True Detective HBO Series: Plagiarism or Fair Use?

FYI, for my readers:

The debate about plagiarism vs. artistic license is  often a dicey situation. I loved HBO’s True Detective, and when I learned that the character Rusty Cohle was based from the writings of weird fiction writer Thomas Ligotti, I was even more intrigued. But I only learned about Ligotti’s influence in the script from an interview of the screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto, not from watching the show, since there’s no reference to Ligotti in any episodes or credits.

Recently, I came across a fascinating post about plagiarism concerning True Detective. This is a really heated debate about what is legally plagiarism, morally wrong, or fair use.  Check out these two posts on August 4 and 5 on Lovecraft Ezine:

Just how much borrowing of words and phrases from a copyrighted published work is considered fair use? What do you think?

Aug 4: http://lovecraftzine.com/2014/08/04/did-the-writer-of-true-detective-plagiarize-thomas-ligotti-and-others/

Aug 5: http://lovecraftzine.com/2014/08/05/nic-pizzolattos-homage-to-ligotti-right-and-wrong-vs-the-law-and-the-courts/

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I have a particular interest in this kind of thing since in my own work, The Dazzling Darkness, I have two characters exploring the philosophies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, speaking Emerson’s words and taking on his thinking. In every case, I cite Emerson as the source and was advised to do so by legal counsel: if the text is in the public domain (which all are), I could use it noting the source. And if not in the public domain, I would have to get (pay for) permissions. So, how does Pizzolatti get away with his character Rusty Cohle spouting (or in some cases paraphrasing) Ligotti’s thinking, words, phrases from his book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (which is likely not in the public domain)? Hmmm. Curious, don’t you think?

 

If you are interested in reading a short story of Thomas Ligotti, check out Mrs. Rinaldi’s Angel here on my March 11, 2014 Tales of Terror post. Ligotti is a iconic American writer, winner of  Bram Stoker Awards, British Fantasy Award, and had published numerous stories, screenplays, poems and nonfiction (The Conspiracy Against the Human Race).

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11 Comments

Filed under fiction, horror, horror blogs, tales of terror

11 responses to “True Detective HBO Series: Plagiarism or Fair Use?

  1. One more thing, while I think controversy is a good thing and I do like to hear opposing views and value appropriate information and insights, I hope all here on my blog will keep their opinions to the subject at hand and not directed at any individual.

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  2. Thanks, Mitch for your interesting comments. As I understand the definition of plagiarism from Oxford Dictionary, it is not just taking someone’s text or language, it’s also “taking someone else’s *ideas* and passing them off as one’s own.” I do see similarities in text and in *ideas* between Ligotti’s text and Pizzolatto’s script. Legally I suppose this is not black and white. What question comes to my mind at this point is, if HBO did in fact (if sources are correct) pay Ligotti compensation, then isn’t that an admission of plagiarism that Pizzolatto did use Ligotti’s ideas without attribution? I mean if HBO truly believed that there was no plagiarism, if Ligotti’s ideas were NOT lifted, and Pizzolatto’s script of Cohle’s philosophy are in the public domain under fair use standards, they why would they pay Ligotti any compensation at all? Paying Ligotti compensation without giving him onscreen credit is very telling indeed.

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  3. There is no word limit for copying here in the UK. It is a value judgement by the courts. The USA might have something similar, so I would check that. Interesting debate, though. It will be even more interesting to see what happens to Mr. Pizzolatti.

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    • It certainly is a dicey issue no matter what country you’re in. Having to go to court to settle these things can be time consuming and expensive. Copyrights are supposed to prevent stealing a writer’s work and calling it your own. As I understand it, Ligotti has been compensated by HBO so I guess a deal was likely made so Ligotti wouldn’t sue HBO or Pizzolatto. for copyright infringement.

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      • mitch henson

        Thank you for that info. After carefully reading the supposed evidence, I had to conclude that there were no actual similarities in language. The ideas expressed come from any number of nihilistic sources. Mike Davis is reading far more into Ligotti/true detective than is reasonable. HBO could have sat back and done nothing. They did the right thing by compensating Ligotti, which in the end is what plagiarism is all about. Would l rather get credit or compensation? If Ligotti had decided to sue he would have lost because the comparisons are far to subjective.

        I’m very disappointed with Mike Davis for pursuing this controversy especially following in the footsteps of an open discussion he wanted to insept regarding H P Lovecrafts racism. Which did not get off the ground because fans of the old gent would rather let sleeping dogs lie, than pursue a dead issue.

        It’s almost as if Davis is trying to fuel ANY controversy.

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  4. The first question to ask is, who is doing the plagiarising? Second question is, who is being plagiarised? Third is, what is the balance of power between the two?

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    • Good questions. I suppose legal folks would be best at sorting that out. The line between being inspired by others’ writings and using their thoughts and phrases can be blurry. My info on “fair use” is that all material used MUST cite the original source and no more than 350 words for prose from a story, essay, or article. Another site said 2500 words for prose. So, I think this is a gray area in terms of how much prose as a body of work. But when Pizzolatto did not cite Ligotti in the script or in the credits, I think he failed to be honest with his audience. That injures the writer’s reputation, IMHO. The next question that comes to my mind is, what else did he write that was not his own original thought? One thing a good writer never wants to do is violate the trust of the audience/readers. The fact that Pizzolatto said he “signaled Ligotti rearders” in Episode One with two lines straight out of Ligotti’s works, is very tricky indeed. What is copyright for if not to protect something like this?

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      • I agree with the nobility of what you say, Paula, but think copyright is a dead duck. Publishers in India or China can reprint any books without any permissions or any payment to the authors. It’s a new world and the old rules no longer apply. A new model is needed so that artists of any ilk can continue to eat, but so far I’ve only seen squabbling and apportioning blame.

        Can you imagine the difficulty of suing a publisher in a country that doesn’t have any copyright laws? Not to say the expense. Laws are only laws if people agree to be governed by them.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Paula wrote: “In every case, I cite Emerson as the source and was advised to do so by legal counsel: if the text is in the public domain (which all are), I could use it noting the source. And if not in the public domain, I would have to get (pay for) permissions. So, how does Pizzolatti get away with his character Rusty Cohle spouting (or in some cases paraphrasing) Ligotti’s thinking, words, phrases from his book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (which is likely not in the public domain)?”

    That sums the debate up succinctly.

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    • Thanks, Mike. I can’t help but wonder what Ligotti thinks about all this. I sure wish he’d put out a press release or something.

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      • mitch henson

        Since Ligotti was compensated he won’t be issuing a statement or press release. I worked in the television industry for almost twenty years. HBO has a reputation for being hard assed on legal issues. They would have included a clause in their agreement with Ligotti for him not to issue a statement disclosing their terms.

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