Wednesday, 12 June 2013

AN EXPERIMENT IN TERROR--by Reb MacRath

Hey, where’s the illustration?
Chill.

    You all know me by now as a serious guy, with no passion whatsoever for pranks, jokes, hoaxes or even harmless word play. Not the man that some call Reb Babe. Nooooo. And to reinforce your sense of how deadly earnest I am, I’ve done the thing that isn’t done: published this post with no illo. Think of this as a horror film without an accompanying score or F/X. No creepy little ooo-eeee-oooo’s to spook or weird you out. We don’t need that, as you’ll now see. For the horror itself is so low-down, so downright big-time dirty, so caked with slime and gook and mold, that anything extra would give so much less.
    You’re on the money if you’ve guessed:
    Literary thievery.
    But you’re off the money if you’ve guessed:
    Plagiarism.

C’mon, how’s about an illustration?
Hush.

    I've been ripped off, as have many of you. And I'd rather die than romanticize a dead sheep-bleeping  thief. But a cruel irony's at play: while we condemn the plagiarist, we don't seem to pay much attention to the climate supporting literary theft. And we pay still less attention to a related form of theft that's even more revolting.
    Think of flat-out plagiarists as something like bank robbers, the practitioners ranging from artisans to clowns. No matter what we say of them, bank robbers are not petty. They know and they accept the risks: from years in jail to bloody deaths. Just so, plagiarists court the risks of financial ruin and professional death.
    'Serves 'em all right', we can easily say. But let's begin giving more serious thought to their inbred country cousins: the Literary Shoplifters who resemble petty thieves in all-night convenience stores: lining their pockets and purses with whatever they can plunder. No risk whatsoever. If caught, they move on. 
    If you’re even a little bit paranoid about file saving and documentation, you have a fighting chance with a flat-out plagiarist. But what do you do if one of the agents you’ve written sends you a form rejection for your truly original idea….then farms the idea out to a more successful client—who rips off the high concept or the basic plot? The website Predators and Editors has exposed numerous agents who sold the same ideas they’d rejected to film company scouts. And I’ve lost count of the number of stories I’ve read about producers and directors being sued by poor writers for theft.  
    Now, that’s pretty darned scary, I think you’ll agree. But I promised to lay on the shocks and now will.

How about an illustration here?
Por favor, bear with me just a wee bit longer.

    The above are still only symptoms of a much larger malaise reflected in these dreadful words:
    'You know that's a great idea--I've really got to steal it!'
    In my career I’ve heard the phrase no less than a hundred times: not only from strangers but family and friends. But the epidemic grows still worse. Web plundering has grown rampant and the growing sense appears to be that anything’s fair game: if you can find it, then it’s yours…and you’re free to pretend it’s been yours all along. One popular quote currently making the rounds is that originality is the art of concealing your sources. This sort of thinking sickens me. There’s nothing more treacherous than a creatively bankrupt cretin who falls in love with an original thought—that happens to be yours.
    But we’ve still barely scratched the surface. And whatever the specifics—your structure is ‘borrowed’…your this…or your that—the sickness invariably comes down to this: thieves who can’t even admit that they’re thieves expect you to be grateful, or at least to lie down and take it, when they’ve just got to steal your stuff. Some, when called out, will fly into a rage: 'Don't you dare call me a thief, you dirty rotten bastard! I could have written that too, word for word, if I had your time and your talent."

Aw, come on, man, where’s our illo?
Please insert one hideous bloodsucking leech with a Happy Face stuck on its forehead. 


P.S.: The title of this post is the name of a wonderful 1962 film, directed by Blake Edwards, starring Glenn Ford and Lee Remick. Mildred and Gordon Gordon wrote the script, based on their own 1961 novel, Operation Terror. 

15 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

You're right, Reb. It's always been a problem. It's bad when it's writer stealing from writer (just last week a writer-friend told me how she'd found episodes from her own life recycled by another mutual writer-friend in a novel). But it's worse when the guilty parties are agents and publishers. Trouble is, it's that slippery concept 'intellectual property'.
By the way, I wish you'd given us an illustration.

Lydia Bennet said...

an enjoyable energetic read, Reb, though as Bill says, an illustration would be good - not a pic, but an example, has this been done to you? Of course titles and plots aren't copyright protected so unethical as it may be, this practice is legal. I've met several people who claim this has happened to them, not just agents but major tv channels. There's not much you can do to protect yourself unfortunately.

Mark Chisnell said...

The only thing you can do is to move on, keep having good ideas, and never mind the ones left in your dust...

Nick Green said...

This is a really sad phenomenon. Sad as in, pathetic.

I've heard of agents and editors stealing ideas before. Whoever does this simply has zero understanding of what makes a good book. It's not the ideas. It's never the ideas. It's the execution. Always the execution.

