Thursday, April 27, 2006

Don't Steal, Don't Lift

The outrage over the Kaavya Viswanathan story confuses me.

For starters, I am not sure I understand what plagiarism means in art. That does not mean I condone it. All I am saying is, I am just not sure how to draw the line between "borrowing", "quoting", "homage", "imitation" and "plagiarism".

The generally accepted principle is this: an artist can borrow from another's work only if the new creation is "very" different from the borrowed work and bears a stamp that distinguishes the borrower from the "lender".

The best plagiarists take something old and make something new. The worst are the ones satisfied with the old. (Correction: the very worst would be the ones copying Thomas Kinkade paintings while listening to instrumental covers of songs written by American Idol winners.)

Film-makers borrow all the time. It's one medium in which borrowing is accepted. Directors and writers borrow plots, situations, characters and the "look and feel" of their favorite films. God knows how many samurai films and French New Wave films Tarantino must have consumed in his formative years. A Coen Bros. film like "O Brother" has so many homages to their influences one cannot even count them. (Wait, someone at did count them.) My main man Akira took Dashiell Hammett's words and turned it into "Yojimbo". Coen Bros. then took Yojimbo and Hammett's novel and produced something familiar yet so utterly Coen-esque. I can bet you somebody somewhere has totally internalized "Yojimbo" and "Miller's Crossing" and read "The Glass Key" and is creating something familar and something totally new. That is art. Even Shakespeare turned to other sources for plots for his plays. Don't let that break your heart.

In the context of rock music, one can probably write a thesis on plagiarism and Led Zeppelin. Only after Zeppelin had learned to play "You Need love" could they hammer out "Whole Lotta Love". But only after The Yardbirds had survived those experimental years could Jimmy Page re-use those radical ideas on I, II and III. (Just curious - why are Yardbirds largely forgotten today?)

The I-IV-V progression of the blues is simple and elegant. All of blues and most of rock music depends on it. Using that chord progression in a song is *obviously* not plagiarism. Why is that? Because it is now a conventionally accepted wisdom that no one "owns" the I-IV-V chord progression. However, if you used the exact opening riff from "Smoke on the Water" (which, if you think about it, is really just a series of Fifths, nothing more) for a completely new song, not only is Ritchie Blackmore likely to pummel you with his Strat, critics and fans will call you a plagiarist. Strange, isn't it?

If musicians and film-makers are allowed to tinker around with their inspirations and influences, why are writers not allowed to do the same? Why is the written word more sacred than recorded sounds and images and why should the writing process be considered pure and insular? All writers read. A lot. They have their favorite passages, openings and climaxes. So why can't we, the readers, accept a borrowed paragraph or two?

Moreover, how does one propose to handle plagiarism in literature? Does the simple act of crediting a quote or a passage (to the original writer) make it not plagiarised?

At their worst, most arguments over plagiarism are ridden with double standards (as in "artist XYZ can steal, but artist ABC cannot"). At their best, the arguments are supported only by individual taste and public consent.

So why the outrage?

I think the answer may have to do with that $500,000 advance and the author's educational background. Anna at Sepia Mutiny has another idea why there is so much schadenfreude among Indian bloggers over this incident. She may be right.

Salvador Dali once said "Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing". So why don't we just assume that Kaavya Viswanathan was merely imitating the writer she enjoyed reading and see if her next book - or the one after - has anything interesting to say?

(For those of you interested, Malcolm "Tipping Point" Gladwell wrote about this subject in a superb article in the New Yorker titled "Something Borrowed".)


wildflower seed said...

You know what? Good for Kaavya. This will teach her some good lessons. And she seems to be intelligent enough to learn them well. I am happy for her.

Disgrace is underrated.

wildflower seed said...

The thread continues at my blog.

Joy Forever said...

It's simple. If I copy this blog post from here and paste it on my blog, change a few lines here-and-there, and claim it as my own, it is plagiarism.
If I write KM says and then paste it without modifications, it is quoting.
Homage is, say... I love the book "To Kill a Mockingbird". So I write a book where I show my protagonist (or any other character) reading that book and identifying himself/herself with a character there. Remember, I am SAYING what I'm paying homage to.
I'm not sure how to illustrate borrowing and imitation in terms of writing. But the bottomline is this: whatever you do, you have to acknowledge the source. You have to give the original creator his/ her due credit.
Otherwise it is plagiarism. Nothing more.

gIftoFwIngs said...

drawing a stringent line betn "plagiarism" and "inspired" is really a difficult task. Out of the expr. of listening to Led Zep..even if the intro of stairway is not original :(. and anyday you can't count the number of bollywood hits being "inspired"...

