9 Infamous Literary Plagiarism Scandals That Shook the Writing World

This article delves into 9 high-profile cases of literary plagiarism, ranging from allegations against Pulitzer Prize winners to bestselling authors. While some authors faced serious legal consequences, others were exonerated. The article serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of maintaining ethical standards in writing.

Updated Sep 18, 2023 | 02:00 PM IST


9 Infamous Literary Plagiarism Scandals That Shook the Writing World (Credit - Twitter)

In a thought-provoking letter to Helen Keller, Mark Twain once remarked that all literary pieces are essentially forms of plagiarism in some way. This perspective resonated with me because, throughout history, writers have been borrowing ideas and themes from each other. But what many might not have foreseen is how the Internet would transform this landscape. With digital technology, getting away with plagiarism has become incredibly difficult. Let me take you through nine instances where plagiarism scandals have erupted in the literary world, shining a spotlight on this often-hidden practice.
1. Alex Haley
Alex Haley, renowned for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book 'Roots: The Saga of an American Family', found himself embroiled in a plagiarism scandal that shook his literary acclaim. Harold Courlander accused Haley of lifting sections from his own book, 'The African', to craft the narrative of Roots. While initially defensive, Haley later admitted that his iconic work did include elements from Courlander's novel. The two eventually reached an out-of-court settlement in 1978, casting a shadow over Haley's otherwise celebrated legacy.
2. J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling, the creative genius behind the Harry Potter series, found herself entangled in a legal battle over her fourth book, 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'. Paul Allen, representing the estate of Adrian Jacobs, claimed that Rowling had borrowed elements from Jacobs' lesser-known work, 'The Adventures of Willy the Wizard'. Interestingly, the case fizzled out when Allen couldn't manage to pay the required security deposit on time. Even before that, the judge had expressed scepticism about the plagiarism claim's likelihood of success. A similar case in the U.S. had been tossed out, with the judge stating that "any serious comparison of the two strains credulity." Rowling, for her part, was vehement that she'd never even laid eyes on Jacobs' book, dismissing the allegations as both groundless and ludicrous.
3. T.S. Elliot
T.S. Eliot's renowned poem, 'The Waste Land', often hailed as a 20th-century literary masterpiece, is thought to have drawn heavily from James Joyce's Ulysses. Interestingly, 'The Waste Land', which came out in 1922, also shares striking resemblances with a poem by Madison Cawein published in the January 1913 issue of Poetry magazine. This makes Eliot's own words about immature poets imitating and mature poets stealing seem quite appropriate.
4. Dan Brown
Dan Brown, the bestselling author of 'The Da Vinci Code', has faced multiple plagiarism accusations. In 2006, authors Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent took him to court, alleging that he had borrowed heavily from their work, 'The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail'. However, they ended up losing and were slapped with a ?1.3 million bill, covering 85% of Brown's legal expenses. A year after that, another writer, Jack Dunn, brought a lawsuit against Brown, claiming similarities between 'The Da Vinci Code' and his own 1997 novel, 'The Vatican Boys'. While this suit was dismissed in the U.S. in 2007, Dunn reignited the legal battle in the U.K. a decade later, insisting he'd found even more plagiarized material in Brown's work.
5. Stephen Ambrose
It's always a shock when someone you admire comes under scrutiny, especially when it undermines their life's work. Stephen Ambrose, who penned the widely-acclaimed 1992 book, 'Band Of Brothers', found himself in hot water in 2002. Accused of plagiarizing multiple historians, his reputation took a severe hit. I remember reading a New York Times piece that highlighted how Ambrose had seemingly lifted entire passages from Thomas Childers' book, Wings Of Morning, to use in his own work, 'The Wild Blue'. Both books delve into the lives of bomber pilots during World War II. But the unsettling revelations didn't stop there. A subsequent investigation by Forbes found evidence of plagiarism in at least six more of his books. The thought that a person so influential in capturing historical narratives could resort to such measures is deeply disappointing, to say the least.
6. Doris Kearns Goodwin
It's intriguing how life can come full circle sometimes. Take Doris Kearns Goodwin, for instance, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer. Back in 1993, she accused another writer of lifting content from her well-regarded book, 'The Fitzgeralds And The Kennedys'. Yet, in a twist of irony, she herself got embroiled in a plagiarism scandal in 2002. The Weekly Standard highlighted that the very same book contained phrases and even whole sentences borrowed from three other works—Hank Searls's 'The Lost Prince', Rose Kennedy's 'Times To Remember', and Lynne McTaggart's 'Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life And Times'. After settling with McTaggart out of court, Goodwin felt the repercussions to the point that she stepped down from the Pulitzer Prize Board later that year. Quite a turn of events, isn't it?
7. Kaavya Vishwanathan
It was a bit of a literary scandal that struck close to home for me, as a fan of young adult fiction. Kaavya Vishwanathan, a Harvard sophomore at the time, released her debut novel, 'How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, And Got A Life.' I was initially thrilled to see someone so young accomplish this feat, but my excitement quickly turned to disappointment. The Harvard Crimson reported that sections of her book bore an uncanny resemblance to Megan McCafferty's novels, 'Sloppy Firsts' and 'Second Helpings'. As if that wasn't concerning enough, additional parallels emerged between Vishwanathan's work and that of Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, and even Salman Rushdie. The fallout was swift and unforgiving: her book was yanked off the shelves, and her promising two-book deal got axed. A sobering moment, indeed, for those who cherish the integrity of the written word.
8. Jacob Epstein
I remember being intrigued when Jacob Epstein, then a Yale senior, published his first novel, Wild Oats. But my intrigue turned into disbelief when renowned author Martin Amis accused Epstein of lifting more than 50 passages from his own work, The Rachel Papers. To make matters even worse, Epstein later owned up to plagiarizing not just from Amis, but also from other books. The aftermath was immediate: Epstein stepped away from the realm of fiction writing altogether and pivoted to a career as a Hollywood producer. It was a cautionary tale that underscored the importance of originality in creative pursuits.
9. Ellis O'Hanlon
Ellis O'Hanlon, a Northern Irish journalist and novelist, authored several books with her husband Ian McConnel under the pseudonym Ingrid Black. Upon creating a Twitter account for the pseudonym, O'Hanlon discovered that a writer named Joanne Clancy was allegedly copying her work for publication on Amazon. Clancy's book, Tear Drop, appeared to be a rephrased version of Black's novel, The Dead, with minor changes to the plot and characters.
Additionally, another book by Clancy, Insincere, bore striking similarities to Black's The Dark Eye. In response to the apparent plagiarism, Amazon removed both of Clancy's books and deactivated her entire account.
In the realm of literary works, allegations of plagiarism are unfortunately not uncommon. While some writers have acknowledged their wrongdoings and paid the price, others have successfully defended their originality in court. Yet these instances serve as stark reminders of the ethical boundaries that should not be crossed in any creative field. In an age where the internet has made it both easier to plagiarize and to catch those who do, writers need to be ever-vigilant in ensuring their works stand up to the highest standards of integrity. Cases like those of Ellis O'Hanlon and Joanne Clancy prove that no act of plagiarism goes unnoticed in today's digitally-connected world, and the repercussions can be severe.
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