Writer Beware!
Sue Raines

Writing should be enjoyable, even if it seems to be a hard slog to meet that deadline. Writing can also be dangerous. There are many cases of writers being sued for copying another's work.

Yes, it can happen to you, an author writing in any genre. There is a recent case where Australian author Jessica Adams found herself defending a crime short story she had written for Big Issue magazine. The short story appeared to be very similar to one written and published in 1928 by mystery writer Agatha Christie.

Author and Playwright Janelle Evans, a keen Christie fan, writing in the Australian Newspaper makes a strong case against Adams who, as an established ‘Chick-Lit’ author who also writes an Astrology column for Vogue magazine, has considerable experience and should know better.

This is of particular interest to many writers who contribute short stories to magazines and anthologies as well as entering into competitions such as the Agatha Christie Queen of Crime’ annual short story competition offered by the Partners in Crime writing group.  As a writer, you need to make sure your story is your own original and not a copy of something you have read or simply rewritten.

Is Adam’s story "The Circle" a rewrite of Christie’s "The Idol House of Astarte" as included in Christie’s short story collection The Thirteen Problems ? Judge for yourself.

The Evidence:

Jessica Adam’s story "The Circle" and Agatha Christie’s story "The Idol House of Astarte" are both stories of the supernatural. Throughout the dialog there seems to be many similarities.  Evans cites the following quotes to make her case.

ADAMS:    “Tessa was an incredible looking woman...And this voice once you’d heard it you’d never forget it.”

CHRISTIE: “Her appearance was indeed very striking...She had too a wonderful voice, deep toned and bell-like.”

ADAMS:     “One, or all of you were hypnotised into seeing - or not seeing - whatever the murderer wanted you to see.”

CHRISTIE:  “I suppose you can explain it by some sort of hypnotism.”

ADAMS:    “Eric had been stabbed through the heart but there was no knife, nothing.”

CHRISTIE: “Dick didn’t die of shock he was stabbed - stabbed to the heart and there is no weapon.

ADAMS:     “She wanted us to all go down there at midnight, with candles and torches and build a big fire and have a party there.”

CHRISTIE: “Oh, do let us have a wild orgy tonight. Fancy dress.  And we will come out here in the moonlight and celebrate...”

In her argument, Evans uses eleven such quotes to convincingly show the similarities in both stories.

Evens also noted that in location and characters the similarities continue. Jessica Adams sets the story in an Australian Aboriginal sacred site - on Aboriginal land there are caves with Aboriginal paintings and giant standing stones in a circle, in which Aboriginal flints are found. There is also a hut dating from Victorian times with Egyptian or occult drawings. A date is carved in the roof beams.

Agatha Christie’s setting is a Phoenician sacred site. On the slopes of the tor there are various hut circles, relics of the Stone Age, in which bronze implements are found.  There is also a summer house made of stones with a carved image of a goddess on an ebony pillar.

Adams' main characters
Eric Bardon (Property Owner)
Michael Bardon (His Brother)
Tessa Barlow (Model)

echo Christie’s characters:
Sir Richard Haydon (Property Owner)
Elliot Haydon (His Cousin)
Diana Ashley (A Society Beauty)

Evans provided further evidence to support her point of view.

Representatives of Agatha Christie’s company and family advised that no permission to adapt or use Christie’s story in any way has been sought. Nor would it be granted.

The Defense:

It is a serious matter for any author to have a charge of plagiarism made against them. Adams denies the charge. Saying you tend to write what is in your head. I was working on my new novel The Summer Psychic and took two characters from it.

The Verdict:

Agatha Christie’s Grandson, Mathew Pritchard, who is also Chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd., read and compared the two stories and found them to be unusually similar. However, in view of the fact that Adams was not paid for publication of her story, it was decided that no legal action would be taken at this stage. If Adams sought to profit from this story in future they may reconsider this decision.

Plagiarism is a form of copying not only characters or situations from another writers' work, but including large amounts of actual prose. Plagiarism is a breach of copyright law and any writer leaves themselves open to legal action if they copy the work of another in this way.

When Does a Breach of Copyright Occur?

This happens when someone other than the copyright owner (this may not always be the author) uses the material without permission.

Writers also have ‘Moral Rights’ in their work, even if they do not own the copyright. A writer is able to take legal action

  • If their work is used without acknowledging that they are the creator of the piece.

  • If another person wrongly attributes the work as their own effort.

  • Should anyone alter or treat the original work in a manner which is prejudicial to the author’s reputation.

What is NOT Protected By Copyright?

Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, styles, techniques or information. Names and titles also are not generally covered. If a name is registered as a Trademark it is protected under a different area of the law. If you are unsure, check with the local copyright authority.

It is a writer’s duty to know about copyright legislation in their own country, as well as internationally. Basic copyright law is similar on a universal scale, following broad guidelines of law for the protection of the copyright holder.  While in some countries it is necessary to actually ‘register’ a piece for copyright protection to take effect, in Australia and some other areas it is sufficient for the author to list the copyright symbol (c) their name and the date the piece was created.  If you are submitting work to different countries for publication it is worth taking the time and effort to check the copyright law in the country of intended publication.

So Writers BEWARE do not base your characters closely on another story you may have read. Research your own characters and locations, and create your plot as original work.  Apart from the creative bonus you will stay clear of the copyright laws.

Permission has been granted by both The Australian Newspaper and Author Janelle Evans to use quotes and material relating to the original article for which copyright is held by Janelle Evans. Copyright references are courtesy of the Australian Copyright Council’s information service.

This article is the sole property of the author. It is produced here with the author's permission.  The unauthorized use or reprinting of an article is illegal, and will be prosecuted at the discretion of the author.


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About the Writer:

Sue Raines is a freelance writer and playwright. Having turned her talents to crime and mystery writing Sue has found a niche in teaching the genre. Other works include articles, book reviews and short stories published in magazines and anthologies. A member of Partners in Crime Sydney, she is also an avid reader of crime and mystery fiction.