In April 2004, Bryony Lavery’s play “Frozen” debuted on Broadway. It received rave reviews, garnering Tony nominations for the play, its two stars and the director. Lavery basked in the success—at least, until psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis read the play’s script and hired a lawyer.
Lewis said many scenes in the play were based on her memoir, “Guilty by Reason of Insanity: A Psychiatrist Explores the Minds of Killers,” about her life spent working with serial killers. Lewis also noted 12 verbatim quotations, around 675 words in all, taken from a profile written about her by Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker in 1997. Lewis wanted to sue the playwright, who she thought had stolen details of both her life and her book, though because of the inherent complications of intellectual copyright, she eventually dropped the case, and the only place Lavery was judged was in the court of public opinion.
Malcolm Gladwell, whose prose appears, uncredited, in the play, initially supported Lewis’s lawsuit and offered to assign her the copyright to his article. After reading the script of “Frozen,” however, he had a change of heart. He deemed the play “breathtaking” and wrote, in a subsequent article for The New Yorker, that “instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause.” He found himself sympathizing with the playwright: “Bryony Lavery had seen one of my articles, responded to what she read and used it as she constructed a work of art. And now her reputation was in tatters. Something about that didn’t seem right.” [In the spirit of fairly acknowledging sources, the anecdote and quotations come from Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderfully complex exploration of plagiarism, “Something Borrowed: Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?” published in The New Yorker, Nov. 22, 2004.]
Certainly, many writers—creative nonfiction and otherwise—use newspaper or magazine clippings or traits of someone they know as the genesis of a longer work. Susan Orlean’s article for The New Yorker and subsequent book, “The Orchid Thief,” gestated from the seed of an article in the Naples Daily News. So why didn’t The New York Times write stories which suggested that Orlean’s influential work might be plagiarism? The first difference between Orlean and Lavery is one of language: Orlean didn’t lift entire passages of someone else’s writing— the words were her own. The second, equally important difference is one of facts: Orlean did her own research, spending innumerable hours interviewing the “thief” of her book’s title, John Laroche, walking through orchid shows and Everglade swamps, and finding facts with her own eyes and ears. Though the idea came from someone else’s writing, the final product is a completely different work that relies on Orlean’s creativity and research—her facts, her interviews, her insights.
Many writers’ ideas start with files of newspaper clippings, and it’s perfectly fine to let world or local news generate ideas. But the care to avoid plagiarism comes in the following steps—ensuring that all of the language in the writing is your own and citing the sources of quotes, facts and thematic ideas to give credit to other writers and thinkers the same way you’d want to be acknowledged for your own work.
Today, many people are distrustful of what they see and read in the media. Creative nonfiction writers have a complicated obligation to their readers—to entertain like novelists but to educate like journalists. As a result, they have to balance the need for a good story with good facts— and the facts aren’t good if they’re lifted, without giving credit, from someone else. In his indictment of the fast food industry, “Fast Food Nation,” Eric Schlosser made his writing nearly bulletproof by including a 67-page appendix on sources and a bibliography. Whenever Schlosser’s reporting wasn’t firsthand, he acknowledged what wasn’t his own and cited where he found the information. This not only protected him against potential attacks from fast food industry lawyers but encouraged the readers’ trust and safeguarded the writer’s reputation. This is a move all writers can steal, guilt-free.