Saturday, April 21, 2012

Like complaining about saucy language in Sodom and Gomorrah

Here's an idea for a novel: in a dystopian future/alternate history, the country is governed by a totalitarian central government that forces teams of teenagers to battle to the death in an annual televised event. In the hands of competent writer it's a premise that could generate plenty of drama and suspense and it has highly cinematic elements.

I'll get back to that idea in a minute but first I want to direct your attention to this recent post by Andrew Gelman. Go ahead, take a look. I'll wait...

There are a number of things to discuss here but let's start with this assertion quoted by Gelman:

“The essence of plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work as your own."

This nicely catches the stark moral terms that we often see in this debate, but when look at this more closely, particularly when we look at what's entailed in different types of plagiarism and the reactions to those types, the picture is a bit murkier.

Let's go back to the idea from the top of the page and fantasy stories about young adults. Back in the mid-Nineties, J.K. Rowling came up with the inspired notion of combining the two great traditions of British juvenile literature. The concept and Rowling's skillful execution produced the enormously successful Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Rowling's success was followed by a wave of science fiction and fantasy novels aimed at the young adult market. These included Percy Jackson, the Lorien Legacies (co-written by the disgraced James Frey), Gregor the Overlander, and, of course, Twilight and the Hunger Games.

But one thing Rowling's success didn't inspire was the idea I mentioned at the top. That one came from a Japanese writer who used it for a novel written in 1996 and published in 1999 under the name Battle Royale,

The book and the movie that followed a year later were huge international hits. Despite the somewhat disturbing subject matter, both generally received positive reviews. Here's the Guardian in 2001, "Some will find the explicit violence of this movie repulsive - or plain boring. But this is a film put together with remarkable confidence and flair. Its steely candour, and weird, passionate urgency make it compelling." And Stephen King, writing in Entertainment Weekly (February 1, 2007) gave the book an enthusiastic endorsement (while noting it had some elements in common with his novel The Long Walk).

A little bit more than a year and a half later, Scholastic published the Hunger Games.

Given the number of blogs by fans of science fiction and Japanese popular culture, it's not surprising that the resemblance was discussed at some length.

From Wikipedia:
The 2008 American young adult novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has been accused of being strikingly similar to Battle Royale in terms of the basic plot premise and the world within the book. While Collins maintains that she "had never heard of that book until her book was turned in", Susan Dominus of The New York Times reports that "the parallels are striking enough that Collins's work has been savaged on the blogosphere as a baldfaced ripoff," but argued that "there are enough possible sources for the plot line that the two authors might well have hit on the same basic setup independently."
That "might well have" is an awfully weak defense (particularly given the puff piece tone of the NYT article) and it points to one of the central problems in the plagiarism debate: while it's easy to prove the relatively trivial crime of lifting wording, it's next to impossible to prove more substantial thefts. We can look at the timeline. We can look at Collins' previous career as a writer of fairly derivative kids' shows (no Spongebob or Pete & Pete) and the author of the Underworld books (a series that bears a marked resemblance to Harry Potter). Nothing here gives us any reason to believe that she didn't steal the idea but also nothing that could be called evidence that she did.

This is not meant as an attack on Collins who is, as far as I can tell, an excellent writer and who is doing a wonderful job getting kids to read. I'm in favor of what she's doing and I couldn't care less how she does it.

My point is that the theft of wording -- a problem that is both trivial and rare, but easy to prove -- is treated as a major offence while stealing more substantial elements -- a problem that is both serious and common, but is hard to prove -- is largely ignored.

If we truly want to embrace the inclusive definition of plagiarism we quickly ourselves in the uncomfortable position of pointing out the extensive lapses of friends and colleagues rather than the failings of a few convenient pariahs.

If we're going to be anywhere near consistent and proportional, we're going to have to ask ourselves whose names really belong on a research paper. I can think of at least one case where the credit was given to someone who happened to be the spouse of the main researcher's thesis advisor (the valid reasons for being listed as an author do not include marrying well). If you didn't substantially contribute to the research behind or the writing of a paper and you put your name to it, you're a plagiarist.

