The Case of Emma Thompson

1 – Introduction
In February, news emerged[ref][ref][ref] that Gregory Murphy is taking Emma Thompson to court over her screenplay and prospective film, Effie. According to Murphy, Effie plagiarises from the screenplay that he created from his 1999/2000 play, The Countess[ref].

2 – Data
In this case, I don’t have access to either the Effie or The Countess screenplays, so what follows is actually discussion about the context surrounding the data, rather than copies of, or links to the data itself. I have had to rely (as usual) for many of the ‘facts’ of the case on newspaper reports, which is about as reliable as building houses from jelly-bricks, and the information is especially skewed by the fact that whilst Thompson has remained largely silent on the matter, Murphy has put out a rather long account of the affair[ref]. This account better exemplifies Murphy as a writer of plays than a reporter of facts, but it does contain some elements that seem usable as a basis for the following discussion.

What can be gathered from the reports is that Effie and The Countess both deal with the real life marriage of the young Effie Gray to John Ruskin, the marriage’s subsequent annulment when Ruskin would not sleep with his wife, Effie’s ensuing marriage to John Everett Millais with whom she went on to have eight children, and how this scandal was viewed by Victorian Britain.

According to Murphy, in April 2009, his wife Ludovica Villar-Hauser (director of the Off-Broadway and West End productions of The Countess) contacted a major London film producer to pitch a screenplay version of The Countess, but the producer said that a film project called Effie, written by Thompson, was already in progress. Murphy writes that he then obtained a copy of Effie by,

“sending Emma’s producers a registered letter, with a copy to a lawyer at the Dramatists’ Guild in New York.”[ref]

We are left to conjecture just what prompted Murphy to take this degree of trouble to get hold of Effie, since this seems a drastic step if it were only idle curiosity. Instead, it would seem that Murphy had already developed suspicions that Effie was derivative of his work before he had read the piece, probably based on, (a) the similarity in topic, and (b) the fact that, according to Murphy, he had previously sent Thompson and her husband, Greg Wise, copies of his work.

This raises two important points, however. The first, I fondly refer to as the Witchcraft Analogy. By this, I mean that if you are determined to find something (witchcraft, plagiarism, insanity) then you will find it. If you read what you already suspect to be a misappropriated screenplay, and then find similarities between that piece and your own work, you’re more likely to draw connections that affirm your previously-held suspicions than contradict them.

The second point to consider is the timeframe. Murphy seems to place great emphasis on the fact that he sent his work to Thompson/Wise, suggesting that this is where he believes the first contact with his play/screenplay came about (rather than that either had, for instance, read or seen The Countess elsewhere, such as in the West End years before). Assuming that Murphy did send his play and screenplay to Thompson/Wise, and Thompson/Wise received them, and Murphy can prove this, then when did the sending/receiving occur? If Murphy can show that this happened before, or in the early stages of Effie‘s writing, then his case is somewhat strengthened, because the possibility (though not the probability) of copying is established. However, if his work was sent/received after Effie was mostly, or completely finished, then given the type of similarities Murphy is citing (see 3.3 below), his case is weakened.

Whatever the answers to the above, Murphy obtained a copy of Effie, felt that he found in it distinct misappropriation of his work, and arranged to meet Thompson in person. The meeting did not conclude the affair, however, and Murphy suggests that,

“Although I am sure my play and screenplay were sent to her through a mutual friend and to her husband through the casting director for the West End production of The Countess[note], she seems alarmingly confident[note] that she, at least, has never seen either of them.”[ref]

Thompson asserts that she has never seen or read either the play or screenplay of The Countess, and the mutual friend, Richard, is willing to testify in court that he did not pass the screenplay on to her. Murphy quotes part of Thompson’s affidavit to this effect:

“I told [Murphy] that I had never received his screenplay and when he insisted that I had, I asked if he thought I was lying. He protested that he did not mean to say that.”[ref]

3 – Analysis/Discussion
The first issue to clarify is that there are several methods and types of plagiarism, and whilst all involve failing to acknowledge the source, some can be thought of as more ‘severe’ than others.

3.1 – Methods of plagiarism
Broadly, there are three kinds.

