The Sri Lankan literary community (and the wider public) rejoiced last month with the happy news that the Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka had won the Booker Prize for his novel ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida,’ which explores life after life after death in a noir investigation set amid the murderous mayhem of a Sri Lanka beset by civil war.
In 1990 Colombo, war photographer Maali Almeida is dead and has no idea who killed him. He has seven moons to try and contact the man and woman he loves most and lead them to a hidden cache of photos that will rock Sri Lanka.
However, last week, an allegation was made by senior journalist/attorney Rajpal Abeynayake that Karunatilaka had plagiarised an unpublished manuscript of a novella that Abeynayake had shared with him for author endorsement in 2011, sharing in a previous statement to The Morning that much of what happened to Maali Almeida before his death in ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ was from his unpublished novella.
Karunatilaka has since made a brief public statement where he dismissed Abeynayake’s accusations and noted that Abeynayake’s unpublished manuscript had been shared with his lawyers and with the Booker Prize Foundation for complete transparency.
Seeing the question of plagiarism in creative writing being brought to light, The Sunday Morning Brunch’s train of thought was sparked into pondering how plagiarism in creative writing could be flagged. After all, given how creative writing is so idea-based, isn’t it only natural for multiple writers to have similar ideas and to commit them to paper? Where do publishers come in? Is there a resource or library that can tell you when an original creative piece bears too much similarity to something else?
How publishers tackle authenticity of work
Brunch chatted with the legendary veteran publisher Vijitha Yapa, who shared that from a publisher’s perspective, there was no library to draw on when assessing an author’s work:
“When we sign an agreement, the author has to say he is responsible for all the words written in the book and that he hasn’t taken it from any other book or copies in that sense. The author has to take full responsibility. It is impossible for the publisher to check on everything unless they have a phenomenal memory,” Yapa explained.
Independent publisher Perera-Hussein Publishing House Precedent Partner Sam Perera also shared with Brunch that when it came to the originality of work, the onus of responsibility fell on the author and that Perera-Hussein’s contracts with authors included a clause which stated that as publishers they could not be sued for plagiarism.
He said that when reviewing submissions by authors, they requested that authors acknowledge or obtain permission from anyone they had quoted extensively and if copyrighted material was being used, that proof of permission (and payment) to use such material was provided.
“From my experience, I also know how Sri Lankans write,” Perera said, noting that Sri Lankan authors tended to write in a specific way and he reviews potential authors’ writing styles and also gives some thought to if a particular author was likely to use specific turns of phrase or approach a plot in a specific manner.
Tackling accusations of plagiarism
So what happens when accusations of plagiarism are made?
As a general rule, Yapa shared that as a publisher, they would advise their authors on how to respond based on the specifics of the case. But there are many things to consider. For example, books in different languages may bear similarities to each other.
As Yapa pointed out, publishers as well as authors have human limitations: “How do you find out whether it has been written before in the Sinhala or Tamil language? We don’t know. This is why we take that statement from the author. We can’t take responsibility for what we don’t know.”
Perera of Perera-Hussein also noted that few books contained exclusively original ideas and added that the research of an author also had the potential to greatly affect originality and could lead to multiple authors telling similar stories based on the research they conducted and the interviews they conducted while researching.
For example, books that deal with the stories of small communities in a specific place, whether fiction or nonfiction, will invariably have similarities because authors would have spoken to or heard stories from very similar people, if not the very same people.
Should all authors be worried about plagiarism accusations?
One aspect of this conversation that must be noted is that books that gain wide recognition tend to draw accusations of similarity to other works. However, these similarities are often entirely coincidental.
“Writing a book involves a lot of ego. You want to put your creative work in there and the chance of copying in the greater scheme of things is small,” Perera said, noting that even authors who started with a base idea from someone else’s work would almost always work on it and put their own into it to the point that it would become unrecognisable from the work it first took indication from.
“Copyright is the only real claim to ownership of intellectual property. It is impossible to ascertain whether ‘original’ work has been plagiarised from an unpublished manuscript. There are no safeguards to prevent that from happening, just as there is nothing to prevent you from hand copying published work and claiming that you had the idea first.”