Hollywood has again been accused of plagiarism, and pop stars are charged with 'theft'. But did originality ever really exist?
"IMMATURE poets imitate; mature poets steal," wrote T S Eliot in 1920. If Eliot felt there was little new to say back in 1920, it's certain that, in 1998, borrowings, blendings and wholesale plagiarism are much more likely than blinding originality. It seems that almost every other film, book or album that comes out is accompanied by cries of "Theft!". Is there nothing that hasn't been written or composed before?

This week one of the top American films of the year, The Truman Show, opens in Britain. But it arrives accompanied by allegations that it is a rip-off of a Broadway play, Frank's Life, performed six years ago. Exactly as in the film, the play, written by a researcher in the New York Public Library named Mark Dunn, involved a man caught unawares inside a television soap opera. Dunn is now suing Paramount and the creators of the film for $200m, a conservative estimate of the film's gross takings.

The Truman Show is the latest in a succession of cases in which credit for creating a work of art has been disputed. In the past few months, allegations of plagiarism (see box) have dogged the films Amistad and The Full Monty, the pop groups The Verve and the Spice Girls, and the writers Jeffrey Archer and Roger McGough.

The idea that there is a limited number of plots or tunes will be appreciated by anybody who has ever tried to write a book or compose at the piano. Even Shakespeare borrowed heavily: there is little dispute among literary historians that Coriolanus, for example, extensively used Plutarch's Lives as a source; musical history is littered with echoes of earlier compositions: when someone pointed out to Brahms that the end of his first symphony was rather similar to the finale of Beethoven's ninth, he retorted, "Any ass knows that."

ACCUSATIONS of plagiarism are like drugs allegations in sport: the pinnacle of achievement is smeared by innuendo and doubt, and rarely can anything be proved. But certain theorists can offer comfort. Many have even suggested that there is a finite number of stories or plotlines (there is debate about how many), and so repetition is inevitable. Vladimir Propp, who studied Russia's folk tales, believed there were 25 "functions" or "stages" to every tale (he identified progressions such as "son leaves father's house", "meets a woman", "loses woman", "looks for woman", and so on).

John Sturrock, author of The Word From Paris, a collection of essays on modern French thinkers, explains such beliefs: "People don't actually have the claim to the work they often think they do. That sort of cheery romanticism, 'I made it all up', has been rather discredited. There are simply story codes operated by individuals in the same way a speaker uses language."

It's a suggestion with which many Hollywood screenwriters agree. Christopher Vogler has also studied plotlines, and is a one-time legal adviser to Disney Studios. "I've often been in the position," he says, "of trying to define a defence for a studio, and what I would do was go back and demonstrate that there is no originality. If a writer thought they had a unique notion, I could normally find a precedent for it.

"One time we had a sci-fi thing about a giant baby in the back garden, and to counter the writer I could go back and declare that Rabelais had thought of it first."

The issue of plagiarism was highlighted in The Player, Robert Altman's 1992 film about Hollywood in which a character explained how the studio analysed 20,000 scripts to make 12 films.

"Of course there are going to be resonances," says Robert McKee, who runs courses on the principles of screenwriting, "because the volume of writing in America is so huge: a quarter of a million screenplays are written in the US each year. The Writers' Guild registers 50,000 writers per annum, but I think there are probably 10 times that number scribbling away."

But the dividing line between what is merely derivative and what is wholesale appropriation has become blurred by artistic fashion. Many of the overlaps occur because of the vogue for producing post-modern pick'n'mixes of other people's works. Paul Magrs, who teaches creative writing at the Universiy of East Anglia, says that "pastiche has entered literary culture, it's part of the fashion for sampling. If something skirts too close to something already extant, a case of complete appropriation, that's different. But these things can be done with a certain deftness. As a writer, you do chime off things. There's a continual dialogue."

Plagiarism, so-called, is particularly acute in the music industry, where technology has led to an outbreak of sampling and splicing, whereby brief passages from famous tracks are reproduced in a new context. The latest Madonna album, for example, includes a snatch of the Beatles song "Strawberry Fields Forever".

Maria Forte, director of commercial affairs at V2 records, admits that the music industry has been slow to regulate this. She said: "Sampling is an area that has been left alone, largely because the music industry didn't know how to deal with it. I would like to see more information and education so people know what they're doing and understand how to clear things.

"There's nothing wrong with creating songs by layering samples, and a lot of people appreciate the obtuse reworking of tracks. But there are complications, like trying to include film dialogues. When the band Chris and James wanted to use a Samuel L Jackson line from Pulp Fiction, they had to clear it with the actor and Quentin Tarantino. It all took nine months."

HOW, though, does one establish whether theft of intellectual property has taken place? According to Keith Mathieson, a copyright lawyer with Davies, Arnold, Cooper: "It's necessary to prove someone actually copied someone else's work. That a film script and a book look the same may raise a presumption, but that doesn't necessarily lead to a conclusion. There is no copyright in an idea; it has to be written down. Although some similarities can be striking, they don't prove that something has been copied wholesale."

For supposed victims of plagiarism, their only consolation may be that they have been offered the sincerest form of flattery.