Collusion A and B (and possibly C, D, E, etc.) work too closely without acknowledging each other’s input. This is more common in student essays, where a lecturer will find several in a batch of assignments that are markedly similar.
Commission A has B produce something for which A then takes the credit. This is sometimes referred to as ghostwriting, but to be a genuine case of plagiarism, A would deliberately suppress or deny B’s involvement in the matter. E.g. Mr Famous pays Ms Ghostwriter to pen his autobiography, and then publicly claims to have written it himself. (This plagiarism can be caught by comparing data definitely written by Mr Famous with the suspect text.)
Copying A uses sections from B’s work (and possibly C’s, D’s, and E’s, too), e.g. via copy-pasting. There is more than one kind of copying, however…

3.2 – Types of copying
Again, broadly, there are three kinds of copying.

Direct copying Unaltered use of another source. An excellent example of this is Guttenberg’s thesis[ref]. (This type of plagiarism is staggeringly easy to both see and catch, especially with plagiarism detection software.)
Indirect copying Altered use of another source. Typical disguises include rewording (changing one synonym for another), restructuring (moving clauses around, passivising active sentences or vice versa), and submerging (breaking the source into smaller units separated by longer tracts of other text). E.g. the cat sat on the mat would become a rug that happened to be placed in a patch of sunshine was lounged upon all afternoon by a feline. (At this time, no software can reliably catch this sort of plagiarism, but an experienced human reader usually can. Indicators can be anything from awkward synonym choices to clumsy restructuring to odd stylistic and thematic shifts.)
Thematic copying Partial or full use of another source’s ideas, themes, devices, plots, sub-plots, etc. Arguably, this is the hardest form to prove, since many aspects of both fictional and nonfictional writing are now tropes (e.g. the boy loves girl, girl loves another boy, etc. theme has been used in countless works of fiction, and the introduction, analysis, conclusion layout is standard for many forms of academic work). Particularly where fiction is concerned, much creative writing is highly intertextual (cf. Bridget Jones’ Diary and Pride & Prejudice), since the concept and scope of what is considered to be fiction grows out of a lengthy, well-established cultural heritage.

3.3 – Murphy’s view of Effie
Murphy’s argument is that Effie is,

“distinctly related to my own screenplay in its time-frame, character development, structure and tone.”[ref]

Note the carefully vague use of ‘related to’…! Anyway, it seems that he is not talking about direct or indirect copying, but rather, thematic copying (cf. The Da Vinci Code and The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail plagiarism case[ref]). Therefore, rather than sneaking in excerpts from The Countess, Murphy seems to suggest that Effie‘s underlying foundations are similar. For this reason, the sending/receiving timeframe is important (see 2 above), since such fundamental elements of the storyline would be difficult to add in during the late stages of writing or afterwards. To form a seamless part of the unfolding story, they would need to be part of the narrative from the beginning, or at least, from the early stages.

3.4 – The legal view of Effie
Problems that any court case will probably face will be in determining firstly whether there are unexpected or significant similarities between Effie and The Countess. Since both are drawn from the same finite range of historical evidence and information about the same real life events and people, inevitably, there must be some similarities in anything from character ages, appearances, behaviours, and personalities to the events and surrounding contexts. If this is the extent of the similarity between the two pieces, then any charge of plagiarism should be dismissed, since this is par for the course when writing about real life events or producing a biopic.

The ‘expectedness’ would need to be informed by a thorough understanding of the prevailing information available about the characters, events, and period involved, including whether that same information could reasonably allow, or even encourage independent individuals to produce similar interpretations without ever being aware of the other’s work. If so, then it would be possible to find that this may have been a case of coincidence, rather than copying.

The potential for plagiarism arises in the creative extra-development of each play. If there are significant instances of the same or similar elaborations, such as unique deviations from real events, innovative or unusual use of structuring, unconventional or distinctive interpretations of the characters, and so forth, in both Effie and The Countess, then Thompson could have a case to answer.

4 – Conclusion
The case continues in New York’s federal court.

5 – References/Sources
BBC (2006) Da Vinci Code ‘copied book ideas’
Daily Mail (2011) The day I sat in Emma Thompson’s kitchen and accused her of stealing my movie
Guardian (2011) Emma Thompson in court battle with playwright over screenplay for Effie
Hollywood Reporter (2011) Emma Thompson Battles Playwright Over ‘Effie’ Film (Exclusive)
London Evening Standard (2011) Emma Thompson fights plagiarism claim over new screenplay