Plagiarism is sometimes viewed as theft, sometimes not.
In court, George Harrison suffered a humiliating and public defeat when it was ruled that even if his plagiarism of the Chiffon’s song He’s so Fine had been unintentional it was still too close to My Sweet Lord to be allowable. Fact is, he was so darned famous by this point that although every engineer at the studio must have been smirking behind his hand, not one of them had had the balls to tell him, ‘Ur, George, mate. That tune’s a bit of a rip-off.’
The same sort of agony has been plaguing me this week. (Though sadly not the agony of being famous.) An author I have been writing with came up with a cracking – and distinctive – title for her memoir. We had got all the way to the designed cover before I tapped the title into Amazon. Oops. A well-known journalist had given her autobiography an uncannily similar name. My client had clearly done a George: absorbed the title like a musical refrain, without having being aware of it. Had she gone with that title she would have got away with it in the legal sense – it was clearly not a case of passing off – but there would have been egg on face.
This brings me to the ‘acceptable’ face of plagiarism: bandwagon publishing. Fact: publishers are, more often than not, incapable of having fresh ideas themselves; it is the authors’ job to come up with the goods. This would be fine if there wasn’t the tendency in most publishers to become so blinded by the success of other authors’ past triumphs that they fail to see the wonderfully unique piece of work sitting right there in front of their eyes. It is understandable, if depressing: most people’s minds get set on a groove, like Jimmy Page with one of his guitar riffs. (Btw, just tap in the words ‘Led Zeppelin’ and ‘plagiarism’ into You Tube and you will see what I mean.)
Bandwagon publishing is grubby but it makes a quick buck. When the team I was working with published Mr Bean’s Diary we had about 8 months swanning around at the top of the bestsellers charts before Dorian’s Diary (the Birds of a Feather character) came chuffing around the bend. A few more diaries later and they were all dead in the water. Publishers will argue that it is precisely those quick bucks that finance the first-time authors, who may be spirited and fresh but are often harder to bring to market.
I used to hate it when authors rang me up to ask me, ‘What’s selling?’. I knew what that meant: the author was trying to take on the publishers’ mindset. Publishing to fill a gap in the market is all very well but it hardly encourages innovation. In the publisher’s mind there may well be lodged: ‘Chick lit is out, Danish thrillers are in’ but that does not mean that self-respecting authors should mold their work according to what is perceived to be in or out.
Hmmm … maybe I should change my name to Lars Lickarss.