing an act of plagiarism, as inspiration and plagiarism are two very different things. A truly original work of literature is not really realistic, but a work of fiction that significantly deviates from all others is, in respect of the characters created, the plot, structure, the way the story is told, and the setting. There are many elements that make up a work of fiction, and as long as most of these elements are unique and original in some way, then it is unlikely that the work will be identified as a work of plagiarism, and especially if the final draft is run through some dedicated plagiarism software, such as Viper. Thus, nowadays, authors have an advantage over writers such as Keller and Ambrose, when it comes to plagiarism, as contemporary technology allows writers to double check their work for any similarities with other works, through digital platforms that specialise in detecting plagiarism. As such, these kinds of platforms are not only useful for students hoping to avoid getting into trouble for copying other writers’ work without appropriate citations, but it is also of use to both budding and established authors alike. In fact, if you think that you are the next J.K. Rowling, are about to make millions on your debut novel, then it makes even more sense to check your work for any possible accusations of plagiarism, in order to avoid any future lawsuits, or tarnishing your reputation before it has even begun. Moreover, as all digital online content can now easily be checked for similarities in your work, then it makes sense to take advantage of such technologies, and to put your mind at ease if you are not sure where all of your ideas have come from. It will likely be the case that any similarities have been more rooted in inspiration rather than plagiarism, and if there are some instances where this inspiration crosses the line into the no man’s land that exists between inspiration and plagiarism, then it would be prudent to make a few changes, just in case.
While plagiarism has been an issue in the world of literature across the ages, the Digital Age has brought with it new challenges, and in many ways it has levelled the playing field. Through digital technologies, plagiarism is now much easier to detect, but it is also much easier for writers to check their work too, if they choose to take advantage of such technologies. There is a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism, but in the twenty-first century, this line can be more accurately and systematically defined, so that one can make a judgement on whether this line has been breached. Plagiarism is, no doubt, done on purpose, but it can also be the result of sloppy work, or poor note taking during the research process for a book, and so it is important to be responsible for your own content, and to be diligent in checking your final draft for plagiarism before sending it to a publisher. Plagiarism is a serious offence, and can result in extended lawsuits and the destruction of literary careers. It is something that all writers must be aware of and be diligent against, as book reviewers and journalists are only too happy to have a story to write about, and to reveal any instances of possible plagiarism. Moreover, the more successful a writer gets, and the more diligent that they must be – as the more people that see their work, and the more likely any plagiarism is going to be detected. So, if you are a writer of fiction or non-fiction, then be sure to check your work with plagiarism detection software such as Viper, and take full references when engaged in note taking.