Gwyneth Paltrow has been in the news recently. Terry Sanderson, a retired optometrist, took her to court in the hope of claiming damages for injuries allegedly incurred on the ski slopes. She denied she was responsible and countersued. Successfully it turned out, and Mr Sanderson was lucky she only claimed a token dollar (plus far from negligible legal fees).
The case against Ms Paltrow turned out to be implausible and the long-term harm allegedly caused by the accident to the other skier largely a figment of his imagination. In his own mind he probably still is the victim, but the court (and, I understand, his own family) saw the situation very differently. Believing ‘your own truth’ doesn’t always stand up to the cold light of reality.
Such hubris isn’t confined to the world of skiing and A-list actresses. It is surprisingly common in the world of books. JK Rowling, as soon as her Harry Potter books became an international phenomenon, was sued, unsuccessfully, by an unknown writer who declared that JKR had stolen the idea of the Muggles from her.
More recently, the great niece of Boris Pasternak, the author of Dr Zhivago (whose main claim to fame seems to be her surname, and her book about the heroine in her uncle’s book), took the writer, Lara Prescott, to court for stealing ideas from her.
Lara Prescott had written a novel, The Secrets We Kept, inspired by the supposed relationship between Boris Pasternak and Olga Ivinskaya (the woman on whom he is said to have based the character, Lara, in his novel). Prescott met Anna Pasternak at her publisher’s drinks party in 2019 and freely told her that a chapter in Pasternak’s non-fiction work had been her starting point.
In court, Pasternak accused Prescott of ‘identity theft.’ The judge thought otherwise, describing the difference between the two books as “namely [Prescott’s book] is a work of fiction, loosely based on real events. This fundamental difference between the two works is apparent on a first reading of the two works.”
The case cost Pasternak £2 million, for a matter that seemed clear cut to almost everyone apart from her. But it was obviously stressful for both parties. As Prescott said after the hearing: “No one gains from unwarranted copyright litigation; it merely threatens to degrade the artistic freedoms we all cherish.”
This case wasn’t the first ill considered (to others) tilt at another author’s integrity. And it won’t be the last. Nobody wins, as Lara Prescott, says. Apart, that is, for the lawyers – including those who take on a case of on-piste mishaps involving celebrity skiers/film stars. Maybe there’s the starting point for a novel in this?
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