"I've taken horrible liberties with folklore and mythology, but I'm quite unashamed about that, because British folklore and British mythology is a totally bastard mythology. You know, we've been invaded by people, we've appropriated their gods, we've taken their mythical creatures, and we've soldered them all together to make, what I would say, is one of the richest folklores in the world, because it's so varied. So I feel no compunction about borrowing from that freely, but adding a few things of my own."
J.K. Rowling

“To be honest, after our persistent ‘collaborations’ with Goya, we’re the last people on earth to claim the sanctity of authorship.”
Jake Chapman

The debate about the alleged plagiarism by J.K. Rowling continues to rage. I’m no expert on copyright, but I have an interest in the matter. My creative drive, you see, is in taking work that already exists and making something new out of it.

I make collages. I take images that other people have made or photographed or published and I tear them out of magazines and put them together with other images and words to create new images. Each picture has its own individual atmosphere and narrative. Is this breaching copyright?

I also ‘steal’ great works of art – those of Picasso, for instance – and copy parts of them, then paint a self-portrait into the picture. The dynamic instantly changes. Is this plagiarism?

And then there’s the writing. In my present novel, one of the dominant voices is that of a character I first read in a little-known novel from the seventies. Her name, occupation and age are different, but the voice definitely belongs to that first character. Have I plagiarised? Should my novel ever be published (hah!) might that author rise up in a cloud of lawyers and try to sue me?

I remember reading a book by an extremely well-known writer and being struck that several passages were taken – word for word – from H.E. Bates’s A Breath of French Air. It surprised me at the time, but I don’t think this was conscious plagiarism. I believe that the writer loved Bates so much that these sentences had soaked into her consciousness like an insistent lyric.

Perhaps Jung – like Rowling - would argue that we are all dipping into the soup of the collective unconscious when we write, or make art; that the ingredients are all already there for our appropriation. If every writer in the world were given five hundred words, or if every artist were given five hundred images, how often would a duplicate story/poem/picture be created? There would be similar elements, but each piece would have been channelled through the unique energy of the individual who created it and would emerge as a unique piece. To take the argument to the extreme, every writer has access to the same words as every other writer. It’s what each does with them that counts. And I think that plagiarism and copyright infringement only arises when commercial interests come into the picture.

On the subject of commercialism, I went to see the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy. Along with probably three hundred others, I shuffled from painting to painting, from letter to letter, aware of the person before me breathing down my neck (no wonder I caught a cold) while I, in turn, breathed down the neck of the person in front of me. The exhibition was moving and infuriating by turn. Here was a man who painted with a single-minded passion, yet who was unable to sell more than a single painting in his lifetime. A man whose work no-one – apart from his brother – supported or rated, a man who struggled to pay his rent and buy his food. And now? Now the world pays millions to see, and own, his work. He is lauded as a Master. We queue to catch a glimpse of the letter he was carrying with him on the day he shot himself. The one stained with paint, or blood.

Which is crazier? The man who strove to express himself as honestly and fully as he was able to and ended up in an asylum, or the institutions and individuals who squeeze every last ounce of value from his work after his death? Or those of us who buy the Van Gogh fridge magnets and the Harry Potter wands? Vast amounts of money are being made from Vincent Van Gogh’s work. Vast amounts are also being made from the work of J.K. Rowling. Fortunately for J.K., acknowledgement came in her lifetime, allowing her to move out of her run-down flat and away from her cafĂ© table desk. If only Vincent had been offered the same blessing.

Forgive these ramblings: I’m suffering from Writer’s Block in every sense, due to the above mentioned Very Bad Cold.


DT said...

Hi Susie, well, that's a lot to think about! Intention would appear to be the key factor here. We're all influenced by every writer that inspires us. I find myself leaning towards themes or turns of phrase from work read aloud in local writers' groups! Quoting a whole passage of HE Bates is quite a feat of memory. Whether that's an act of inspiration or appropriation is hard to say - only the author knows what lies within. A genuine cold is akin to a doctor's sicknote - you're allowed to rest up and listen to the radio (albeit with a writing pad close by, just in case)!

Old Kitty said...


I think practically - it's always worth checking the copyright of things. I always do whenever I seek to put pictures up on my blog. Copyright is a fact enforcable by law so it's always, always, always good to protect yourself with at least the minimum knowledge of it and at the very least (again) to acknowledge the primary source. At least. If you don't know the primary source I think you'll just have to find it. Always read the small print, the terms and conditions, the small tiny bits at the end of a picture, a website, a book etc. Some are quite categorical in their assertion of copyright as in "touch any part of this and you die". Others are quite nice as in "you may copy etc but please always acknowledge". Copyright is a legal mindfield though.... but as it's enforcible by law, please protect yourself!

It'll be worth following the JK Rowling case as the interesting fact for me is JK Rowling's assertion that she had never heard of the book that the she was supposed to have "plagiarised" from. Maybe such plotting is so distilled and widespread that any writer writing about wizards and such like is "guilty" of copying from this book. I'd love to read this book first mind you.

Anyway, I'm rambling too now. LOL!

I hope you get better!

Take care

Fionnuala said...

Oh dear a cold and writers block! I dont have the cold but am frozen writing wise at the moment so you have my sympathy.
Maybe I'll go off and rewrite Jane Eyre eh? xx

Kath McGurl said...

Iinteresting questions.

I was so inspired by the phrase 'the colour of birdsong' in Susannah Clarke's Jonathon Strange and Mr Norell that I've worked it into a couple of short stories (not published). Is this plagiarism? I think not, even though I know full well where I got the phrase from, as you know where you got your character's voice from.

Hope the cold goes soon.

Caroline Green said...

I think it's a very interesting debate. Don't agree that the HE Bates lift counts as homage though - that sounds like out and out plagiarism to me. I don;t think writers should get away with lifting entire passages....

Hope the cold lifts soon, Susie!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Thanks from my nose for your good wishes for its future health!
Derek and Caroline, I should have been more specific re. H.E. Bates - rather than long paragraphs, it was the use of very specific phrases/sentences in quick succession that struck me.
Old Kitty - great advice.
Fionnuala - sympathies. I think lots of writers have probably re-written Jane Eyre!
Womagwriter - that's a very interesting point. I suppose you could use 'The Colour of Birdsong' as a title for a story and no-one would bat an eyelid because it would be clear that you were referencing it. Using it within the text? I suppose it's what would be termed 'homage'. It's such a tricky area, isn't it?
Thanks for your comments,

barjoker said...

Hi Susie, just remember TS Eliot's assertion that 'Mediocre writers [read also: artists] borrow; great ones steal.'

And I think Pullman said something about being inspired by, or taking something from, every single thing he had ever read, but I can't find the quote just now.

I humbly acknowledge that very little of my work is truly original, but we must all stand on the shoulders of giants.

Essie Fox said...

I love your posts, Susie - always so thoughtful and honest.

I know when I worked as an illustrator, I once spent months devising a new range of greeting cards, only to find that someone else had come up with the very same 'character'. I think we're all influenced by what we see on tv, films, what we read, what we hear...the 'zietgeist' can be very powerful.

Hope you cold soon gets better!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Thanks, Barjoker, for reminding me of that phrase about standing on the shoulders of giants - it's great.
VV, that must have been gutting. I had a similar experience when I wrote a non-fiction book about seven energies of creativity and discovered afterwards that an American writer had written something very similar. Ouch!

Roderic Vincent said...

Just catching up on my reading, as I was away last week, and I'm as blocked as you.

Great post, as always, Susie.