5 Literary Plagiarism Cases (Some Famous & Some Obscure)

1. James Frey

James Frey is best known for his memoir A Million Little Pieces, which chronicled his harrowing descent into alcohol and crack addiction at the age of twenty-three, and his subsequent recovery in a rehab clinic. However, many of the events in the memoir were later found to have been exaggerated or entirely made up after his appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, including his alleged experience with root canals and whether his girlfriend Lilly, who died by suicide in his memoir, even existed in the first place. A six week long investigation led Frey to finally admit that he had fabricated several portions of his memoir, and it is now being marketed as a semi-fictional novel. Frey was also eventually accused of plagiarism by essayist John Dolan, who apparently had discovered similarities between Frey’s book and Eddie Little’s Another Day in Paradise, which also told of a young protagonist addicted to drugs, but does not include anything about the protagonist’s recovery, and no one else seems to have accused Frey of plagiarizing Little’s book. Dolan may have been stretching, but only Frey knows for sure, as Little is deceased.

2. Helen Keller

At the age of 11, Helen Keller wrote a short story about Jack Frost called The Frost King after her teacher Anne Sullivan read her a short story called Frost Fairies by Margaret Canby. Keller and Sullivan sent The Frost King to the head of the Perkins School for the Blind, where it was published in their literary magazine and later picked up by another journal. A friend of one of the teachers at Perkins recognized The Frost King as being almost a direct imitation of Canby’s story and brought it to the head’s attention. Keller was interrogated for hours about whether she had deliberately lifted from passages of Canby’s story, suffered a nervous breakdown as a result, and never wrote short stories again. Sullivan always maintained her own innocence, while Mark Twain condemned the controversy due to Keller’s young age and immaturity at the time.

3. Dan Brown

Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code, was sued by historians Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, who claimed Brown had plagiarized central themes from their book. However, their lawsuit was unsuccessful. Author Lewis Perdue also sued Brown for plagiarism of his books The Da Vinci Legacy and Daughter of God, but was unsuccessful as well. The Russian scientist and art historian Mikhail Anikin accused Brown of stealing one of his central ideas about Mona Lisa as a Christian allegory, but never ended up suing him.

4. Edgar Allan Poe vs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Poe’s biographers referred to Poe’s plagiarism accusations against Longfellow as The Longfellow War, although Poe had originally written to Longfellow with high praise of his “genius” and how “fervently” he admired his work, even going so far as to call him “unquestionably the best poet in America.” Later, however, he accused Longfellow of imitating European writers and other famous poets such as Tennyson. Longfellow never responded to these accusations publicly. Poe was actually in fairly good company, as other writers such as Walt Whitman spoke openly of Longfellow’s lack of original ideas.

5. Kaavya Viswanathan

As a senior in high school, Kaavya Viswanathan was introduced to a literary agent by her parents and ended up with a book contract for her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, written while she was a freshman at Harvard. When she became a sophomore, Viswanathan landed another book contract, this time for two books and $500,000 along with a Dreamworks contract for a movie based on her book. However, soon after, The Harvard Crimson reported that many of the passages in Viswanathan’s book were very similar to passages from two young adult novels by Megan McCafferty. Although she initially chalked the allegations up to her supposedly photographic memory and her publisher stuck by her, it was soon discovered that she was also plagiarizing from other authors such as Salman Rushdie. Her contract was then cancelled, along with all copies of her book being recalled.

Contributing Editor

Meggie Royer is a writer and photographer from the Midwest who is currently majoring in Psychology at Macalester College. Her poems have previously appeared in Words Dance Magazine, The Harpoon Review, Melancholy Hyperbole, and more. She has won national medals for her poetry and a writing portfolio in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and was the Macalester Honorable Mention recipient of the 2015 Academy of American Poets Student Poetry Prize..