And we need to ask ourselves how much journalism consists of simply paraphrasing and regurgitating other people's ideas, arguments and interpretations. When you hear someone talking about a meme, they actually mean that stories are being borrowed and recycled on a massive scale.

Discouraging plagiarism in the broad sense is a worthy goal, but focusing exclusively on those few people who lift some phrases from other published work is simply a distraction.


  1. I get your point, Mark, but I disagree in the context of Science Fiction (and film, and much else popular media-wise). Keep in mind I'm an SF fan of the classic/postclassic hard-SF type--meaning for me I read most in the 60s-70s-80s; but loved reading the classic 40s-50s stuff); but I NEVER claimed to achieve True Fan status by reading magazines, attending cons, or reading/writing fanzines). That said, it was an accepted practice for writers to tackle a known/standard plotline and give it their own twist. I see this as related to the film remake. A lot could be said on this, but, basically, it boils down to in certain arenas no one expects originality of plot, but looks for originality in treatment. Now, if someone somehow claimed a swiped plot was their own, THEN plagiarism would come in.

    This goes so far as me seeing that the probably most revered SF author of all time, Robert Heinlien, I've long thought mainly deliberately cycled through the "standard plots" to show everyone what the ultimate treatment of each plot would be. He usually succeeded (except when he let his political leanings run wild); but no one was bothered by the fact that the core plot elements were long-known.

    Now, a slavish remake is offensive; especially a shot-for-shot remake.

    Will probably see "Hunger Games" this weekend--after Bonita read the book (I refuse to); and what chafes Bonita about the book is not the originality of the plot (or not), but the gross, gross lousy writing of the book (as she sees it), in that it makes common use of clearly fractional sentences. It bothers her a LOT that teens may find this to be good writing, thereby dumbing-down writing another notch or two.

    Bottom line--stealing ideas IS, INDEED not as bad as stealing execution. Heck, even Shakespeare stole plots!

    1. Doctor,

      I don't mean to come out against artists building on the works of others. On the contrary, I've always accepted the fundamental wisdom of the rule: immature artists imitate; mature artists steal. If you can make a work better by lifting a joke or a phrase or a plot twist, I say go for it -- particularly if you can actually improve on the original or combine the old parts in a fresh and interesting way (which is why I had no problem with Rowling).

      The issue I have is with the way we've been addressing plagiarism, treating one narrowly defined type (stealing wording) as a crime against humanity while ignoring other more serious and more common forms of plagiarism (not to mention far worse journalistic and literary crimes).

      Give Bonita my best.

  2. Thanks, she's doing fine. I'd like to attribute the response delay here to "getting into real life", but then I'd lamely be calling "getting bitten by the trivia bug" to be "real life". I'll email you guys soon on this, but we're up to 3x per week and have in short order worked our way into grand (Atlanta) tournament-worthy ranking (for the company we use), even though there is no way she and I are competitive at that level on our own. Fortunately, we're hoping if/when time comes to pull in one or two "ringers" of the 3 or 4 we know to strengthen us (this is legal under the rules, hence the quotes).

    We did see "Hunger Games" that weekend, and I liked it a LOT, though after this comment I especially liked accumulating as I watched the various influences drawn on, cinematic ("The Truman Show", "THX1138", "Logan's Run","The Running Man"--which I must admit to not actually having seen, to name just a few) as well as literary (all sorts of C. S. Lewis stuff--which I refuse to read or watch beyond the "Lion, Witch..." play my kids were in, "1984", "Fahrenheit 451", to name just a few). Basically, it's hard for me to dislike a movie with Donald Sutherland in it though "The Puppet Masters" came close (but NOT for him--he was the best, most Heinleinian realization of the original character in it--it's just that the overall movie stunk too much). Oh, and LOTS of folklore.

    I think I get your major point: "why not just admit your influences from the beginning, straight up and without apology"? And then, "if you do, why don't your peers acknowledge your original treatment as original thinking, rather than castigate you for lacking ideas"? Or some such.

    On a side note, and appealing to your superior knowledge: upon reflection of my Shakespeare crack, I was uncertain if ANY Shakespeare plots could be truly called original. Can you think of any?