Monday, December 04, 2006

Deflating plagiarism (and Stoppard)

A lot of good sense here:
One person's 'homage' is another's 'copyright infringement'. The question of originality in literature is complicated. Until the mid-18th century English writers did not hesitate to borrow from each other's work. Good writers, if they are honest, will acknowledge that when they come across a good thing in someone else's work, either consciously or unconsciously they store it away.

If writers are pickpockets, then Shakespeare is our Fagin, always a 'snapper-up of unconsidered trifles'. Shakespeare did not confine himself to individual lines or phrases. Apart from A Midsummer Night's Dream, his plots were appropriated from other, often classical, sources.

...It was the Romantics, for whom originality of expression was central to literary authenticity, who made plagiarism literature's capital offence. This hasn't stopped all kinds of conscious and unconscious borrowing. No one put it better than the American critic James Atlas, defending novelist David Leavitt against the charge of plagiarising Stephen Spender's World Within World. 'Literature,' Atlas said, 'is theft.' TS Eliot said: 'Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.'
One caveat, though. McCrum makes the same mistake that a seemingly large number of English critics do -- namely by assigning all the credit for the screenplay of Shakespeare in Love to Tom Stoppard. These writers need to do their homework: the story did not originate from Stoppard but from Marc Norman, the credited co-writer, who spent years trying to get it made. Stoppard was one of many script doctors who contributed to the script as it passed through several different studios, directors and stars. Due to the WGA's byzantine credit rules, Stoppard's contribution was considered substantial enough to award him credit for the final film. Norman did all right, though, by it all -- in addition to the Oscar that he shared with Stoppard for the screenplay, he took another home as well (Best Picture), due to his co-producer credit.

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