Darrel puts the 'copy' in copyright

Time of article published Jul 11, 2003

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By Rob Boffard

When it comes to chutzpah, you have to hand it to TV critic, author and Naked Bachelor Darrel Bristow-Bovey.

The celebrated writer, who single-handedly caused the demise of the Mark Lottering Show, has the

memory of an elephant, and an attitude of similar proportions.

Approached by Saturday Star on Tuesday to find out whether he had Jayson-Blaired* Bill Bryson's Notes From A Big Country, Bristow-Bovey's response was a writer's two fingers up: "One reads, one adapts things. I have the kind of memory that remembers things like this. I may have done the same thing with other pieces of information from all over the place. I'm sure if you really examine the book, you will find hundreds of these."

*(Jayson Blair is the reporter nixed by The New York Times after it was discovered that he unlawfully appropriated other writers' copy.)

A quick background: Bristow-Bovey's book The Naked Bachelor, published in 2002 by Zebra Press, was a bestseller that parodied the British television chef Jamie Oliver (and his TV programme The Naked Chef) as well as giving humourous advice on how to live successfully as a bachelor. However, it may not all be Bristow-Bovey's own material.

A paragraph in a chapter entitled The Bachelor Outside may seem familiar to readers of Bill Bryson, the acclaimed American travel writer. It is, in fact, almost identical to a paragraph in Bryson's Notes From a Big Country, published in 1998 by Random House.

On closer inspection, it seems that Bristow-Bovey has used a fair amount of material from Bryson's book. Other information in the chapter has been paraphrased without any credit being given.

Nice try, I thought of Bristow-Bovey's response. And I thought, naively perhaps, that the man who has been a winner of the prestigious Mondi award for journalistic writing - and even a judge in the same competition - was done with me. How wrong I was.

On Wednesday I emailed him to inform him that Saturday Star would be running the story.

An email followed from Mr B-B. And if this is not the height of nasty-nasty, judge for yourself: "Well, I find it a peculiar decision, but there you go. It is not to me to fathom the newsworthiness of the Saturday Star's story policies. Presumably it will be in the new gossip page? The Spicy Page, or whatever it is called."

I can live with this. But it is twisting the knife that really left me reeling: "... good luck to you, young fella, - some might question the long-term wisdom of kickstarting a career in journalism by seeking to tarnish a colleague's reputation (on the principle that even though there is no legal or sensible basis to the smearing, some dirt must certainly stick), but if, or when, you reach a highish profile of your own, you will no doubt have the time to muse about the issue from an entirely different perspective to the one you have now".

Okay, so I may be a Rhodes University student on experiential training, but then when Bristow-Bovey asserted that this is a "fuss about nothing" and that there is no solid plagiarism law in South Africa, only copyright infringement laws, I decided to seek more erudite counsel.

Lucien Pierce, an attorney for Webber Wentzel Bowens who specialises in copyright law, confirms this.

"We have copyright laws in South Africa which conform to international treaties. However, as far as I know, we have no specific plagiarism law."

Pierce stresses that the Copyright Act does permit the use of extracts from other publications in certain circumstances, if the authors are acknowledged. In Bristow-Bovey's case this did not happen.

Anthea Garman, the deputy head of the Journalism department at Rhodes University, believes that

Bristow-Bovey has not done anything that unusual.

"I think it's quite hard to get into the state of mind where you don't just read or remember, but also remember where you got it from."

The head of the Anti-Censorship Department at the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), Simon Ndungu, takes a slightly different view. "There is no law for plagiarism, but it is provided as a canon in writing," he says.

"One of the conventions is that you don't pass someone else's work off as your own. There may be a possibility that slipped up in omitting a reference, but he should make sure it doesn't happen again. It's a moral issue."

Janet Larsen, marketing director for Zebra Press, had an official statement: "Zebra Press are happy that no copyright infringement has taken place, and without having seen a copy of the article are unable to comment any further."

Bryson's publishers, Random House, were not available for comment.

  • A few months ago Bristow-Bovey was in the news for submitting similar articles for his columns in Style magazine and the Cape Times newspaper. He also writes a weekly TV column for Saturday Star's sister paper, The Sunday Independent.


    Judge for yourself

    1. FROM THE NAKED BACHELOR BY DARREL BRISTOW-BOVEY

    Consider this, before you decide to have a long lie-in next weekend: every year in the USA more than 400 000 people suffer injuries involving beds, mattresses and pillows. Think about that for a moment. That is almost 2 000 injuries a day involving soft objects wrapped in linen.

    We are not talking about sore backs or grazes on your elbows here - these are injuries requiring emergency hospital treatment.

    Consider: every year more than 50 000 Americans are injured at home by pens, pencils and other desk accessories. How does this happen? I have myself spent many long hours at desks when I would have been grateful for almost any injury as a welcome diversion, but I have never managed to achieve actual bodily harm...

    Personally, I would like to meet any of the several hundred English folk who last year reported serious injury as a result of a mishap with the ceiling. Anybody who has a run-in with the ceiling must have an interesting tale to tell.

    2. FROM NOTES FROM A BIG COUNTRY BY BILL BRYSON

    Here's a factor for you. According to the latest Statistical Abstract of the United States, every year more than 400 000 Americans suffer injuries involving beds, mattresses or pillows. Think about that for a minute... That is almost 2 000 bed, mattress or pillow injuries a day.

    Consider this intriguing fact: almost 50 000 Americans are injured each year by pencils, pens and other desk accessories. How do they do it? I have spent many long hours sat at desks when I would have greeted almost any kind of injury as a welcome diversion, but never once have I come close to achieving actual bodily harm.

    So I ask again: how do they do it? These are, bear in mind, injuries severe enough to warrant a trip to an emergency room. But then that's the thing about household injuries... they can come at you from almost anywhere... Consider this one.

    In 1992 (the latest year for which figures are available) more than 400 000 people in the United States were injured by chairs, sofas and sofabeds...

    I would also welcome a chat with almost any of the 263 000 people injured by ceilings, walls and inside panels. I can't imagine being hurt by a ceiling and not having a story worth hearing.

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