Leading Article: In defence of the art of the plagiarist

PLAGIARISM HAS been getting a bad name. The most recent claim is that the plot formulated by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, for the highly successful film Shakespeare in Love, bears striking similarities to a work written in 1941 by Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon, called No Bed for Bacon. It has been admitted that Mr Stoppard knew about this obscure book. His friend Ned Sherrin says: "Tom certainly was aware of it. There are some similarities between the two. Tom has certainly made his version soar." And this, surely, is the point.

Many accusations of plagiarism have been made by those who, ripped off or not, have watched what they regard as someone else's version of their work "soar". Two Australian playwrights, Andrew McCarten and Stephen Sinclair, attempted unsuccessfully, to sue the makers of The Full Monty for stealing their idea. Marks & Spencer has been accused of lifting haute couture designs and rendering them into similar but affordable garments. An artist has claimed that the memorable series of advertisements for the Volkswagen Golf, featuring ordinary people holding up amusingly contradictory placards, had been ripped off from her project. The Spice Girls used the tune of "It's Just Begun" by the Jimmy Castor Bunch for their enjoyable track "U Can't Dance".

Leaving aside the merits of these cases, we should reflect on what the world would be like without plagiarism. Indeed, the first literary reference to Shakespeare was as a plagiarist; Coriolanus, for one, drew inspiration from Plutarch's Lives. Today, much pop music would be in jeopardy. When it was suggested to Brahms that parts of his First Symphony sounded like Beethoven, he said "any ass knows that". And, to borrow a phrase, any ass knows that it takes the talented "plagiarist" to make originality soar.