Writing 101: Are You A Thief?
This is a new occasional column about the nuts and bolts of writing. Today we look at copying your work from others, or merely being influenced by them.
First, listen to this.
It’s Hans Zimmer’s music for the title sequence of the TV series ‘The Crown’, and if you think it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a note-for-note lift of ‘Memorial’ from ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover’ by Michael Nyman. Hold the thought and we’ll come back to it.
In 2016 a high court judge ruled that Dan Brown’s novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ did not breach the copyright of ‘The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail’, which was published in 1982 by the same publishing house.
The authors of the non-fiction book had sued their publishers claiming that Brown’s novel had ‘appropriated the architecture’ of their book. The judge said that a comparison of the language in the two books showed some copying of the text, but; ‘Such copying cannot amount to substantial copying of the text of The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail, and the claimants have never said it does.’
‘The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail’ sets out the theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had a child, and that the bloodline continues with a secret society protecting their heirs against conspiracies from the Catholic church. But wait, isn’t that the exact plot of Brown’s fiction, note for note? Yes it is.
So when is it homage and when is it stealing? Here’s where the difference between music and literature diverge. Brown researched from the other book – everyone admits that. I researched this article from newspaper files, and have used an almost identical paragraph to one I read. But I changed its context, rewrote it and used it in a completely different way – establishing it as mine. Just as Brown did.
The problem for ‘The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail’ was that their thesis was already an old one, and Brown merely picked up on it, as authors have always done.
In music, a limited number of notes still yields infinite arrangements. Zimmer has taken from Nyman, but Nyman himself was accused of sampling from Mozart, and Mozart took themes from Bach. It was standard practice in the 15th and 16th centuries.
But Mozart put together his own arrangements to make Bach’s music more moving. In other words, what links Mozart and Dan Brown (the only time their names will ever appear in the same sentence) is their ability to make something new based on other older sources.
However, if you include too much verbatim research you will conjure up the tone of the former piece without turning it into something which is uniquely yours, with its own atmosphere. As for that music track, at first it would seem that Zimmer infringes Nyman, but the piece runs at a different tempo and uses different instruments. More to the point, the sound is different. Zimmer has often been accused of plagiarism and clearly knows what he can get away with, but he has made ‘Memorial’ his own. Brown wrote a story based on an idea that was not new, and has been explored many times in the past.
This is the problem with concepts – you can’t argue that say, William Golding’s maritime trilogy is the same as Patrick O’Brien’s books just because they involve a period ocean voyage. The idea ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back’ is so ubiquitous that it can’t even be called an idea – it’s part of life, the same for ‘Killer stalks young women’.
You will reproduce the same intention of the original of you use too much of your research. You must have your own voice. Two people exploring the same idea should produce entirely different results.