The descendant of the author of Doctor Zhivago has lost a copyright case against the author of a spy thriller novel about the publication of the iconic Russian tale.

 

One of the iconic novels which came out of the Soviet Union, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak was first published in Italy as it was refused publication in the USSR.  This latest legal case was not held over claims that the author, Lara Prescott, had copied Doctor Zhivago, but rather it was claimed she had copied the work of Pasternak’s great niece, Anna Pasternak.

 

This case is one of several high-profile copyright cases across film, novels, and particularly music in recent years. For example, the British singer Ed Sheeran has faced numerous copyright claims over the years, and he is now set to stand trial in the US over allegations that he copied Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” with his 2014 hit, “Thinking Out Loud”.

 

Let’s take a deeper look at this case to find out a bit more about the background of the case and why the descendant of Boris Pasternak lost the case which may end up costing her £2m.

 

Background

 

Anna Pasternak originally brought a claim to the High Court on 29th May 2020 against Lara Prescott for copyright infringement. Pasternak claimed that Prescott’s 2019 novel, The Secrets We Kept, infringed seven chapters of Pasternak’s own book, Lara. There was also a claim brought forward by Pasternak for alleged infringement of a translation included in Lara.

 

While Prescott’s book is a work of historical fiction, Pasternak’s book, Lara, is a non-fictional historical book which tells the love story of her great uncle and author of Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, and his mistress and lover, Olga Ivinskaya.  Lara was published on 25th August 2016.

 

On the other hand, Prescott’s novel focuses on a fictional Cold War story of a CIA operation during the late 1950s to infiltrate copies of Doctor Zhivago into the Soviet Union as a propaganda tool. Divided into two narrative arcs of East and West, the East narrative arc is told from the perspective of Olga Ivinskaya, one of the subject’s of Pasternak’s non-fiction work.

 

Despite not having the read the book in question, Pasternak claimed that Prescott’s novel had copied substantial sections of the structure, selection, and arrangements of facts and incidents from Pasternak’s book, Lara.

 

Judgment

 

The judge dismissed the case made by Ms Pasternak. He held that the two works were fundamentally different, and that Ms Prescott had clearly not copied the selection of relevant chapters in The Secrets We Kept. The reason give for this was that the two works were clearly written in very different styles, with varying content and arrangement. Furthermore, Lara is a non-fiction work, while The Secrets We Kept is a work of fiction.

 

The Judge also held that, as Prescott’s novel wove historical events into her historical fiction, it was not surprising that the two works followed the same chronology. While the Judge pointed out that Prescott used Lara as a secondary source, there was a difference in ordering and selection between the two works.

 

Nevertheless, when it came to the translated extract which had been included in The Secrets We Kept, Pasternak’s claim succeeded. The judge held that although Prescott’s use of the translation was done in good faith, the translation had not been appropriately acknowledged. However, this was only a minor part of the action.

 

Our thoughts

 

While it failed to succeed, this is a noteworthy copyright infringement case to pay attention to. In particular, the claimant’s failure to study or even read the work Pasternak claimed had been copied meant that her motivation for bringing the action was based on perception and what she had been told about the work. It is therefore important to ensure that the claimant is familiar with the work before launching action for copyright infringement as it may end up being a costly mistake.

 

Furthermore, it also makes clear that copyright does extend to the right of a translator. Authors should therefore be careful when it comes to copying a translation from what they think is an official quote from a third-party source. Furthermore, they should also ensure that the correct third-party source is referenced.

 

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