A Tale of Two Wizards

You’ve probably heard about the children’s book in which a famous wizard competes in a lengthy contest that involves solving clues and rescuing hostages. In order to win, the wizard relies on the help of elves and other creatures, often eavesdropping to learn important information. There’s a wizarding newspaper from which he gets daily news and a magical map that reveals his whereabouts in real time. If he breaks any laws, he risks getting sent to the wizard’s prison. In one section of the book, the wizard uses a magical water additive in a special bathroom to fully understand the instructions for an upcoming task.

We’re talking about The Adventures of Willy the Wizard: Livid Land No. 1, of course, a 1987 children’s book by British author Adrian Jacobs. But if these plot elements reminded you of J.K. Rowling’s 2000 book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Jacobs’ lawyers would agree with you. Although Jacobs died in 1997, a trustee of his estate sued J.K. Rowling and her British and American publishers in 2004 for copyright infringement, asking for millions of dollars in damages.

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Adrian Jacobs (1987)/Bachman & Turner (via Amazon)

In addition, the infringement suit asked publishers to immediately stop selling all copies of Goblet of Fire and turn any existing copies over for destruction. Of course, the fact that almost no one has heard of Willy the Wizard means that Harry Potter’s draught of Felix Felicis is especially potent. The case was thrown out in 2011 when Jacobs’ trustee failed to make the first stage of a £1.5 million security payment.

For her part, Rowling said she had never heard of Willy the Wizard until the claim was brought against her. But the similarities are certainly odd, especially considering that Jacobs reportedly sought the same literary agent that eventually represented Rowling. This means Jacobs would have sent the agent copies of his book a full 13 years before Goblet of Fire was first published.

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Rowling is certainly not the only author to be accused of plagiarism. At some point in their careers, Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown, Jane Goodall, and many others have been accused of stealing ideas from others. Even J.R.R. Tolkien was accused of copying ideas for The Lord of the Rings from the works of Richard Wagner. But when does plagiarism cross the line from simply gathering inspiration to blatant theft? And is it possible to even rip something off unintentionally?

Well, we talked to a plagiarism consultant and a psychologist, so we’ll get into that. But first…

More Plagiarism Accusations in Popular Fiction

Fiction authors are no strangers to accusations of plagiarism. Some accusations have more merit than others, and many are fought in both the court of laws and court of public opinion. Here are five notable times plagiarism accusations arose in the literary world:

1. Dan Brown

Dan Brown is one of the highest-paid writers in the world, thanks to his runaway bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. But that success put a target on his back.

Brown has been sued several times for plagiarism. As recently as last year, New England author Jack Dunn revived a decade-old lawsuit against Brown, alleging that Brown stole “storylines, plots, characters, historical information, scenes, themes, and even factual error” from Dunn’s book The Vatican Boys. Originally dismissed by a Massachusetts federal judge in 2007, Dunn has brought his case to UK High Court.

Brown denied the allegations; as of now, the case is pending.

2. Kaavya Viswanathan

Everyone knows that plagiarism is especially problematic in college, but Kaavya Viswanathan’s story took it to new heights.

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Viswanathan was a literary wunderkind, receiving a $500,000 book deal when she was just 17 years old. But she experienced a fall from grace as a Harvard sophomore when The Harvard Crimson reported that her book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life copied several passages nearly verbatim from young adult author Megan McCafferty. According to The New York Times, Viswanathan called herself “a huge fan” of McCafferty and said any copying was internalized and unintentional.

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Since the initial controversy, Viswanathan’s work has been further scrutinized for similarities to other works in the young adult genre.

3. Alex Haley

Haley’s Roots, the story of his family line stretching back to his ancestor Kunta Kinte in the Gambia, sold a whopping six million copies in its first year alone. In 1977, the book won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and is credited for starting the genealogy boom. But a year later, Haley settled a plagiarism lawsuit out of court.

Turns out, he had taken parts of his story from a 1967 novel called The African. It also came to light that much of Haley’s non-fiction account was more imagined than previously thought.

4. Stephenie Meyer

Meyer’s Twilight books were wildly popular when they came out, amassing legions of fans and creating a successful film franchise. But in 2009, the author’s publisher was sent a cease and desist letter from the lawyers of Jordan Scott.

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Scott’s book The Nocturne was posted online in 2006 and allegedly contains several plot elements similar to the last book in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, which was published in 2008. A judge threw out the case, accusing Scott of using a “deceptive presentation of the alleged similarities,” according to The New York Times.

5. E.L. James

In a weird twist, Meyer herself has a possible plagiarist in the popular fiction world.

Everyone knows 50 Shades of Grey for its risqué subject matter, but oddly enough, it also began online as unauthorized Twilight fan fiction. The original characters were even called Edward and Bella after Meyer’s vampire and human protagonists.

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When the popularity of James’ story led to a book deal, she apparently rewrote the text. Around the time of the first film’s release, The Washington Post reported that, after being run through plagiarism checker Turnitin, 89 percent of the text remained identical to James’ fan fiction work. Meyer has not taken any legal action against James.

