Tuesday, January 04, 2011


One of the best selling humour titles of the last decade has been Ricky Gervais's Flanimals series. I've never quite seen the appeal of these books and when I was first shown a rough copy by the publisher, I was convinced that it would be a flop.

How wrong I was.

Flanimals is now being turned into a $50,000,000 Hollywood film, with Gervais as the star and the books are a permanent stock item in every humour section. But last summer, the whole franchise was threatened by a High Court writ.

The writ was issued by John Savage, a self-published author, who believes that Flanimals was plagiarised from a book that he'd published four years earlier, called "Captain Pottie’s Wildlife Encyclopaedia".

Here is an example from John Savage's book:

And here's a page from Flanimals:

Is this evidence of plagiarism, or two individuals thinking along parallel lines?

John Savage is convinced that it's the former and in addition to receiving damages for "significant financial hardship and loss", he also wants every remaining book in the Flanimals series to be pulped - a rather draconian measure.

Ricky Gervais claims that the books date back to his teenage years, when he drew imaginary creatures to entertain his nephew.

Accusations of plagiarism aren't uncommon (as J.K.Rowling will testify). Some of the litigants are chancers trying their luck; a few are barking mad (a friend of mine who worked at Book Trust regularly received angry letters from a man who was certain that he was the author of Jonathan Coe's "What a Carve Up!"), whilst others are genuinely convinced that their ideas have been stolen.

I've no idea what category John Savage falls into, but the similarities between Captain Pootie and Flanimals can't be completely dismissed.

But wait! I have another piece of evidence, which I found a few days ago:

This is "Animal Land", which was published in New York by Dutton in 1897. I found this book a few days ago and as soon as I opened it, I was struck by its remarkable similarities with Flanimals.

Here are some examples:

It's uncanny.

Animal Land
was conceived by the four-year-old Sybil Corbet, with illustrations by her mother, Katherine. There is also a hilarious introduction by the Scots literary critic Andrew Lang, which is written in a deliberately po-faced style, as if he is presenting a work of serious scholarship:

"Our author owes nothing, I conceive, to her literary predecessors. If she follows any one it is Mr Lear, the creator of the Quangle wangle and of the Yonghi Bonghi Bo. On the habits of these creatures, especially on the sources of their food supply, Mr Lear says little. But it is obvious that the nutriment of the fauna of her fancy preoccupies our author..."

The discovery of this long-forgotten book changes everything. Whilst it's entirely possible that Ricky Gervaise and/or John Savage might have plagiarised this obscure Victorian title, I'm more inclined to think that Animal Land clearly shows that there are a lot of people out there who are amused by imaginary creatures.

I remember my oldest son making up Pokemon characters when he was four or five, dictating long passages to me that made no sense at all: "This is Mitibar. He has keemoes and cheepas and fires wellumseems..." It's not just Messrs Savage and Gervais who have a fertile imagination.

The discovery of Animal Land has made me realise just what a minefield the whole issue of copyright and intellectual property is. How do we know whether an idea is original or not? And in the case of Joanna Rowling, is it reasonable to expect her to write the Harry Potter books without betraying any influence of the hundreds of stories she devoured as a young girl? We can point out the similarities between Rowling's Platform 9 and 3/4 and Eva Ibbotson's "Secret of Platform 13", but is this plagiarism or simply being influenced?

I'm pretty sure that Harry Hill pinched a joke from me, but I don't think for one minute that it was intentional. Our ideas are the sum total of everything we experience and it's all to easy for experiences to sink down into the murky depths of the subconscious, only to reappear in the fraudulent guise of an original thought. We are also the product of a culture and we shouldn't be too surprised when two people come up with the same idea.

Having said that, I'm completely baffled by the popularity of any book that features made-up animals. Where's the joke? Anyone can make up a creature with a silly name that likes eating something improbable like tarpaulin and traffic cones. In the unlikely event that John Savage wins his case and every remaining copy of Flanimals is pulped, I will be delighted.

(P.S. - As far as I know, Animal Land is out of copyright, if any enterprising publisher wants to cash-in on the forthcoming Flanimals movie.)


Anonymous said...

Agree completely about "Flannimals", but your discovery of "Animal Land" proves John Savage has no case, doesn't it?

Also, spot the ugly typo in the "Flannimals" excerpt.

Jim Murdoch said...

There is, I am led to believe, nothing new under the sun. Everything (and by logical extension, everyone) has been, is being and will continue to be rehashed over and over again until the end of good ol’ planet Earth. I think the issue here is intent. I come up with neologisms every now and then, feel quite pleased with myself, and then type the word into Google onto to discover about 10,200 results in 0.23 seconds. I have written extensively, for example, about the various sources of inspiration for my first two novels so no one can come along in two or three years time and say, “Hey, you ripped off Neil Gaiman.” It’s like saying the Romans ripped off the Grecian Gods. I have a character called ‘Joe Hoover’ in my third novel who just happens to be God – am I going to get sued by “the true God” if I ever publish the book? Hell, I confess to being influenced by Terry Pratchett whilst at the same time admit I’ve never actually read any of his books. (Keep meaning to get around to that.) People are always willing to pay for copies of designer dresses just as they are happy with Tesco’s own version of Scotch Broth and not Baxters. Did Tesco rip off Baxters? I’m sure there will be greedy solicitors out there willing to argue the case for a fee. But I’m with you on the weird animal books, can’t quite see the appeal.

