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:
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.)