Posted by: stelladuffy | February 19, 2010

when is plagiarism not plagiarism? when it’s ‘sampling’?!

Check out this scary story in Time :
Plagiarism or Sampling?

Those of us who live from the copyright of our work, who need the income of previous works’ royalties to continue with our new work, who don’t receive those insane advances that rarely earn out, who are actually proud when our publishers recoup their advances and we then make royalties, would seem to be a dying breed.

This has long been a complaint in the music industry, and it was only a matter of time before it became the same in lit – where at least we have a word for ‘creative theft’ : plagiarism.
The young women in question here uses the usual homage argument, but if a ‘writer’ plainly takes someone else’s work, and then adapts it to their own, why on earth not just call themselves the ‘adapter’?
Quite possibly because they know we give more kudos to the word writer than adapter. (Which is odd, given our greatest dead playwright, one W. Shakespeare, spent his writing life adapting old stories – some were histories, some were in common knowledge, some were simply stories that had been written by others and then translated to English, few – any? – were all new and solely from his own imagining.)

I think there’s two things going on here, one is that, as above, we simply rate a writer more highly than an adapter – and so everyone involved wants to claim the title ‘writer’. And yet surely the person who came up with the original idea is as important as the one who then moves on with it? (cf me screaming at the telly watching the Oscars or BAFTAs last year, can’t remember which, horrified that Danny Boyle wasn’t thanking the one essential person for their Slumdog successes – Vikas Swarup who came up with the insanely high concept, perfectly filmic, Q&A in the first place.)

The other, and more insidious thing happening is that right now our British theatres are stuffed full of adaptations. I enjoy them, have been known to write some too, but I find it very disturbing that our big theatres keep shelling out for what are really ‘new adaptations’, not ‘new writing’ (and there’s an increasingly annoying phrase). It’s long been acknowledged that a large percentage of successful movies were stories or books first, movies as varied as To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Sound of Music and the more recent Revolutionary Road began life in prose, on the page. It’s safer, there’s already a proven story, and – given how pathetically grateful book writers are when anyone shows interest in their work – it’s often cheaper too.
But why should this be happening in theatre? There’s a real interest in putting books on stage, in putting re-written versions of old plays on stage, and there’s nothing much wrong with that, except I have a feeling we’re seeing fewer new plays by writers and more old plays (or books, or films) re-made. Which is a valid and safe way to make (or simply keep) money in a recession, but I’m sure it’s not the only way to breed fresh and vital writing that tells us what’s going on NOW.

Right then, off to get on with writing a real historical life into a novel. (Or should that be adapting?!)


  1. Love your pointing up of the horrible retronym “new writing”, what used to be called, ermm, “writing”.

    Whatever my own authorial ambitions may be, I’m thankful I have no aspirations to playwriting, and I feel nothing but respect mixed with pity for those that mine that thankless coalface.

    While all writing must evolve with the times, I hope, in many ways, we’re not forced to adapt.

  2. neatly put, Brian. x

  3. Hi Stella,

    Came across your site Googling “bloggging is not writing.” Something Jaron Lanier wrote recently. I’m torn – as someone who is still aspiring to make a living off “my copyrights” (which there are currently none) and someone fascinated with the idea of “literature” in the 21st Century. I agree with Weber-Wulff about the new generation laissez faire towards copying and pasting. I wouldn’t call it sampling. William S Burroughs sampled. Sadly, most simply change names and places.

    More related to your point, I think adapters exist because despite the tech our lusts, loves, and ambitions have not changed. Shakespeare is timeless because we remain emotionally yearning despite the distractions.

  4. “Shakespeare is timeless because we remain emotionally yearning despite the distractions.”

    yes indeed.

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