Tabula Rasa said...

joy forever gets it exactly right. whatever be the field, if you copy, you acknowledge source. (remember "my sweet lord"?)

i disagree that "The best plagiarists take something old and make something new. The worst are the ones satisfied with the old." the first category isn't plagiarism; the second one is. the coen brothers and kurosawa examples you list are homages, tributes, and bases for creative interpretation, i.e., "making something new". you can use the same chord progression to create multiple songs. you can't make the smoke on the water riff anything but smoke on the water. and if you do, either you call it "smoke on the water variations" which is acknowledging the source, or you lay yourself open to the charge of having played smoke on the water. which is fine, of course, if you admit it (and pay royalty), but if you don't then you're basically passing off someone else's work as your own, and that's where the problem is. so yes, the simple act of crediting makes something not plagiarised.

of course this is not a clear-cut black and white issue. what ethical question is? that's why we as a society end up having laws and courts and courts of public opinion. and any public figure should be prepared to be examined as such -- if this woman was "merely imitating" someone else, well, let her pay the price in public opinion (and monetarily, if it comes to that) and sure, we'll see whether the next book has anything interesting to say. that comes later.

and lastly, yes of course this is a storm in a teacup, and schadenfreude and the 500 grand probably do play into it. i frankly don't care a whit about this kid and her sophomoric chic-lit. maybe she's just a kid, victimized, brought up wrong, whatever. but that doesn't mean what she did is okay.

Supremus said...

My sentiments exactly. I had made a similar posts months back.. here : -- Chetan had made an excellent point though, and you may want to read.


Alok said...

agree with the above comments. better name your sources or else make the lifting plain and obvious...

you know, there is a whole genre called pastiche based on this idea.

the main problem most of the bloggers have is I think the half a million advance... If it were some smallfry writer here and there, there wouldn't have been such hue and cry.

grumpy said...

If your source sues -- you plagiarized.

If your source gets the joke you're Dada.

If your source theorizes about it you're pomo

If your source sings your praises on the VH1 behind the Music documentary -- you revived interest in their back catalog.

If your source has no copyright you're Shakespeare.

Anirudh said...

I agree with joy forever. You acknowledge the source. And you do not copy passages directly from it. I know Hindi movie directors get away with a lot. I don't think they should.

Falstaff said...

Personally, I think it's a question of level. Being inspired by the general approach / feel of a work of art is one thing, copying 29 passages almost verbatim is something else. The literary equivalent to Zeppelin's copying would be Murdoch's engagement of Shakespeare, or more recently, Zadie Smith's take on Forster. The connections between On Beauty and Howard's End are unmissable, but (aside from being acknowledged) they're at the level of plot, character and idea. Smith isn't just taking the lines out of Forster. You're certainly welcome to use the I-IV-V progression, but you can't do it with the same words and the same guitar licks on top and then claim it's your own original work - which would be the equivalent of what KV is accused of.

I don't think anyone seriously considered the possibility that Opal could have an original plot (it's chick lit for god's sake; the defining book of the genre - Bridget Jones - is a straight Austen rip-off). But most people presumed, I think that the writing itself would be original. And while it's certainly true that much of the angst the issue is generating is because the author is a teenager and in Harvard, it's also true that that's the only reason the book got any publicity in the first place, so it's only fair that when the pendulum swings the other way it should go that much higher.

Finally, I suspect a lot of this comes down to the point you make in your post about demonstrable artistic merit. No one seriously cares if Shakespeare got his plots from someone else, because whatever their source, there's no doubt that his plays represent an authentic and original artistic achievement. Ditto Zeppelin. Ditto Kurosawa. If the KV plaigarism is troubling it's because there isn't really much the book can claim for itself but some mildly entertaining prose. If even that's not original then what do you have? I don't think it's just about her being at Harvard. I think it's about an entire genre being in denial about its lack of artistic merit, its mass-merchandised nature. The Opal episode is a blow to the mythology of those who publish and read chick-lit (a mythology, for instance, that TV scriptwriters - who have, if you think about it, a similar packaged, demographic driven approach to their work - don't share), which is why it's being taken so seriously.

km said...

