Beyond "Harry Potter": 5 interesting tales of plagiarism

J.K. Rowling is only one of many well-known authors to face charges of plagiarism.

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    A 2006 lawsuit against the publisher of "The Da Vinci Code" claimed that author Dan Brown had stolen basic plot elements of his book from another novel. The court did not find any wrong doing on Brown's part.
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Last week, "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling was named as a defendant in a lawsuit in a London court. It's not the first time that Rowling has faced such charges. This time, the estate of author Adrian Jacobs claims that key concepts appearing in her book "Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire" were lifted from Jacobs's 1987 book "The Adventures of Willy the Wizard." Rowling calls the charges absurd; the Jacobs estate, instead, says the suit is "a billion-dollar case."

Rowling is hardly the first well-known writer to face plagiarism charges. The results of such charges tend to vary widely. Some end up dismissed as without merit, others ruin careers, and yet others seem simply to disappear.

Here are five of the more high-profile cases to spring up in recent years:

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– Charges that Dan Brown largely copied "The Da Vinci Code" from an earlier novel. Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two of the three authors of the 1987 "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail," charged that Brown stole some basic elements of the plot of their book for his 2003 blockbuster "The Da Vinci Code". Baigent and Leigh lost their 2006 case against Random House – Brown's publisher – in a London court and then were defeated again on appeal. The two were also forced to pay the bulk of Random House's legal costs. The trial did, however, put "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail" on bestseller lists.

– A debate over the relationship between Ian McEwan's "Atonement" and an earlier memoir. In 2001 Ian McEwan's highly acclaimed novel "Atonement" was published. A few years later, the British press noted close similarities between details in "Atonement" and a 1977 memoir by Lucilla Andrews called "No Time for Romance." McEwan replied that he had indeed been inspired by Andrews' memories and pointed out that he had even mentioned Andrews and her writing in the author’s note at the end of "Atonement." (Andrews had died a few months before the controversy erupted.) The debate ultimately came down to a question as to whether McEwan had sufficiently acknowledged his debt to Andrews.

– Plagiarism charges against two books by Doris Kerns Goodwin. In 2002, two different sets of plagiarism charges were made against Doris Kerns Goodwin. In January of that year, The Weekly Standard argued that she had borrowed material for her book "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys" from three other books. Then, in August, a Los Angeles Times story noted that passages from her book "No Ordinary Time," about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, appeared to have been borrowed from other works. Many in the literary community stood by Goodwin, insisting that she had done no wrong. Some of her critics, however, remained unconvinced.

– Charges that Stephen Ambrose was guilty of plagiarism in several works. Popular historian Stephen Ambrose was first accused of plagiarism in 2002 by The Weekly Standard, which charged that Ambrose had taken several passages in his book "The Wild Blue" from a book called "Wings of Morning" by American academic Thomas Childers. Ambrose denied the charges, but further investigation of his work led to accustations involving several other of his books.

– Charges that a young author copied from two older writers. Kaavya Viswanathan was only a sophomore at Harvard University when she was hit with plagiarism charges. Her novel "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" was compared to "Can You Keep a Secret" by Sophie Kinsella and two novels – "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings" – by Megan McCafferty. In the case of the McCafferty books, the works' publisher, Crown, said that more than 40 passages had been copied by Viswanathan. As a result, all copies of "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed" were recalled by its publisher, which also canceled Viswanathan's two-book contract. A planned film version of the book was also canceled. Viswanathan remained at Harvard, from which she graduated with honors in 2008.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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