The Ballsiest Form of Flattery
All ideas are secondhand. Some appropriations of intellectual property fall into a gray area, but blatant plagiarism, word-for-word, note-for-note forgery, is clear. And the names of some perpetrators—James Cameron, George Harrison, Robin Williams—are surprisingly familiar. Plagiarism seems to be everywhere. Even this paragraph’s first sentence plagiarizes Mark Twain.
James Cameron, among the most commercially successful directors in history, joyfully declared himself “king of the world” after winning the Oscar for Titanic (1997), reprising a memorable line from the movie. Detractors may find “king of thieves” a more apt moniker. The notoriously abrasive filmmaker has been accused of plagiarizing from a Russian science fiction series, Noon Universe, written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, in the script he wrote for his box-office smash Avatar. Both the 1960s novels and the 2009 film involve a fictional jungle-like planet named Pandora, inhabited by peaceful beings called the Nave by the Strugatskys and the Na’vi by Cameron. Still, Cameron insists Avatar is original. His denial may be a case of cryptomnesia: the false notion that one’s idea is new, while the memory of the copied original lies buried in the subconscious.
Cameron had displayed apparent cryptomnesia earlier: Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison accused Cameron, in his film The Terminator (1984), of ripping off a 1964 episode Ellison had written for the television show The Outer Limits. The film studio settled with Ellison, but Cameron again denied any creative borrowing, allegedly stating, “Ellison is a parasite who can kiss my ass.”
For most people, jokes are communal and authorless; they get passed around at the dinner table, told at bars, repeated over and over. But for professional comedians a joke is both intellectual property and livelihood. It is understandable, then, that a large outcry arises in comedy circles when a comic poaches a colleague’s material, a surprisingly common occurrence. In the 1930s comedians Bob Hope and Richy Craig Jr. were so disgruntled by Milton Berle’s joke thievery that they sought revenge by performing Uncle Miltie’s planned routine at concerts before he appeared.
Denis Leary has often rebutted charges of appropriating his stand-up persona—outrageous political rants, chain-smoking, general grumpiness—from Texas comedian Bill Hicks (1961–1994). Hicks had alluded to Leary’s mimicry when he claimed to have quit smoking because he “wanted to see if Denis would too.” Superstar comic and actor Robin Williams is another infamous jokenapper. Williams claims the standard cryptomnesia defense: thinking an idea is original when really it’s a memory pulled from the subconscious. “Hanging out in those clubs for that long,” he explains, “it was like hearing it and sometimes not even knowing.” His victims don’t always buy it. One likened Williams to Berle.
Plagiarism was once embraced, or at least ignored. If Shakespeare hadn’t stolen other writers’ plots, only three of his plays (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest and Love’s Labour’s Lost) would exist. The “father of science fiction,” H.G. Wells, laughed off the accusation that he had copied from the manuscript of unpublished writer Florence Deeks for his Outline of History (1920). Today, however, plagiarism has serious repercussions. Vice President Joe Biden withdrew from the 1988 presidential election after it was discovered he had plagiarized passages from speeches. Social-science writer Jonah Lehrer was forced to resign from his post at The New Yorker magazine in 2012, and saw his book Imagine: How Creativity Works pulled from circulation, because of self-plagiarism and fabrication.
Joke thievery is rampant in comedy circles. While researching Imagine, Lehrer visited the Second City Theater and Training Center, where improvisational comics learn to override the brain’s natural tendency to inhibit behavior. An instructor explained that improv is not easy: “You have to work at not giving a fuck.” It does seem plausible that a comedian, in the middle of a routine, unchained from inhibition, may say whatever comes to the surface, even if somebody else said it first.