Nothing New Under the Sun

If anyone knows about plagiarism, it’s Jonathan Bailey, a copyright and plagiarism consultant at CopyByte and the author behind Plagiarism Today. In the mid-90s, Bailey was an author writing short stories and publishing them on the internet.

Plagiarism Today

“Right around the year 2000, I discovered that people were plagiarizing my work,” he says. He was tipped off when an acquaintance sent him a link to a page where over 200 pieces of his writing had been stolen.

“The first time it happened, I lost it,” he says. “I’m not even going to pretend I handled it well.”

[People] value having a novel written, they value having an A on that paper, more than the process of getting there.

The subsequent investigation—during which Bailey eventually discovered a total of 700 of his works blatantly copied by others—led to a new career path: finding and catching plagiarism.

Bailey describes plagiarism as “the taking of words, ideas, or work of others and passing it off as your own.” He says it carries significant emotional fallout for the person being plagiarized.

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“It feels like a very personal kind of theft, especially if it’s something that you’ve been working on and putting a lot of time and effort into, and you have a personal attachment to it,” he explains. “To have that stolen, to have [your work] used like that, it feels like a very intimate type of theft. You feel deeply violated.”

In addition to violating the author, who is being robbed of attribution, plagiarism creates a problem for the reader: “It’s also a problem for the audience, who is fundamentally being lied to,” Bailey says. “That, ultimately, is the real problem of plagiarism—that it’s a lie.”

There’s a lot of reasons people do it, from laziness to not being confident in their own work to thinking they can get away with it.

“Mainly, what it comes down to is valuing the outcome over the process,” says Bailey. “[People] value having a novel written, they value having an A on that paper, more than the process of getting there.” (To avoid being what he calls an “accidental plagiarist,” Bailey attributes that description to his colleague Jason Chu, who works at Turnitin.)

But if, as creators and critics often say, there’s nothing new under the sun, isn’t plagiarism eventually inevitable? That’s a dangerous way of thinking, according to Bailey.

If there’s nothing new under the sun, why are we still creating?

“The inspiration/plagiarism line is constantly up for debate,” he says. “What might be inspiration when you’re dealing with creating a movie, for example, might not work out as well when you’re writing an academic paper. The boundaries there are constantly changing.”

Personally, Bailey doesn’t believe it’s all been done before is an excuse for plagiarism. “If there’s nothing new under the sun, why are we still creating?” he asks. “We always have new ways of expressing or combining the ideas we do have … There’s so many words in the English language; take each string of long enough words, usually around twelve to fourteen, and unless it’s a direct quote or something with identical shape, it’s likely to be unique to whatever work you found it in. It’s one of the ways we’re able to detect plagiarism so easily.”

Accidental Plagiarism and How to Avoid it

Everyone agrees that plagiarism is a pernicious problem. But the reality is, thanks to a phenomenon known as cryptomnesia, we all plagiarize more often than we think.

“Cryptomnesia is a memory error in which a person claims an idea as their own, not because they are intentionally plagiarizing another person’s work, but because they simply don’t remember having encountered the idea before,” explains Amanda Hall, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Butler University.

Although the line is gray, the key is whether the author truly believes that the ideas they’re sharing are their own.

Hall says cryptomnesia and other psychological factors, like priming, can make the line between inspiration and plagiarism even harder to determine.

“There is an effect called priming, in which someone is exposed to some stimuli (e.g., pictures of rabbits) and are then read the word hair, and asked how to spell it,” adds Hall. “After seeing rabbits, they’re more likely to spell it hare. Were they ‘inspired’ by the pictures of rabbits? Not really, as they were probably completely unaware that the pictures of rabbits had anything to do with how they spelled the word.”

Previous exposure can influence college papers and best sellers; it can affect undiscovered poets and Harvard commits with $500,000 book deals.

“Because it is a ‘normal’ memory error, everyone is prone to it,” Hall says. “In fact, most of us do it from time to time, even if it’s just something as trivial as sharing with our friend the ‘idea’ of going to a new restaurant, only to learn that our friend shared that idea with us the previous week.”

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“The same (or similar) thing could be happening with fan fiction in that reading it will bring to mind certain ideas, which will then be more likely to come to mind if/when that person does their own writing,” says Hall. “Although the line is gray, the key is whether the author truly believes that the ideas they’re sharing are their own. Unfortunately, even this can be difficult to determine.”

“Most cryptomnesia errors are benign,” adds Hall.

“Everyone makes little memory mistakes every day and most of them don’t really matter. In fact, the failures of our memory system are really just byproducts of the fact that it would be cognitively inefficient for us to remember every single thing exactly as it happened.”

If this all makes it sound like plagiarism is just a fact of life, Hall says this doesn’t need to be the case. There are ways that we can work to avoid copying other people, like sharing work with others and asking if it sounds plagiarized.

The definition of plagarism doesn’t only refer to *ideas*…it also encompasses *works* to include writings – copy and paste without acknowledgement is a copyright infringement and unprofessional conduct to say the least.

“Because cryptomnesia occurs when the person encountered an idea but does not remember doing so, it’s likely that someone they’re in contact with would also have heard the same idea at some point and could, potentially, help the person remember,” she says.

Plagiarism has many legal and ethical implications, but it doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion.