The Inadvertent Plagiarist: Chris Elliott Meets Boilerplate
by Heidi MacDonald, Publishers Weekly -- 11/1/2005
In attempt to use the Internet to research his first novel, comedian Chris Elliott, famed for playing oddball characters in films like The Cabin Boy, has ended up in a typically odd situation. Using material from a faux historical Web site he thought was public domain material, Elliot unknowingly included copyrighted material in his new novel without permission.
Elliott's first novel, The Shroud of the Thwacker is a comedic take on the Victorian era outlined in novels like The Alienist and the book includes real characters such as Teddy Roosevelt and Don Imus. But the book also includes a Victorian-era robot named Boilerplate, whose supposed creator, Professor Archibald Campion, is a main suspect in a series of murders.
Elliott's problem is that Boilerplate and Professor Campion are the creations of Portland, Ore. comics artist Paul Guinan, who originally created Boilerplate as a character for a planned graphic novel in 2000. When those plans got scrapped, he devoted a page of his site to a faux history of his invented "mechanical marvel", which can be seen at http://www.bigredhair.com/boilerplate. The tongue-in-cheek site mentions such feats as Boilerplate's journey to Antarctica and his charge up San Juan Hill alongside Roosevelt.
Guinan hoped to eventually create a Boilerplate book, "a mock-coffee table book," he says. Some of the Boilerplate site material was used in his graphic novel Heartbreakers Meet Boilerplate by Guinan and wife Anina Bennett.
The site includes numerous copyright notices, but neither Elliott nor his publisher, Miramax Books, seemed to have noticed. Elliott somehow convinced himself that Boilerplate and Campion were actual historical figures and the two characters appear throughout Thwacker. Elliott offers a now humorous acknowledgement to his brother, Bob Elliott Jr. for research assistance, that notes, "…you can't make up something like Boilerplate." That's for sure.
An early review in a Portland, Or. newspaper first pointed out his use of Guinan's copyrighted material. Known for the originality of his comedy, Elliott says he was embarrased, "to suddenly think I was being clever when that wasn't what happened makes me feel bad. The worst thing I could imagine is ripping someone off.
After learning the truth, Elliott contacted Guinan and the two have worked to avoid bringing in lawyers. They have negotiated a settlement and Guinan will receive a percentage of Elliott's earnings from the book and as well as credit for his creation in future editions.
For his part, Elliott is embarrassed, but jokes that, "people think because of my comedy career I must be smart, but the truth is I am a total moron."