Sunday, December 15, 2013

Potter & Purported Plagiarism (...and Zombies?)

In 1999, the year J.K. Rowling sold the Harry Potter film rights to Warner Bros., Nancy Stouffer accused Rowling of copyright infringement. Stouffer's books from the 80's contained characters named Larry Potter (who had dark hair and glasses) and Lilly, and one of her books was about "Muggles," a word she claimed she invented. Therefore, J.K. Rowling had copied her, and should pay.

A decade later: "In June 2009, the estate of Adrian Jacobs, a children's author who died in 1997, sued Rowling's publishers, Bloomsbury, for £500 million, accusing her of having plagiarised "substantial parts" of his work in writing the novel Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In a statement, Jacobs's family claimed that a scene in Goblet of Fire was substantially similar to Jacobs's book The Adventures of Willy the Wizard: Livid Land: "'Both Willy and Harry are required to work out the exact nature of the main task of the contest which they both achieve in a bathroom assisted by clues from helpers, in order to discover how to rescue human hostages imprisoned by a community of half-human, half-animal fantasy creatures." They also launched a joint suit against Rowling and her publishers. Bloomsbury countered with a statement of its own, saying that "This claim is without merit and will be defended vigorously," and that Rowling "had never heard of Adrian Jacobs nor seen, read or heard of his book Willy the Wizard until this claim was first made in 2004, almost seven years after the publication of the first Harry Potter book." The Jacobs estate, driven by his son and grandson, have published a website with details and excerpts from the book, according to the Toronto Star. In July 2010, the estate filed suit against Rowling's American publisher, Scholastic, demanding that the company burn all copies of Goblet of Fire." (from Wikipedia)

And although no legal attempts were ever made for this one, some loyal fans of the 1985 movie The Young Sherlock Holmes are convinced Rowling pilfered from that one as well. TYSH features three main characters -- two boys and a girl. One of the boys has glasses. The girl is brainy. There's some supernatural stuff. There's flying. Oh, and the film features a snooty, rich blond boy, and his name starts with a D. (And it's "Dudley," so obviously Rowling stole that name for Harry's cousin.)

Meanwhile, all I can think is, SO WHAT?

Someone makes off with (or uses) the name of your character, or the look of your character, or a word you feel you invented (forget that if you change the "g" in "Muggle" to a "d" it becomes an actual word) -- SO WHAT??
Writing is so much more involved than naming characters or describing characters. Plus, Rowling's works are teeming with plots far, far beyond any one strand or idea these other authors claim they came up with. And as for the Adrian Jacobs claim, I have to laugh -- so the character had an epiphany in the bathroom -- yeah, obviously this is bogus, because people spend so little time in bathrooms....

Writers get their ideas from many different places, and though we may wish that every thought we'd ever had was devised in our happy little brains, the truth is, we all grew up reading books, watching movies, listening to music, and watching TV, and that stuff sometimes sticks. Plots and ideas sometimes go up some weird little brain canal, hide out for a few decades, then re-emerge in writing. So yes, maybe Rowling watched the Sherlock movie and some of it influenced her writing a tiny bit. Just like how riding a train gave her the idea for the Hogwarts Express. (Read: the guy who invented trains should totally sue.)

And poor, poor Ms. Stouffer. Apparently her "Muggle" and "Larry Potter" copyright claims prompted a million and one Harry Potter fans to lash out against her, and let's just say her career -- such as it was -- hasn't been helped. According to Wikipedia: "In 2006 she stated on her website that she was planning to republish her books and was entertaining the possibility of another lawsuit against Warner Bros., J. K. Rowling and Scholastic Press." Well... she's nothing if not persistent....

Ideas come from everywhere, and writers and audiences should know that sometimes little things do get plucked from here and there, often without intent. But that has always happened... and will always happen. And it does not equal "plagiarism."

Furthermore, coincidences exist. Two people can come up with the same idea at roughly the same time, independent of one another. Even three people. Even eleven thousand people. Sure, some of those people will never run with their ideas, but trust: No matter what crazy ideas your brain comes up with, you probably will not have been the first to think of them. (And just because you google your idea and 0 results come back doesn't necessarily mean anything.)

Want proof that (mere) coincidences in storylines do exist? Check this out:

  • There's a 1994 movie in which a girl (who happens to have long blond hair and a name with two "a"s in it), inspired by a school assignment, decides to try and find out more about her deceased mother. She travels to California. where she manages to locate several of her mother's old friends. Mom used to be an actress, and was part of an acting troupe. One of the friends leads our main character to a man named Jeffrey. It turns out Jeffrey was once married to the girl's mother. Our protagonist is shocked, and begins to wonder if Jeffrey might be her biological father. Jeffrey assures the girl that he is not; that the father who raised her -- Harry -- is the biological father.
  • There's a 2012 movie in which a young woman (who happens to have long blond hair and a name with two "a"s in it) decides to make a documentary about her deceased mother. She interviews her family members, and tracks down several of her mother's old friends. The mother used to be an actress, and was in several plays. Our protagonist has heard rumors over the years about her biological father not actually being the man who's raised her, that he may actually be one of her mother's old acting buddies, most likely a guy named Geoffrey. She meets with Geoffrey, who denies being her father, and she is soon led to another man her mother knew from that same time period, Harry. It turns out Harry is the young woman's biological father.

The main characters have their looks and names in common. They both have deceased mothers. They both go searching for more information about their mothers, who were both actresses. They both think their bio-dad might be a guy named Jeff/Geoffrey, and in the end they learn their bio-dad is named Harry. 

You might think the 2012 movie ripped off the 1994 one, or that maybe both of them ripped off something older.

The 1994 film, My Girl 2, was a work of fiction.

The 2012 film, Stories We Tell, was a documentary, directed by Sarah Polley, the young woman whose life -- and whose mother's life -- it was about.

These were two independent films that have remarkable similarities, but neither can claim infringement by the other. If their releases had been reversed, it might be worth noting, but as it is, this is an example of coincidences -- even crazy ones -- existing.

In conclusion, stop freaking out about them and go enjoy those seven awesome books and eight movies.

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