Grey Area said...

I think it's unlikely that Gervaise cribbed from the Savage book - it's such a simple generic concept - countless parents have told their children bedside stories about made-up monsters and chimeras since we crawled out of the caves, actually the Savage book looks far better... But I have to say that 'working on the other side' I too thought that the Gervaise book was garbage - poorly conceived, terrible illustrations and typography and lacking in imagination - I thought it was quite smug, lazy and superficial... but parents buy books and the allure of a celebrity name shifts volume.

The first original idea I've seen in a long time in this genre was a book written and illustrated by a student from another department last year, made up little animals that lived in the pages of books invade an illustrated reproduction of Alice in Wonderland and wreak havoc, molesting the characters - urinating on the pages to make the text run and generally acting like print based 2D Gremlins - it was genius..... and just as attractive to parents as naughty children.

Martin said...

You raise some serious food for thought, here. I do recall a time, back in the early eighties, when I submitted some 'one-liners' for The Huddlines. All items had to be topical. So, I sent my stuff to the BBC, tuned in to the next programme, and listened eagerly. Imagine my delight when I heard not one, but two of my gags. I waited for a cheque to drop through the door, and I'm still waiting.

I've had loads of articles and book reviews published, and in thirty years, this is the only occasion when my suspicions have been aroused. Now I'm more philosophical about it. Given the topical nature of the material, I was probably beaten to the punch by one of the in-house writers.

Tim F said...

I think Messrs Savage and Gervais (not to mention the heirs of Corbet and Lear) should bow down before the genius that was Sir John Mandeville.

MikeP said...

On the whole it's rich and famous authors who attract accusations of plagiarism, isn't it? Reason enough for such accusations to be treated with extreme caution...

Much more shocking is the flagrant apostrophe abuse in the Flanimals extract ('sheds it's skin', etc). If this is representative of the actual printed book Faber should be ashamed of themselves.

Anonymous said...

First time I've ever heard of Flanimals so I don't think it's become famous in America(although it did remind me of the children's clothing line Granimals from my childhood).

Anonymous said...

And isn't it depressing that neither Gervais nor his editor(s) know that possessive its doesn't have the apostrophe and that "adult hood" must be headwear for grownups as distinct from adulthood.
Surely publishers for the young should try harder.

Lucille said...

It's a pity it's reached the shelves in that state. It's got its editor to blame. I should know. i once let a 'where' slip through where a 'were' was intended. I still blush.

Steerforth said...

Forgive the patchy reply, but I'm at work.

I'm glad to see that there's a general consensus here. I agree with Jim: we don't exist in a vacuum.

I can see how upsetting it must have been for John Savage's book to be turned down by one publisher after another, only to see a similar title hit the bestseller lists, but as the discovery of Animal Land has demonstrated, his case is a weak one.

And as Tim has reminded us, Flanimals is part of a long tradition. Thanks for the link. I'd forgotten about Sir John Mandeville.

I didn't spot the typo. I find the text dull to the point of being unreadable and didn't get as far as "it's". What a mistake!

Richard - I presume you've mentioned the student's book to your friend in publishing?

Martin - it's really tricky with topical jokes isn't it?

I didn't realise that the USA is still a Flanimals-free zone. American publishers are clearly more discerning.

Steerforth said...

By the way - there's another glaring grammatical error that nobody has mentioned yet: potato's.

Lucille said...

I also once let a lower case 'i' slip through in my eager beaverishness to leave a comment.

Grey Area said...

Ah - yes, not only did I tell the man from Faber about it - I took him to the show, made him stand in front of it and pointed very hard. Faber have difficulty with 'picture' books - they are very expensive to produce and generally perform badly - unless there is a tacked on cachet.... if you know what I mean. As he also reads this blog... he's probably smarting at the typos...

Anonymous said...

I suggest you could look even further back - I gather there is a wonderful medieval Bestiary in the Bodleian.

Matroskin said...

Didn't this "genre" start with Alice, where there's a Christmas pudding fly and rocking horse mosquito, or something? I like the oldest book best.

Anonymous said...

I agree that people often come up with the same ideas at the same time. (I think Rupert Sheldrake has a theory called "morphic fields" that supposedly explains this?) Along with Matroskin, I was reminded of some of Lewis Carroll's creatures - and also of Edward Lear's creations. And along with lots of the rest of you, the one thing that leaped out at me from the Flannimals page was "it's"!! I'm so glad it's not just me.

Steerforth said...

Yes, I should have thought of Alice in Wonderland too. I agree with Matroskin, the oldest book is the most appealing.

The Rupert Sheldrake theory is fascinating because although it sounds utterly mad, it also makes perfect sense. I heard Sheldrake talk about this on the radio and he gave a very credible explanation.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Potato's is an error of punctuation, not grammar. But I'm beginning to think that to most people "grammar" = correct English.