Sophomore Novelist Admits To Borrowing Language From Earlier Books

In confidential letter, McCafferty’s publisher says it is 'certain that some literal copying actually occurred'; new versions of Viswanathan’s “Opal Mehta” will be edited to omit “inappropriate similarities”

Kaavya Viswanathan ’08 admitted yesterday to borrowing language from two books by Megan F. McCafferty, though the student novelist said that "any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious."

In a statement released through her publisher, Little, Brown and Company, Viswanathan apologized to McCafferty and said that future printings of her recently-released novel, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life," will be revised "to eliminate any inappropriate similarities."

She confirmed that she has read McCafferty’s novels "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings," though she said she "wasn’t aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words."

But Random House, which published McCafferty’s novels, is confident that "literal copying" occurred in Viswanathan’s book, according to a confidential letter from the publishing giant to Little, Brown that was obtained by The Crimson.

"We are continuing to investigate this matter, but, given the alarming similarities in the language, structure and characters already found in these works, we are certain that some literal copying actually occurred here," read the letter, which is dated April 22 and was signed by Random House lawyer Min Jung Lee. "As such, we would appreciate your prompt and serious attention to this matter."

Lee wrote that illustrative examples of similar passages between "Opal Mehta" and McCafferty’s novels were enclosed. The missive, which came on the letterhead of Random House and its parent company Bertelsmann, said that it was transmitted "by hand delivery."

Lee did not return repeated requests for comment Sunday and yesterday.

In a statement released alongside Viswanathan’s yesterday, Little, Brown senior vice president and publisher Michael Pietsch said he received a letter from Random House on the morning of April 24 that included passages Random House had deemed similar between Viswanathan’s novel and McCafferty’s books.

"We consider this a serious matter and we are investigating it immediately," he said in the statement.

Pietsch added, "Kaavya Viswanathan is a decent, serious, and incredibly hard-working writer and student, and I am confident that we will learn that any similarities in phrasings were unintentional."

Little, Brown gave the Harvard sophomore a two-book, $500,000 contract when she was just 17. In February, DreamWorks bought the movie rights to "Opal Mehta."

The Crimson first reported the similarities between the three coming-of-age novels on its website early Sunday morning. In total, The Crimson has identified more than a dozen such passages.

McCafferty first learned about the similarities on April 11 in an e-mail from a fan, according to her agent Joanna Pulcini.

A spokesman for Random House, Stuart Applebaum, said he could not confirm or deny the authenticity of the letter obtained by The Crimson. But, he said, "Publishing protocol dictates that one contacts the publisher of the book whose text may bear alleged similarities. So it is customary, it would be customary, for us to reach out to the publisher you name."

Viswanathan’s book, like McCafferty’s two novels, charts the life of a female teenage protagonist in suburban New Jersey. McCafferty’s "Second Helpings" is a sequel to "Sloppy Firsts."

Viswanathan worked with a book packaging company—17th Street Productions, which is owned by Alloy Entertainment—in the development of "Opal Mehta." Alloy, which shares the novel’s copyright with Viswanathan, is slated to produce the movie adaptation along with Contrafilm. DreamWorks has bought the rights to the film version of "Opal Mehta."

"As has been previously reported, we helped Kaavya conceptualize and plot the book," Leslie Morgenstein, the president of Alloy Entertainment, wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "We are looking into the serious allegations detailed in the Crimson before commenting further."

PLAGIARISM OR COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT?

Even if Viswanathan is found to have plagiarized passages, McCafferty may not be able to bring a copyright lawsuit against her. In fact, Viswanathan may be more likely to face a suit from her own publisher over a contract violation.

According to legal experts, infringement litigation operates under a “different standard” than plagiarism. They said that it is possible to plagiarize a work without infringing on its copyright.

“Plagiarism is passing off one’s work as your own, but that doesn’t necessarily make it copyright infringement,” Justin Hughes, the director of the intellectual property law program at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, said. “In an infringement action, a person can use a ‘fair use’ defense. That is, that they didn’t use so many words as to be guilty of infringement.”

Lawrence Lessig, a prominent intellectual property scholar at Stanford Law School, also said that plagiarism and copyright infringement are different concepts.

“If I use a sentence from another work and pass it off as my own without citing it or quoting it, that might not be copyright infringement because I wouldn’t necessarily need permission to use it,” Lessig said. “But since I’m asserting that I am, in fact, the author of that sentence, that would be plagiarism.”

Though Viswanathan might not face copyright penalties from Random House, she could face a suit from her own publisher.

Hughes said publishing and movie contracts normally include clauses requiring that the author’s work be original.

“If she has a book deal, there is probably a contractual clause as to her work being original both with her publisher and with DreamWorks,” Hughes said. “This is a matter of contractual law, not of cut-and-dry copyright law.”

He added: “Of course, we don’t know what the contract looked like, and they’re not going to show us.”

—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at pbhayani@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer David Zhou can be reached at dzhou@fas.harvard.edu.