Thank you all.

Like I said in the post, this argument seems to exist in two dimensions: individual tastes (e.g., Falstaff questioning the inherent merit of the chick-lit genre) or public consent (e.g., Grumpy's funny comment about Shakespeare.)

TR, you *can* take one guitar riff and re-write another song over it. Under Pressure/Ice, Ice Baby? The classic "walking" bassline of all rock and roll songs is another such example. AC/DC often take the same riff pattern - not the *exact* same riff, I'll admit - and write a new song. We don't call it "lifting" in rock music when Cale used the exact same opening notes from "Sunshine of your love" and wrote "Cocaine"!)

(Please do not read this sentence as a flamebait, but many of us who worship at the temple of the Zep already know this: Zeppelin rarely credited their sources. Often, their "lift" was total. Critics were pissed back then, roots music fans get pissed now.)

Patient Portnoy said...

Have you read the entire chunks she's lifted from MM's books?

I agree with your point. As I said somewhere, TSE himself took up the cause in "Tradition and Individual Talent".

But to copy verbatim, and then say one had 'internalised' it? Haven't we all internalised a lot from our favourite music and books? What if all of us ask for big advances and big money for 'internalisation'?

Anonymous said...

if it was one or 2 para's then thats fine...this one is more like 40.....yes she went to harvard and got 500,000...but copying is still copying...

Tabula Rasa said...


ice ice baby *was* lifted from under pressure, wasn't it? your other examples aren't examples of lifts -- the walking bass is a structural theme, exactly as the basic blues chord changes are; cale did lift the exact same notes, but built a whole different song with them; amd ac/dc aren't music :-)

and zure, led zep did a lot of lifting. as did the stones, in their early days, and many others. a lot of people are still pissed about it, exactly as you say. this thread goes right back to the early days in the 50s when elvis and the other white boys were copying the original black rockers, with only about a hundred times the mass recognition. strictly speaking, the fact that zep and the stones went on to produce a lot of other original stuff (often of much higher quality) doesn't really excuse these initial transgressions, imho.

ravi srinivas said...

Whether the book deserves to be withdrawn or not is a different issue.But Crown can sue Little Brown and the author and claim damages.The negative publicity will affect both.I think this is
the reason behind the withdrawl of the book.There is a lot of difference between verbatim copying and borrowing an idea or theme and to convert it into a
brilliant text (whether prose or
film). I dont know about music.
Had Kavya admitted this in the
beginning itself it would not
have snowballed into such a big
controversy.See my blog also.

Madhur said...

copyright, patents are just absurd abstractions, just like the concept of 'money', or 'identity' or 'author', there is no concrete inherent value to anything, i'd like to quote something from alok's blog about a book which nabokov wrote called 'pale fire', name borrowed from shakespeare, 'The moon is an arrant thief and her pale fire she snatches from the sun' - Timon of Athens.
and they speak of shakespeare to have plagiarised too.
But well this is the Iron age, Kaliyuga, the age of doom, where every intangible thing will be boxed, packaged, barcoded and sold.
They will sell Love, Happiness and Bliss and say we made it in our factory and its new and improved, copying text from a book? that's easy. I'm really pissed because Opal Mehta hasn't a clue how to put all that money to good use, like sending it to me.

grumpy dude you are a funny old man.


You’ve been tagged (don’t blame me, I didn’t start this!). And as a ‘tag victim’, you are supposed to do the following:

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km said...

Et tu, Dhiraj? :) Oh well, I've done worse after a six-pack.

Sib said...

New material...apparently, Kavya was inspired by more than one source...

Here are the new revelations...

Btw, I think it is palgiarism, is you copy twenty-nine instances from another book, you have supposedly read, and they found their way in to your work "by chance"...what is the point of the new book ? Why not just read the old one ? I mean we all know that there are various ways to express yourself (true in whatever art form we may discuss) and it is not always the case that two indepdendant people are inspired in the exact same way and they get the exact same results...a single person might write a passage (or compose a piece of music) differently at different times, simply because the setting, your thought processes, etc. are different...

km said...

Sib, thanks for the update. Yeah, might as well read the original book (Gasp! no! It's a chick-lit book for teenagers.)

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