I have read with great interest the Potter plagiarism story reported by The Bookseller, and with even more curiosity I have scanned through the dozens of comments it has attracted so far – most of them brimming with venom and schadenfreude I must say. This is perfectly understandable: our society is built on the myth of success and wealth, and we delight in seeing successful people and companies rise quickly and fall precipitously. JK Rowling and Bloomsbury, after sweeping over the world of publishing in an almost invincible fashion, are now at the receiving end of a potentially damaging copyright lawsuit by the estate of a children's book author who, it is claimed, wrote a book with many strange similarities to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ten years before its first publication. I think people should let the lawyers do their job, because ninety-nine times out of a hundred they get things right in the end, and there's little to be gained from uninformed comments and gossip.
But I will tell you a story which is close to home. One of our authors, Mike Croft, wrote a book called Down Deep, published by Alma in 2008, but written a few years before. This is the book's description:
"In the dead of night, a huge whale strands itself on Brighton beach. Soon whales are blocking shipping, travelling up the Thames to the heart of London, aggressively stranding themselves in incredible numbers on crowded beaches...
Amidst public hysteria, controversial marine biologist Roddy Ormond suspects the whales are communicating a terrible warning. When he tries to investigate with journalist Kate Gunning, the clues point to a scandal involving a ruthless shipping magnate and cynical government figures. Roddy and Kate are soon in grave danger. But what is the secret they must uncover? And can the code of the whales’ language be cracked? The answers are deep in the ocean, where catastrophe lies..."
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I visited Atria (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in the States late last year and was presented The Eye of the Whale (Aug 2009) by bestselling author Douglas Carlton Abrams, in which "The unexpected appearance of a humpback whale alters a marine biologist's life, forced to race to preserve the message of its mysterious song". Reading the full description of the book on the publisher's catalogue, I was shocked by more extraordinary coincidences between the plotlines of the two books.
To think that there could have been plagiarism by either party is absurd: sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence, especially when around half a million new titles are published every year in the English-speaking countries.
I also remember that Anthony McCarten, another of our authors, told me once that he had sent a film script about the life of Bobby Fischer to his agent, only to be told by the agent that he had just received a very similar script from another of his clients. A few years before, Anthony and co-author Steven Sinclair had launched a $230-million lawsuit against the producers of The Full Monty, which they claimed had plagiarized their internationally acclaimed play Ladies' Night (see Wikipedia article).
Nothing came of it in the end, and perhaps nothing will come of the Bloomsbury case too. I think this just goes to show that we write far too many books. And that we all wish we could become as rich as Ms Rowling by writing words on a piece of paper or a computer.