Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Copyright Infingement, Intellectual Property, and Artistic Plagiarism: Do They Mix?

Canadian authors Wayson Choy, Paul Yee and Sky Lee have launched a $6 million lawsuit against Chinese author Ling Zhang, alleging copyright infringement against her book Gold Mountain Blues, a family saga about Chinese immigrants to Canada originally written in Chinese. The lawsuit not only includes Zhang, whose also the author of Aftershock,, but also Penguin Canada’s parent company, Pearson Canada Inc., and translator Nicky Harman.  The details of the case are available for all to see.

Although Zhang contends Gold Mountain Blues is the result of years of research and several field trips to China and Western Canada, the Chinese Canadian authors believe the book contains numerous elements copied from their work, including characters, plots and descriptions.  As the four Chinese Canadian authors articulate, their stories are not clichés and they are certainly are not common.

This is precisely why this case is so unique and fascinating.  According to Canadian copyright laws,  plagiarism isn't a concept that easily fits under the Copyright Act.  In Canada at least, copyright covers words of the same sequence, but does not extend to ideas.   To complicate matters, proving similarity of expression between Gold Mountain Blues and the other works may be particularly difficult since the English text is a translation of a Chinese one.

As Kate Taylor points out in the Globe and Mail
Copyright cases can be difficult to win: Infringement is a narrow legal concept that involves direct reproduction of a substantial part of the original – compared to the broader academic or journalistic notions of plagiarism that can involve unattributed borrowing of ideas or sentences.

Points of comparison

Examples of plot and character similarities between several Chinese-Canadian novels and Zhang Ling’s Gold Mountain Blues:

1. Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Café (1990): In grave danger, a young Chinese man is rescued and then cared for by a beautiful girl, Kelora, of rare Chinese/Native heritage.

Gold Mountain Blues (2011): In grave danger, a young Chinese man is rescued and then cared for by a beautiful girl, Sundance, of rare Chinese/Native heritage.

In Disappearing Moon Cafe, Wong Gwei-chang is searching for bones, is discovered by Kelora Chen who speaks to him in Chinese, and meets her father, a Chinese man. In Gold Mountain Blues, Kam Shan runs away from Chinatown after talking to anti-Qing revolutionaries, including Sun Yat-sen . . . falls into riverbank, and is rescued by Sundance, who speaks to him in broken English. While Gwei-chang leaves Kelora on the heed of his mother, who told him to go back to China to dutifully marry, Sundance voluntarily permits Kam Shan to leave as she catches him trying to run away as her Chinese grandfather did the same thing many yrs ago (pg. 285).
  • This seems to be a common theme in other artistic works. In Dances with Wolves, John Dunbar rescues Stands With Fist, and eventually falls in love. In fact, it was said that Avatar stole from Dances With Wolves as Jake Sully is rescued by Neytiri, and also falls in love, with her and the tribe. On another note, Aboriginal-Chinese relations and marriages were quite common in BC. Larry Grant, Howard Grant, Cedar and Bamboo did a whole documentary on First Nations-Chinese relations).
2. Disappearing Moon Café: The Chinese man is old now. Full of regret for his long lost love, Kelora, he dies after a visitation from her.

Gold Mountain Blues: The Chinese man is old now. After searching for his long lost love, Sundance, he dies after a visit from her.  However, in Disappearing Moon Cafe the context of the visits are quite different.  While Kelora shows up in Wong's Gwei-chang as he is in the last moments of his life; Kam-shan is visited out of the blue by Sundance, who later indirectly reveals to him that she borne him a son. When he asks her, she is annoyed, expecting that he wants to ask her out on a date.

3. Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony (1995): Wong Suk is disfigured after working on the railway. He rescues a white foreman who becomes gratefully indebted as well as a good friend. When the foreman dies, his son passes along a precious piece of gold.

Gold Mountain Blues: Ah-Fat is disfigured in a fight while working on the railway. He saves the life of his white foreman. They become good friends over the years. When the foreman’s wife dies, her will leaves money to Ah-Fat’s son.

While Jade Peony's relationship between the white foreman was purely platonic, the relationship between Kam Shan and the foreman (Rick Henderson) and his wife are much more complex. Ah-Fat sends his son Kam Shan to work for the Hendersons upon which Kam Shan and Mrs. Henderson is bound in an illicit affair. Upon her death, she leaves him $4000, half of which was supposed to go to her daughter (which already passed away after an accident, when she runs away from her mother's affair with the boy).

4. Paul Yee’s The Bone Collector’s Son (2003): Fourteen-year-old Bing works as a houseboy for a white couple in Vancouver. He becomes a target of white bullies but his employer Mrs. Bentley rescues him.

Gold Mountain Blues: Fifteen-year-old Kam Ho works as a houseboy for a white couple in Vancouver. He becomes a target of white bullies but his employer Mrs. Henderson rescues him.

  • The idea that the houseboy is saved by his master is not an unfamiliar scene. In fact, this occurred often during the pre-Civil War America. When Frederick Douglass was about twelve years old, Hugh Auld's wife Sophia started teaching him the alphabet despite the fact that it was against the law to teach slaves to read. Douglass described her as a kind and tender-hearted woman, who treated Douglass like one human being ought to treat another..

5. Paul Yee’s Dead Man’s Gold (2002): Hard-working Shek buys a farm while younger brother

Ping hates farm work and goes to the city to gamble. Shek pays everyone but Ping. Ping is unhappy. Ping kills Shek.

Gold Mountain Blues: Hard-working Ah Fat buys a farm while his son Kam Shan hates farm work and goes to the city to gamble. Ah Fat pays others but not Kam Shan. Kam Shan is unhappy. He disappears.  The context is completely different. While Ping and Shek are in the same farm together, Ah Fat's two sons (Kam Shan and Kam Ho) are never physically together at one time in Vancouver although both do work for their father Ah Fat at different times. Unlike Ping's killing of Shek, Kam Shan does not kill his father, Ah Fat. Unlike Kam Shan who gambles in Chinatown with the money from his father's produce sales, Ping actually stopped gambling after working for his Shek, who never gives him any money.
  • This scene of a farmer with a son who gambles his wealth away only to be forgiven by the father, is so common in literature that stretches back to the times of the bible. In fact, Luke 15:1 "Parable of the Lost Son" has been one of Christianity's most famous stories. (One which Tim Kelleher has written an entire book on, The Prodigal Son). I don't think it can be argued that this is an entirely unique scenario.

Much has been written about the situation.  Part of the controversy stems from whether the Chinese language from Gold Mountain Blues has been plagiarized from original passages of these original Chinese Canadian English literary works. This episode highlights the transformative nature of the Internet.  A virtually unknown blogger who referred to himself simply as “Changjiangalleged that Zhang had taken advantage of a "literary conundrum," one that Canadian Chinese writers cannot read Chinese, while Chinese readers and critics do not understand English.  So as a result, the lines are drawn and the legal and literary worlds clash intimately together over the results that will eventually set some precedents in the translation, publishing, and writing worlds.

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