Good execution can make the simplest and most obvious idea seem astoundingly original. And bad execution can ruin a brilliant conceit as sure as terrible playing can ruin Mozart. Compare 'Avatar' and 'The Sterkarm Handshake'. Same idea, but one is brilliant, and the other's just pretty and in 3D.

Which doesn't make the theft of ideas right, of course. It just means that these thieves are dunderheads as well as crooks.

Reb MacRath said...

Thanks, guys. Examples instead of illustrations? Here are two:
1) Stephen King's son, Joe Hill, put out a first novel a few years ago, entitled 'Heart-shaped Box'. Though it differed from my first book, The Suiting, in many ways--his hero, for one thing, was an ex-rocker--the central conceit was the same: a man comes upon a suit, which proceeds to drive him mad and take over his personality. Hill's dad would have vetted his son's first book, I'm certain--and King, if not Hill, would have been aware of a Stoker Award-winning novel, even one from 1988. I don't claim plagiarism in the strictest sense--but I do maintain that an acknowledgment of some sort was called for.
2) Closer to home: an older writer who was my mentor 'borrowed'the structure of a Work in Progress that he'd asked to read. A month later, his editor told me that X had been inspired and was completely reworking his own WIP. I'd read an earlier version and was stunned to see the change: X had perfectly mimicked my structure: three different first-person narrators, the first of whom is killed off after his narrative duties.

I'm curious about the psychology at play here. In their own bizarre way such people don't believe they've done anything wrong: they believe their entitlement stems from...what? The hope they can do better?

Lydia Bennet said...

no Reb, it's simply that it's easy to nick people's ideas, and less bother than thinking up their own. They like an idea and they take it. They know that, unlike a plagiarist, there's no risk of being caught or punished. Your mentor experience is particularly heinous. what a betrayal of your trust. I'm afraid the execution being what matters, doesn't really help as much as it should, as the person who COULD have executed their own idea brilliantly rarely gets the chance to show that (except now with ebooks, but even then it looks like you're copying them!)while the desperate hack who nicked them gets credit for the idea and you only have to see the tosh being put out and PR'd to best sellerdom to see that the execution (Dan Brown anyone?) isn't much of a hindrance.

Reb MacRath said...

Thanks, Val. The mentor experience may be far worse than I've suggested. Another writer, who also knew X personally, told me that X had an absolutely ENORMOUS drawer full of proposals he'd sold to our mutual publisher. I learned this after I'd been dropped by the pub. I began to grow, well, concerned and curious. And one night over coffee, I asked X about his 'proposals'. He laughed and said he proposed anything he wanted, was paid, and then wrote what he pleased. Too horrible to think, but: was he soliciting work from other writers and selling the pitches as his? When I sent a certified to the owner of the firm, documenting every title I'd written and SHOWN to X, my friendship with X died a rather quick death. And he's no longer published by the firm, supposedly because of health. I know I'll never know exactly what happened. But I'm also confident that I have goddamned good idea.

CallyPhillips said...

Just to play devil's advocate here for a moment, can I suggest there is also a strange phenomenon which occurs in life which is that several (or many) people have similar ideas quite independently of each other at round about the same time. As was pointed out above there is no copyright on ideas and so to some extent one just has to suck it up.
However, there are of course professional situations where agents/producers etc who should know better act in a less than honest way.
And of course your post also makes an important point to folk - be very careful what you trumpet of 'work in progress' on the web because it's easy for someone to take an idea and run with it.

I console myself with a thought from teaching -that when people 'cheat' and 'copy' they do tend to either get found out or show themselves up - if you nick my idea and write YOUR version of it, it won't be MY version (nor will it be as good as my version I expect).

The danger one runs is conspiracy theorising things that are just co-incidences. It's easy to look no more than bitter when saying 'they nicked my idea' Basically, the way the industry works isn't squeaky clean and if one has a cast iron case for plagarism or other 'professional' stealing one needs to get onto it. Otherwise, I suggest Mark is right, you just need to shrug shoulders, get over it and have another good idea - or put out YOUR idea which knocks the pants off the opposition. Rising above what you can't change is sometimes the best way to go. And accepting that 'originality' can actually be going on all over the place and it's quite possible that someone else is having the same great idea you are RIGHT NOW the same as they might be drinking the same tea, reading the same book etc... I don't diminish what you say by this observation, merely offer an alternative explanation for SOME things which look like stealing. One needs to be able to spot the difference and know which battles to fight and which to walk away from.
(now there's an excercise in how to lose friends and alienate people, I know, sorry Reb!)