One may assume that academic plagiarism is confined to the works of lazy undergraduates, but such thievery is not unknown in scholarship’s more elevated ranks. University of New Orleans professor Stephen Ambrose, author of Band of Brothers (1992) and other historical books, came under fire in 2002 for his World War II book The Wild Blue (2001), in which he copied verbatim from University of Pennsylvania history professor Thomas Childers’s book Wings of Morning. Science journalist Jonah Lehrer, however, plagiarized his own work, recycling passages and ideas from earlier publications. Lehrer’s infractions, though in a gray area legally, were widely denounced. As Pablo Picasso said, “To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.”
Lehrer and Ambrose had also invented material they presented as fact. Early in his career Ambrose claimed to have spent hundreds of hours interviewing Dwight D. Eisenhower. As it turned out, the chronicler of Ike’s life had shared less than five hours with the former president. Lehrer used fabricated quotations by musician Bob Dylan and magician Teller in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, which Lehrer’s publisher, apparently seeing its title in a whole new light, subsequently recalled.
History writer Stephen Ambrose was not particularly apologetic about publishing the work of fellow historian Thomas Childers as his own in The Wild Blue. First he claimed the plagiarism was a mistake he could rectify in reprints of the book—he had simply forgotten to include quotation marks. As more instances of copying were uncovered, Ambrose maintained he was merely trying to tell a story fluidly, a process, he explained, that sometimes included “other people’s writings.” Ambrose’s justifications imply that his plagiarism would have been acceptable if he had simply structured his prose differently or had just remembered those pesky quotation marks.
Ambrose might have been in the wrong field; his type of borrowing has become acceptable in the music industry, which prefers the term sampling for the reuse of another artist’s work in a new song. Among the most frequently sampled and recognized pieces of music is “Funky Drummer,” by James Brown’s drummer Clyde Stubblefield. While his signature riff has appeared in more than 500 recordings—including Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (1989), George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” (1990), Kenny G’s “G-Bop” (1992) and Nicki Minaj’s “Save Me” (2010)—Stubblefield has rarely received money for it or even credit.
In 1969 George Harrison wrote “My Sweet Lord,” which became a solo hit for the Beatles’ lead guitarist. But there was a problem: Important elements of the melody and tempo mimicked the Chiffons song “He’s So Fine” (composed by Ronald Mack). Soon Harrison faced legal action by the copyright owner, Bright Tunes Music Corp. Things turned uglier when Harrison’s former manager Allen Klein purchased the rights to “He’s So Fine” and took Harrison to court. Klein, the inspiration for the Beatles song “You Never Give Me Your Money,” was notoriously ruthless, but his interference backfired and was deemed a breach of duty to his estranged client. Harrison had to pay only the amount Klein had given Bright Tunes.
It wasn’t Klein’s last devious involvement in music sampling. English alternative-rock band the Verve negotiated with him for the rights to sample an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time.” The resulting 1997 song, “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” became the Verve’s biggest hit—at which point Klein demanded, and got, all the royalties. Furthermore, a legal decision gave the composing credit to the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and the song’s Grammy nomination included their names.
In music the line between theft and influence is not always clear. Madonna seems to appropriate freely and has often been accused of plagiarism. She and producer Lenny Kravitz, for example, shared songwriting and production credits for her hit “Justify My Love” only when lawsuits threatened. (The song also incorporates a musical passage from Public Enemy’s “Security of the First World,” which in turn samples Clyde Stubblefield’s “Funky Drummer.”) Donald Fagen admitted the influence of a Keith Jarrett song for his band Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” (1980), which may classify as cryptomnesia (hidden memory).
In a clearer case of cryptomnesia, George Harrison was found guilty in 1976 of “subconscious plagiarism” of the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” in his “My Sweet Lord,” after the court found an overwhelming similarity in several musical elements. When the judge said he liked both songs, Harrison retorted, “What do you mean ‘both’? You’ve just ruled they’re one and the same.” Harrison said the experience made him “paranoid” about creating new music. He parodied the event in “This Song”: “This tune ain’t bad or good and come ever what may / My expert tells me it’s okay.” No plagiarism accusations have arisen against it—yet.