Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when imitation goes too far, it can turn into something else. The case of Toronto author Ling Zhang, for instance, has been in the news since February, and is now going to court. She's been accused of plagiarism by a group of Chinese-Canadian authors, who allege that she copied elements of their work in her novel 'Gold Mountain Blues'. The three authors, Wayson Choy, Sky Lee and Paul Yee, are suing for $6 million.
None of their claims have been proven in a court of law yet, and Ling's publisher Penguin Canada says the accusations are baseless. They believe the book "shares only a few general plot similarities with the other works", and that the lawsuit is unwarranted. The author herself maintains she's only read two of the other books in question, and that she wrote 'Gold Mountain Blues' based on original research.
Plagiarism is a murky concept, of course, especially in the creative field. There really is a fine line between inspiration and theft - and not every artist agrees on where that line is drawn. For example, the modernist poet T.S. Eliot famously said, "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal".
Here are some examples of accusations of plagiarism, and the stories behind them:
George Harrison Vs. Bright Tunes Music Corp
When George Harrison released his first solo single, 'My Sweet Lord', it was pretty well-received. It went to number one on the charts and stayed there for five weeks. It was even re-released in 2002 following Harrison's death, when it hit number one again. Unfortunately, as the above video demonstrates, the song was almost identical to an earlier tune by a band called The Chiffons. Their song, 'He's So Fine', shared a chord structure, melody and sound so similar that a judge couldn't tell the difference - and fined Harrison $587,000 for "unconscious plagiarism".
How do you land a $500,000 two-book deal for your young adult fiction when you're still a high school student? It helps if you're a very talented writer. But in the case of Kaavya Viswanthan, it was more about being a talented borrower. It turned out that her debut novel, 'How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life' contained various portions of two young adult novels by Megan McCafferty. The news caused a scandal, and she lost her publishing deal (and the movie option that went with it). But it turns out she's doing fine. She's studying at Harvard, and she's going into law!
Michael Bolton Vs. The Isley Brothers
In 1991, Michael Bolton released his album 'Time, Love and Tenderness', and the single 'Love is a Wonderful Thing'. The album eventually sold 16 million copies worldwide, and the single went to #4 on the charts. But things did not stay quite so smooth: the Isley Brothers, an R&B group, also released a song called 'Love is a Wonderful Thing'. in 1966. The band successfully sued Bolton for all profits from the single, plus 28% of profits from the album. All told, they ended up winning $5 million in damages. Which, for Bolton, was not such a wonderful thing.
James Cameron Vs. Harlan Ellison
The original 'Terminator' movie seems to be based on a pretty original idea: a cyborg agent is sent back in time to try to prevent humanity's last hope from altering the time line. Except. the idea wasn't original. As writer/director James Cameron admitted in an interview, the plot was based on "a couple of Outer Limits segments". And both of those segments were written by sci-fi author Harlan Ellison. The author eventually settled with the filmmakers out of court. His name was added to the end credits of the film, against objections from Cameron.
Coldplay Vs. Joe Satriani
Coldplay's 2009 album 'Viva la Vida, or Death and All his Friends' contained various hit singles. But the second single they released, 'Viva la Vida', got a different kind of attention: Joe Satriani, the legendary guitar shredder, sued the band for copying "substantial original portions" of his song 'If I Could Fly'. The video above offers a comparison of the two, and... you can hear what he's talking about. Nevertheless, the case was settled out of court in September, 2009. No one knows for sure whether money changed hands, but the final legal decision was clear: case dismissed.
Stephen Ambrose was a famous historian and author whose reputation suffered a serious blow in the early 2000s. His book 'The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45' was found to contain several instances of plagiarism, lifting full passages from at least six books that weren't listed as sources. Further investigations found Ambrose had used other people's work without crediting it in many of his other books, as well.