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The Error And The Pity

One day this last summer I was descending the stairs in my building, just about to land in the lobby, when I heard the tell-tale sounds of keys jingling in an apartment door. I cleared the last step and glanced to my right, down the short hallway, and there was a stranger: a shortish woman, a bit roundish, gray or silver hair or maybe even blond, I can't recall.

"Are you our visiting playwright?" I asked. I mentioned one of my pals who lives in the building had told me she would be subletting for the summer. We introduced ourselves and had a very brief conversation then we parted.

The woman was Bryony Lavery, a British playwright and author of the Tony-nominated play "Frozen", in town over the summer to rehearse another play, "Last Easter", which opened October 7, 2004. A little less than two weeks before that opening night a story appeared in the New York Times, subsequently carried by the A.P. and referenced widely, reporting that Lavery had been accused of plagiarism by Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a Yale psychiatric expert on serial killers, and by Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for the New Yorker.

It's painful for me to imagine what that two weeks might have been like for Lavery. Talk about taking the bloom off the rose. I've had some plays produced and the last two weeks before opening can be hellish enough, especially with a new play, but to have this accusation hanging over you at a time like that must have made her life deeply miserable.

In the November 22, 2004 issue of the New Yorker (online now) Gladwell has an article named "Something Borrowed" -- partly a personal history of the episode, but mostly a look at plagiarism itself. Or at least plagiarism as we define it these days.

Is what Lavery did plagiarism? Pretty much, but you might be surprised by what the guy whose words Lavery used has to say about it.

Then I got a copy of the script for “Frozen.” I found it breathtaking. I realize that this isn’t supposed to be a relevant consideration. And yet it was: instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause. In late September, the story broke. The Times, the Observer in England, and the Associated Press all ran stories about Lavery’s alleged plagiarism, and the articles were picked up by newspapers around the world. Bryony Lavery had seen one of my articles, responded to what she read, and used it as she constructed a work of art. And now her reputation was in tatters. Something about that didn’t seem right.

Creative property, Lessig reminds us, has many lives—the newspaper arrives at our door, it becomes part of the archive of human knowledge, then it wraps fish. And, by the time ideas pass into their third and fourth lives, we lose track of where they came from, and we lose control of where they are going. The final dishonesty of the plagiarism fundamentalists is to encourage us to pretend that these chains of influence and evolution do not exist, and that a writer’s words have a virgin birth and an eternal life.

He seems an extraordinarily generous man. At some point late in the story he invites Lavery to his house and she seems almost painfully grateful for the chance to sit down with him at his kitchen table. But what makes the article interesting isn't simply that he is generous. He has clearly given some careful thought to the subject of plagiarism as colored by the experience of having his own words used by another writer in a very public way.

And Lavery, too, has been doing some thinking.

“It’s been absolutely bloody, really, because it attacks my own notion of my character,” Lavery said, sitting at my kitchen table. A bouquet of flowers she had brought were on the counter behind her. “It feels absolutely terrible. I’ve had to go through the pain for being careless. I’d like to repair what happened, and I don’t know how to do that. I just didn’t think I was doing the wrong thing . . . and then the article comes out in the New York Times and every continent in the world.” There was a long silence. She was heartbroken. But, more than that, she was confused, because she didn’t understand how six hundred and seventy-five rather ordinary words could bring the walls tumbling down. “It’s been horrible and bloody.” She began to cry. “I’m still composting what happened. It will be for a purpose . . . whatever that purpose is.”

Very worthwhile reading for anybody who ever puts pen to paper, or fingertip to key, to produce work that may eventually find its way into the world-wide "archive of human knowledge".


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This is a great piece, and the link -- especially Gladwell's -- is something the chew on.

I confess that if I were writing an essay, I would have cited everything I quoted -- but if I were trying to write a story, I would have probably had the same attitude toward elements of the creation that she did; that she was taking life as grist for the mill, that she was trying to make sense out of a very specific sort of chaos, to transform it, to give it narrative, to pare away the white noise and go to the heart of the matter.

Otoh, I suppose that begs the question: How much news is fiction?

By happenstance, Peter Charles Hoffer was on Booknotes this evening talking about his book Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud – American History from Bancroft and Parkman To Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis and Goodwin.

It's worth watching if you get C-SPAN and can catch the later broadcast tonight (or watch it on the web site), though it's about the more straightforward problem of historians not taking care -- the kind of problems Stephen Ambrose spent the last year of his admirable life being accused and apparently convicted of.

Your right; it's worth watching. I think the difference, though, is in intent, in some ways. Riffing off someone else's take on history is not a bad thing (to use the musical analogy), but because you're in theory aiming for the same sense of authority, the penalities for plagiarism in this case seem different to me than the case you cite above. In the one, someone is taking an isolated event, and trying to bring it to life in order to clarify a very specific and tangled set of human truths through the medium of drama & narrative. In the other, people are presenting "the truth" in what is arguably an attempt to teach others.

Still thinking, fwiw. Grateful to have this all pointed out, as well.

Yeah, two different cases. I certainly agree.

And I have to say that Peter Charles Hoffer on "Booknotes" gave me the creeps a little bit. Don't know why. He seemed to get just a wee bit too much joy out of the mighty falling so far. Ambrose and Goodwin and all. This historians he was talking about were (apparently) guilty. They were stupid. They shouldn't have done it. But somehow you oughtn't to get quite that much pleasure out of it. But maybe that's just me.

Word processing programs can take you scarily close to the edge of published plagarism. If you dump the material you are working with all in one file and then just work with the file it can happen. I know of a situation caught by the author in page proofs where a page of reference material for a section not yet written was accidentally turned in with the manuscript. Here's the really scary part: the publisher's copyeditor cropped off the attributions, leaving the quoted prose. It was typset and paginated and everything. The author caught the mistake. Why did the copyeditor cropped the attributions rather than querying what this quotation with no accompanying prose was doing there? Luckily, the author caught it at the last possible stage.

The story "Melancholy Elephants" by Spider Robinson addresses the topic of copyright and artistic expression in detail, and those in the arts should read it -- as well as those who legislate.

Kathryn - Yeah, you could really murderate yourself with all these fancy new ways of composing. I often will copy in text from some resource I'm working with. It is, after all, pretty handy to just slice away everything around what you want to work with. If you are working through the piece, it makes sense. In my more lucid moments, however, I think that I might be better off to just keep the resource window open and go back to it to copy and paste only what I want, whenever I need it.

Sometimes I think the problem is that computers are smarter than me, but then I realize it's just that I'm stupider than they are.

Scorpio - don't know that story. I'll see if I can find it. Thanks for the reco.

Excellent post on an important topic, and you led into it so well with your personal connection to Lavery. The Gladwell article was -- like so much of his stuff -- incredibly thought-provoking, leaving you with the feeling that you've just peeked ahead of the curve. (Did you listen to his talk at Pop!Tech?) His essential point in the New Yorker article seems to be the difference between derivative and transformative work and how art and culture depend on the ability to put all human experience in a blender and see what comes out, without being hindered by the artificial limitations of a concept of property that works for material goods, but fails miserably when it comes to the products of the mind. Scorpio's reference to Robinson's story is a good one: even though the story itself is quite a bit pedantic, its description of the finite nature of artistic expression is quite arresting. I found the story on line at Baen's site, just in case you haven't gotten around to it yet.

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