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‘Borderlands’ vs ‘Borderlands’ Take Two: The plagiarism debate that wasn’t played out

The case was settled out of court, but the question marks over plagiarism in general remain.

News broke on Monday evening about a legal suit against writer Chetan Bhagat and his book One Indian Girl by another writer on charges of plagiarism. All the time that the legal process was underway, however – the past two months or so – one more book has been defending itself against a similar accusation.

The case against Borderlands: Travels Across India’s Boundaries, by journalist Pradeep Damodaran, has had all the elements of a heady courtroom drama: two hotly contested claims, allegations and counter-allegations, and a great air of mystery. Scroll.in had reported the events of the case as they unfolded last month.

The dust seemed to settle for a while...only to flare up again.

A brief rewind

Chennai-based author and lawyer Suchitra Vijayan had moved court in early March to object to the release of Damodaran’s book, claiming its contents were nearly identical to a book she has been working on since 2012. On March 5, the Madras High Court granted an interim injunction to Vijayan for four weeks, staying the release of Damodaran’s Borderlands.

But Hachette India, the publisher of Damodaran’s book, responded quickly in court and the temporary injunction against sales – the same kind that a Bengaluru court has imposed on Bhagat’s book – was lifted on March 28, allowing the book to go out again to online and offline bookstores.

But what exactly happened in court to reverse the fate of the book? The story unfolds a bit in the manner of a “he said, she said” episode, but let us consider all the claims.

First, Hachette India told Scroll.in that what transpired behind closed doors was as simple as Vijayan withdrawing her claim, and retracting “unfounded allegations” that there was a similarity between her book proposal and the published book by Damodaran. Vijayan’s counsel, Arun C Mohan, apparently backed this up by stating that the previously contested book was in fact “an original and distinct literary work being independent and having no resemblance to the plaintiff’s work”.

The matter, given such statements, seemed to be drawing to a close. But it didn’t.

Damodaran’s book was now out in the market and the favourable ruling was all very well, but it was indeed still to swallow the damage that had been done. “I wish that Ms Vijayan had at least done a basic check to see if there was any similarity between my book and her work before going to court thus causing hardship and serious damage to my professional reputation,” Damodaran said in a statement.

And then came a counter-allegation. When Scroll.in contacted Vijayan for a response on the new developments, she called the statement made by Hatchette India factually incorrect. The parties were indeed directed to negotiate by the court through mediation, she confirmed, but “the suit has not been withdrawn and it has been settled based on a mutual memorandum of compromise. I have made no retraction nor has there been any ‘unfounded allegation’. Misrepresenting mediation agreements, attributing false and untrue statements to my lawyer and me are unacceptable and beneath the stature of publishing house and its writer.”

So does that mean she continues to believe her work was copied by Damodaran? “In the world of ubiquitous internet search, discovering my work that has been in the public domain since 2012 is not impossible. When I saw Mr Damodaran’s book, its title, the subtitle and the book blurb, it felt like a truck had hit me. I went to court to protect my work that has been in the making for all these years. To make sure its future was protected…Without merit, it would make no logical sense for a young author to take on a large publishing house.”

To counter Vijayan’s claim, Hachette India jumped in to contend that her case was so weak that her counsel asked for mediation after seeing the written arguments. There was a “settlement” agreed to, said a Hachette India representative, claiming that Vijayan had retracted all that she been alleged earlier – though Vijayan denies this – and so “...the suit is therefore automatically deemed withdrawn.”

For now, that is the final word on the sticky case. This throws up two possibilities: one, that there are strands to this story that have not made it out of the court or mediation room, or two, that Vijayan simply jumped the gun by going to court. Damodaran’s book was not out in the market at the time Vijayan filed the legal suit.

A brief history of plagiarism

Conventionally, plagiarism cases are contested when both, or at least one of the two works in question are in the public domain, to be able to compare text objectively and verify the claims of copyright infringement, if any.

In 2013, for example, when copies of well-known scientist Jane Goodall’s book Seeds of Hope were sent to the media, reviewers at The Daily Beast and The Washington Post swiftly discovered passages copied from Wikipedia and other uncredited and unreliable sources. Goodall apologised and the book was reworked for a release the following year.

More famously in India, readers will recall plagiarism charges against publisher and author David Davidar in 2012, when poet-novelist Sivasundari Bose claimed that the plot of his novel The House of Blue Mangoes was copied from a manuscript she had submitted to Penguin when he headed the publishing house. But this came ten years after his novel hit bookstores.

There are plenty of other widely-reported plagiarism cases in publishing. Remember the bestselling How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life by Harvard University student Kavya Vishwanathan that crashed hard when it was called out for lifting bits from two books by Megan McCafferty? Similarly, 17-year-old German writer Helene Hegemann’s fame wore off quickly after being accused of copying from lesser known books for her bestselling Axolotl Roadkill, though she still made it as a finalist for an award.

Among the bigwigs, TS Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land reportedly had elements in common with poet Madison Cawein’s Waste Land. Eliot himself appeared pretty lenient about such matters with his “good writers borrow, great writers steal” mantra.

All of these controversies, over time, have been open to public scrutiny, making it easier, in a way, to verify all claims. This, unusually, isn’t what happened in case of Borderlands versus Borderlands, of which only one is a published work, tipping the whole matter in its favour.

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