Monday, October 22, 2012
Plagiarism, the Law and Its Aftermath
In 2006, the literary world was blown away by a half-million dollar advance given by Little Brown to a 17-year-old incoming Harvard freshman with a near-perfect SAT score. Her book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, was the hottest thing in print. So hot that Dreamworks bought the movie rights before publication.
Kaavya Viswanathan, a young Indian-American, was suddenly weathy, famous, and it seemed the world was her oyster.
Then someone on the Harvard Crimson read her book and thought it seemed a little familiar. A little too familiar. Some quick research revealed that large segments of Viswanathan's book were taken directly from the first two Jessica Darling novels by popular "chic-lit" novelist Megan McCafferty.
It was clear and blatant plagiarism.
In an instant, the whole dream dissolved into a nightmare. The television appearances were not happy promotional fluff, but were rather accusatory news interviews. Little Brown immediately recalled all copies of the book from warehouses and bookstores. Return of the advance was demanded, and although it was kept confidential, the movie deal fell apart.
Further investigation showed Viswanathan also copied from several other authors, including English novelist of Indian heritage Salmon Rusdie.
Viswanathan protest her innocence, claiming that her copying was innocent as a result of reading the copied authors. She simply didn't remember the source when she was writing. But few believed that such exact and extensive copying could have been the result of inadvertence or innocence.
The case illustrates when plagiarism expands beyond the realm of ethics and into law. Viswanathan clearly breached her contract with Little Brown by not providing an original work. She also infringed on the copyright of McCafferty, Rushdie and several other authors, for which she could be held liable for statutory damages.
Although the matter was resolved out of court, she also could have faced both civil and criminal liability for fraud and theft by misrepresentation.
So what happened to Ms. Viswanathan? Did her embarrassment drive her from Harvard? Did it destroy her life before it had hardly started. Did it relegate her to a career as a Wal-Mart greeter?
She graduated from Harvard in 2008, then went on to Georgetown Law School where she landed a 2011 summer associate position with the swank New York law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. Although she would have graduated in 2012, there is no word as to where she landed.
Note: In 2011, Viswanathan's mother and father were tragically killed in a plane crash as her father flew his small private plane home after the couple had spent a weekend visiting their daughter in Washington, D.C.