Stolen Storylines and the Bad Art Friend: Are There Licenses on Language?

A recent dispute over one writer's use of her colleague's personal experiences in a story has made waves over the last few weeks. But staff writer Ross Kilpatrick '24E questions whether copyright and the language of theft make sense in a literary context.

Recently, there’s been a controversy afoot in the writers’ world. And it’s much the same breed of controversy as we’ve seen before. Someone has stolen details from another person’s life and turned them into a story. Robert Kolker covered a recent controversy and all of its ugly details in the New York Times’ Magazine on Oct. 5, in his article “Who’s the Bad Art Friend?” The sticky particulars of the case are almost mundanely boring. But the results, lawsuits and counter-suits that have sprung up from the case, are seriously consequential and reveal the linguistic irrationality at the heart of our legal system.

First, however, the details of the case: writer Dawn Dorland, in an act of unparalleled self-sacrifice, donated her kidney to a stranger. While undergoing the process, she started a private Facebook group where she posted updates, including a letter she had written to the eventual recipient of her kidney.

Sonya Lawson, a quasi-friend of Dorland, watched the Facebook group silently. Then she wrote a story about a rich white woman donating a kidney to a poorer Asian woman. She was evasive when Dorland asked if her kidney donation was the inspiration for the story. But there were a few details that seemed too closely aligned to be a coincidence. In particular, there was a letter — much like the one Dorland had written — at the center of the story.

Dorland ended up suing Lawson on the basis of that letter, arguing that it violated her copyright. Lawson counter-sued. And across the whole spectrum of the internet, people exploded. Lawson’s friends defended her, arguing that there was something distinctly racial about the whole affair. Lawson is mixed-race, Dorland white. Lawson argued that she was just doing what writers do: taking language she had seen on Dorland’s Facebook page, and turning it into her own.

On the other side, Dorland’s defenders have accused Lawson of deceit, some even trying to reverse the use of privilege as a sword. Dorland grew up poor, they say, Lawson in a rich suburb. Isn’t there something that’s so classist about the whole affair? Others have an understandable dislike of Dorland. There is something self-aggrandizing about her donation, about her Facebook group, about her letter.

The whole affair is silly. It’s a spat between two writer friends, tinged by Dorland’s jealousy of Lawson’s success, and including an odd discussion of writer’s ethics. What can Lawson take from Dorland’s life? Intuitively, it seems like Lawson has stolen something fundamental from Dorland: the letter that Dorland wrote and the contours of Dorland’s experience. Many people side with Dorland on this basis alone. To them, Lawson is a thief. And it seems like the legal system might back up Dorland’s claim. Dorland’s lawsuit is moving forward, and new evidence implicating Lawson’s explicit use of Dorland’s letter has surfaced: an original version of Lawson's story had lines directly taken from Dorland’s letter.

Underlying Dorland’s claim, however, is a distinctly property-based view of words, art and experience. Just as I may have my pens and pencils, my house, my laptop, I also have my experiences, my words and my stories, each of which can be diluted by another’s use of them. Just as we might be angered if a friend wasted our ink by using our pen without our permission, Lawson’s use of Dorland’s kidney donation experience dilutes the experience and Lawson’s use of Dorland’s letter dilutes Dorland’s words.

But this isn’t true. Lawson has not exhausted Dorland’s words. She’s transformed them: made something new out of them. As Lawson points out, this is something writers do all the time. They pick up language, wrap it into their style and use it in their stories. That’s their job. They steal from novels and books, from life, from how people talk. And none of this is an exhaustive process; it’s productive. It doesn’t drain the ink of other peoples’ language; it creates new language, which can itself be reinterpreted and transformed to further inspire future writers.

Dorland is jealous of Lawson’s use of her letter, because Dorland irrationally believes she can own her own expressions in the same way she might own her car. People on the internet sympathize with Dorland for a variety of reasons, but above all else because they agree with that basic irrationality. In their mind, Lawson has broken into Dorland’s letter, taken a joyride in Dorland’s language. And the copyright system of America has codified those impressions into law. We have a requirement for fair use, which stipulates that the appropriation of other people’s work be transformative. It’s certainly a practical requirement — we all want writers to be able to make money off their work — but it promotes this view of art as property, of language and expression as ownable. But we should not mistake a practical, legal concession to the mundane realities of profiting off of art with a moral principle. Artists, especially writers, require some protections so that they can feed and house themselves. Dorland’s use of copyright law to bludgeon Lawson out of using her letter, or her experience, is not such a use case. If we are to indict Lawson in the court of public opinion, it cannot be because she stole, because she did not steal.

We are ultimately a product of other peoples’ language, of their opinions, of the way they talk and hold themselves, the road signs, the letters people send us, the books we read. These experiences make us, they cultivate the art we produce and they form the way we talk. Language is not a property, it cannot be stolen. It is fundamentally communal. Of course it is. It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t.

And so Lawson has not broken any supposed writers’ code. “Stealing” is a part of the job. The real writers’ sin lies with Dorland. She, herself, is a writer. She should understand the rules of the game. If she wants to give her own account of the events of her kidney donation, maybe she should write her own story instead of trying to spuriously sue Lawson for doing what we all do: hearing other people and letting that shape us.