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Perjiarism

Oct 13 2007 Posted by in writing | 4 comments

She stole a piece of him. Now he wants it back.

That’s the tagline to what is now my least-favorite movie, based on one of my all-time favorite novels. When you understand that the woman who “wrote” and directed it thieved it literally scene-for-scene from a man’s ten-years-published novel, you’ll appreciate its irony. I wonder if she’ll direct the (theoretical) sequel, the one where the legit production company who owns the rights to the book sues her distributor and ensures that this hack scribe “never works in this town again.” No, I imagine they’ll have to get someone else to lens that one. Oh, and I’ve already got that sequel script on file with the copyright office, so don’t get any delusions of career resuscitation.

Most plagiarism treads a grey area, difficult to prove. Maybe the concept appears derivative, the characters sketched in similar strokes, or a snatch of dialogue is reminiscent. The above example is an extreme one, with often-verbatim dialogue from the mouths of identically-adjectived characters who follow the exact plotted paths of their literary twins on the page in chronological order. Even an officially-blessed adaptation would rarely shadow its source material so closely. Fortunately, the movie is terrible in every way, not even worth the 35mm stock that it sullied, yet I’m conflicted about drawing even more undeserved attention to it. The larger issue is what makes this a worthwhile discussion.

We analyze media around here, per our namesake mandate. In this era of highly-specialized TV networks, direct-to-DVD, web series, blogs, vlogs, and podcasts, there’s an exponential amount of content saturating the ether these days. Most of it nonfiction infotainment (like this site), and most of that, noise. Still, the so-called “demand” for fictional content is far greater as well due to these outlets’ existence/capacity, while its audience is more segmented than ever (one positive evolution). Unfortunately creativity, talent, and professional execution can’t grow at the same rate as demand and production. It’s like having a restaurant’s line cook create their new menu. The ability to operate a microwave doesn’t legitimize your published cookbook. And just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

The new generation of media consumers is very tolerant of poor production values as a by-product of greater choice of voices. They’ve grown up with YouTube and iPods and reality television dominating their diets, rendering the term broadcast quality meaningless. We now trade development for diversity, polish for portability. But pass or fail, truth or consequences, at least come up with your own material! If you’re going to offend my senses, it had better be original. I can sometimes overlook one side of that equation, but not both.

All artists borrow. Especially in their early efforts, influences are often worn on sleeves. It’s how we learn, and why so many student projects suck. They’re exercises, dumpster abortions at best, and not meant for public consumption (or DVD distribution). For years, every riff I wrote sounded like Van Halen, but they never left my bedroom. And while Edward’s ghost still pervades my phrasing to this day, I’m picking my own notes.

Look, the number of pleasing chord progressions is somewhat finite. Complementary colors will be used together more often than others. Time-tested techniques are mastered and passed on. We humans have a fairly small palette of expressible emotions, and only a handful of mythological themes drive nearly all fiction. We accept this, even if it’s largely unspoken. What we want are new interpretations. Change the point of view, put those twelve notes in a different order, select a new medium – simple alterations at the conceptual level will lead to exponential originality as the silk of your ideas is spun and woven into a web of brainstorming that eventually becomes the finished work. That, or I’ll see you in court.

Let’s get some comment discussion going on this one. Release the hounds!

  1. Caleb10-14-07

    Great entry.

    I won’t allow undeserved attention to the movie-in-discussion, as you have sidestepped any major give-aways expertly, but I wanted to comment also on how the plethora of media can also make catching a plagiarist difficult. Where the hell does one even catch wind of a stolen IP? Luckily sites like our own Velvet exist. If only we all had armies of devotees (and ideas worth stealing).

  2. Your Host: G10-14-07

    Hopefully the attention will be a non-issue, as I believe the distributor has pulled the film. I wrote them a lovely note warning what they might be getting themselves into, but it was more likely a result of cease-and-desist from a more persuasive source.

    Yeah, identifying them, catching them, proving them. I’m just baffled at the arrogance of thieves who think that it will go unnoticed in such blatant cases. Even a publicist who collects clippings for you would have a hard time spotting most instances due to the way they’re commonly integrated. I imagine most theft is in minor details or conceptual unprovables (derivative rather than copied).

    I once had a client get busted by ASCAP to the tune of $10K even after I’d warned them about using copyrighted material without license. That’s a separate issue, though, and those organizations literally have people walking among us whose jobs are to find and report such violations. I guess we can only hope that if we create strong enough material it will inspire advocates like those of the mighty Velvet.

  3. Libertad10-15-07

    i’ve lost count of how many times i’ve seen a movie or tv show that i had the idea for a long time ago. it’s hard to accept this as coincidence, but it’s not like i ever really shared them with anybody either.

  4. G10-15-07

    This is why your favorite screenwriter or author will politely decline to read your screenplay or book for critique, blurbing, or agent pass-along purposes. They don’t want to open themselves up to the possible future accusation of having stolen from it. Sure, file your work with the copyright office and Guild, but don’t stamp copyright warnings all over it, or you’ll be labeled as paranoid and amateur, and will limit these opportunities even more.

    We’ve all experienced that “they stole my idea” syndrome before. I keep long lists of loglines on file for possible future projects, and more than I can count on my hands have since been realized by others, with zero influence from me. It’s further proof of the power of our collective unconscious, and how there’s truly nothing new under the sun. The originality is likely in your details and execution, not the concept.