From Plagiarism Today:
Two weeks ago, we took a look at the plagiarism controversy over The Shape of Water, the new film written and directed by Guillermo del Toro.
At the time, the controversy focused on similarities between The Shape of Water and The Space Between Us, a 2015 short film by students at the Netherlands Film Academy.
But, while the similarities were striking, there was no shortage of evidence that del Toro had been working on The Shape of Water as early as 2011, well before The Space Between Us was released.
With so much evidence that The Shape of Water could not have plagiarized the short film, the conversation shifted to exactly why the arguments felt so convincing. In short, the story became a useful example to discuss why some things in filmmaking felt like plagiarism when we knew for certain they could not be.
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Two days after my original post, the estate of playwright Paul Zindel publicly accused del Toro of plagiarizing Zindel’s 1969 play, Let Me Hear You Whisper.
The two works do have a great deal of overlap. Both stories are set in the sixties and feature a female custodian who befriends and eventually falls in love with a creature held captive in the military laboratory where she works. In both stories she frees the creature (using a shopping cart) in order to save it from vivisection after the creature fails to cooperate with its captors.
While that’s a lot of overlap, there are several key differences too. For one, in Whisper the creature is a dolphin and in Water it’s a humanoid creature. Also, the endings of the two works are drastically different.
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Fox Searchlight has denied that del Toro read Let Me Hear You Whisper, but there is evidence that Daniel Kraus, who pitched the story idea to del Toro in 2011, was not just aware of Zindel’s work, but an admirer.
This makes it almost certain that Kraus was aware of Let Me Hear You Whisper, even if del Toro was not.
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Earlier this week, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet accused del Toro of plagiarizing a scene in The Shape of Water from his 1991 film Delicatessen.
Both scenes feature two characters, one male and one female, sitting side by side and creating an impromptu rhythm to the beat of a musical playing on TV. In Delicatessen, the two use squeaks and creaks in a bed they are seated on to make the music while, in The Shape of Water, the two are seated on a sofa using their shoes to tap out the rhythm.
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However, this is a very different plagiarism allegation than the first one. It doesn’t look at the entire plot of the film and, instead, focuses on less than a minute of both works.
But, while both scenes feature characters making an impromptu rhythm to a musical on the TV, that’s roughly all they have in common. How they make the rhythm, where they’re sitting and the beat they make are all very different.
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Still, as noted by Sabine Jacques in The Conversation, a copyright infringement case by the estate against del Toro would have some significant challenges. Not only is it unclear if the similarities between the two works are copyrightable or that they are strikingly similar to one another to be considered a derivative work, but del Toro heavily documented the creation of the film and may be able to show it was an independent creation.
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There’s a terrible and overtly false expression about plagiarism that reads, “To steal from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.”
As obviously untrue as that is (plagiarism deals with citation and not the number of sources) it has a kernel of wisdom when it comes to fiction.
Every trope we have started out as an original idea at some point, even if it was thousands of years ago. However, as other creators used it, built upon it and modified it, it went from being an original idea to being a basic building block of storytelling. However, the transition from original work to trope is not a smooth or clear one. In fact, it’s one that’s different for nearly every person interpreting it.
Link to the rest at Plagiarism Today