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I'm with Mark and Cally on this. Which is not to say that it isn't VASTLY irritating when it happens, because it is! I've had it happen to me with a major project which was 'in development' with a TV company for a couple of years - Cally knows the one - that suddenly, a few years later, cropped up as a wildly successful film, the ONLY change being the city in which it was set. But even with so many similarities there was really no way I could have proved plagiarism, because it seemed to me that it was always an idea that was 'in the ether' - as such ideas are. It bugs me, but not too much. I should have asked for payment for the development work and I should have taken the idea, which was a very good one, and written it as a novel. But I got so fed up with development hell that I didn't. Big mistake. If you have a fully fledged novel, as opposed to a proposal, however detailed (and this one was, including a couple of episodes) it's easier to prove plagiarism.
There are several related issues. People read a lot of stuff and sometimes, I think they genuinely forget where an idea came from. I'm certain it accounts for some cases.
I read recently of some poor romantic historical novelist being accused of plagiarism in her novel, set in a very particular time and place - when it was absolutely clear that there are oodles of novels with a similar plot and setting. (There are only so many, after all!)
One of the results of all this is that - for example - television and film companies over here will send back unsolicited manuscripts and proposals unread, for fear of being accused of plagiarism. Which rather defeats the purpose.

Elizabeth Kay said...

I did a slot on Breakfast TV some years ago, when there was the furore about Dan Brown nicking his central idea. I was asked because I'd made a remark about JK Rowling and I coming up with a similar idea - the Black Dog. Both come from Irish myth; it's very easy to use the same source and appear to steal something. I had time before The Divide was published to change my dog character to something that made you laugh yourself to death instead - a much better idea altogether! I've always told students who worry about copyright that who would kill the goose that lays the golden egg? Surely if a writer comes up with one belter of an idea, they could come up with others? Disappointed to hear that this common sense approach no longer seems to be in operation.

madwippitt said...

Yes, I've had ideas nicked too.
For factual books, which I'd submitted detailed synopses and sample chapters for after being requested to do so by publishers, following initial enthusiastic telephone chat and submission of a brief outline. And then a long silence, followed eventually by return of synopsis and 'This isn't really right for us at this time' ... and around 9-12 months later by my book idea but written up by a big name. OK, maybe that big name will sell more copies but pinching my idea and plan with no credit or payment is grossly unfair. Especially as it then effectively kills the market for selling my (specialist equestrian) book for at least five years. Strangely enough, the same person was involved each time this happened, at two different publishers she worked for: I now no longer submit to her.
Some publishers are very ethical though: when I interviewed Barbara Cooper who owned Kenilworth Press about this very thing, she was prepared to pay and credit someone for a good book idea, even if they weren't up to actually doing the writing.


Reb MacRath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reb MacRath said...

Reposted with missing word:

Cally, I appreciate your playing Devil's Advocate. But I see no room for error at least in the case of the mentor. I'm prepared to accept Mark's "Live and learn and move on" advice. But my account of the events is hardly supposition. Major lesson learned: don't show works in progress, do not discuss them--and have a good attorney. Basic Writing 101.

Felicia said...

Oh, Reb. This is a tricky problem to address. In my opinion, there is a fine line between artistic thievery and using a structure that has been used, or even popularized, by some but belongs to none. For example: There has been a lot of talk about the similarities between E. L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy and Sylvia Day's Crossfire Series (both of which I've read and I've written book reviews on the Crossfire books, which-- in my opinion-- are far superior, but I digress...). Both series boast a gorgeous, tormented, billionaire, twenty-something Alpha male pursuing a beautiful twenty-something, career-minded woman. James' books were released first and, therefore, some speculate Day 'stole' the idea from James. I, however, do not agree. Harlequin (which I've also read) utilized this structure decades before either woman was even born. I don't think anyone stole anything. The structure belongs to none of them, so it's up for grabs.

Another example: Hitchcock came up with the idea of killing off your lovely leading lady in the beginning of a film a la Janet Leigh in Psycho. The writers for the film Scream did the same thing with Drew Barrymore. Did Scream steal the idea? I say 'no,' because Hitchcock never 'owned' the idea to begin with.

That being said, I do believe artistic thievery exists. Your first example reeks of it.

Reb MacRath said...

Felicia, thanks for your thoughtful reply. You've made some excellent points. In fact, I'd add to them by pointing out that 50 Shades of Grey was already done long before by Mickey Rourke in 9-1/2 Weeks. Hitchcock definitely broke new ground w/Psycho's killing off Janet Leigh. My book was years before Scream. Even so, I wouldn't be surprised if somebody, somewhere, had done something similar. If so, I was unaware of it truly. And though I can't go into more detail: my mentor revised his manuscript rewrote his manuscript after reading mine. I don't see any coincidence there. But your post, and others, have helped me put some old anger to bed. It was high time to do so.