Writing 101: Are You A Thief?

The Arts


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.




13 comments on “Writing 101: Are You A Thief?”

  1. Roger says:

    Ironically, didn’t the authors of The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail’ weaken their case for plagiarism by claiming they depicted the truth? You can plagiarise fiction, but if what you write is true, it isn’t plagiarism to depict it again.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    Ummm……personally I would accuse Dan Brown of everything other than the ability to write. However the problem of creative copying is with us everywhere and will doubtless continue until only one intensely distilled book (or story) exists.

    Even as I type there are probably fifteen ‘new’ Sherlock Holmes stories being penned around the globe; however, are these plagiarism, literature or fevered onanism over the continually rearranged symbols of : London fog, England, a pipe, a violin, a copy of Bradshaw’s, unimaginative police, an evil scientist / scholar / Johnny foreigner, two middle aged gentlemen sharing an apartment and a long suffering landlady/indulgent mother figure?

    Nobody has ever done Sherlock Holmes as well as Conan Doyle but he also came up with the Professor Challenger stories which, I would argue, have been improved on by a few.

    The Lost World was a great adventure which later influenced Tarzan, King Kong and Jurassic Park.

    Conan Doyle’s story about a cloud of gas enveloping the world was one of the first truly dystopian plots, along with Welles’ War of the Worlds it influenced John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids and the concept of humanity being wiped out by forces entirely beyond its control was imbibed by J G Ballard who riffed on the theme from The Wind From Nowhere, through The Drowned World, The Drought and Hello America among others.

    I much prefer Ballard’s versions of dystopia to any others I have read, he made stories relevant, internalised and 21st century. I couldn’t ever call his work plagiarism – he took other people’s ideas and turned them into something else altogether.

  3. SteveB says:

    It was only 2 of the 3 Holy Blood authors who sued Dan Brown.
    Henry Lincoln (ex Dr Who writer by the way) didn’t join in.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Peter Dixon, that was a wonderful tracing of author thought!

    This inspiration, consideration, interpretation works in other fields, even simple ones. I took a quilting course where we were given a pattern that involved the techniques the instructor wanted to teach and the half dozen of us followed directions to make a half dozen totally different objects. Shapes, sizes, purposes were all different as well as colour. You’d have had to look closely to see that we had all started from the same pattern. It should be the same with writing: here is an idea or a fact, now run off with it into your own universe. Holmes is a good example since you can find those elements placed in different parts of the world and different time periods. In one iteration he’s even married, but still recognizable as Sherlock Holmes.

  5. admin says:

    Peter, didn’t Conan Doyle’s dystopic story come after Shiel’s ‘purple cloud’ dystopia novel? They’re very similar. I think the bottom line with copying, conscious or unconscious, is whether it feels copied.

  6. Jan says:

    One thing that the Da Vinci Code did that is normally overlooked was introduce into the U.S.
    the idea that Jesus had married had produced child. Holy Blood was never officially available
    In the U.S. which seems crazy as I write this but was true.

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    As Roger said the Holy Blood was presented as fact and you can’t copyright history. You can plagiarise by copying the text exactly, in the non-fiction/academic world it happens more than people realise.

    Some of the cases where that have tried to sue are ridiculous, the Harry Potter case.

    Claiming ideas for your own is another area, but who does that in fiction? Apart from the odd person who likes to sue.


  8. Charles says:

    The Day of the Triffids is an excellent book, and I’ve been meaning to re-read it again. I recommend it to anyone. (I’m probably not the only one who has many favourites that are read over and over…)

  9. admin says:

    The other day I came across a new copyright problem. An American TV network has copyrighted the word Catchup as one word, as in ‘Catchup TV’, the theory being that if you invent a new word you can get US lawyers to copyright it.

  10. Peter Dixon says:

    I thought Catchup was what Americans put on chips….

  11. admin says:

    Oh, and here’s the blurb from a novel called ‘Rooftoppers’, nothing at all like my old novel ‘Roofworld’…

    ‘Sophie escapes through the skylight and meets Matteo and his network of rooftoppers – homeless urchins who tightrope walk above the busy streets below’ – *sighs*

  12. John Peacock says:

    I suspect that Zimmer took the chord progression from the same source as Nyman rather than via Nyman – The Cold Genius Arises from Henry Purcell’s King Arthur. The hugely light-fingered Nyman used Purcell songs as the basis for his Draughtsman’s Contract score (it’s a lot of fun trawling through all the Purcell on Spotify to find the originals), and the second movement from Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante (K364, I think) as the basis for his score for Drowning By Numbers.

    Here is Purcell’s Cold Song performed by the remarkable Klaus Nomi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hGpjsgquqw

    Why Zimmer didn’t nick from the equally striking (and more contextually relevant) chord progression from Handel’s Zadok the Priest is another question.

  13. Vivienne says:

    Dan Brown’s villain is Leigh Teabing which is a combination, with anagram, of The Holy Blood etc authors’ names, which is about as blatant as you can get.

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